‘To make the world a better place for men and women and children to live in’: 120 years of the Australian Labor Party

Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno

This is an edited extract from A Little History of the Australian Labor Party (UNSW Press, 2010, $24.95) by Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno.

Billy Hughes didn’t expect to have to tight an election in 1895, having just won the first seat for Labor in the New South Wales parliament the previous year. Now, he was in debt and unprepared for another contest _ an early election called by the then Premier George Reid. Hughes’s most faithful supporters were also caught off guard. Three of them – giant Irish migrants he first encountered while they were wharfies but who now cut sugarcane in the colony’s north – made the arduous journey back to Sydney.

After listening to Hughes giving a campaign speech, one of the men approached the diminutive Laborite and handed over a bankbook that contained their joint savings of £150, the equivalent of perhaps six months’ wages for a labouring man of those times, saying. ‘If you get into parliament you can pay us back when you’re able. If not, it doesn’t matter’. 1 Blinded by tears and unable to speak, Hughes pressed the book back into his hands and ran for a tram. He was re-elected with a whopping majority.

Whatever the veracity of  Hughes’s account – and Billy’s stories were sometimes tall ones – Labor was ultimately created by the likes of these workers: dedicated believers in the cause who, as Hughes put it, ‘wanted to do something for others less fortunate to make the world a better place for men and women and children to live in’. Labor was also made by men such as Hughes: activists who combined driving personal ambition with equally intense missionary fervour.

The Australian Labor Party’s history is full of tales of this kind. Labor venerates its heroes and maintains the rage towards enemies and’ turncoats.And it nurtures few doubts that its own story is central to the national story. Yet, paradoxically, history has not been on the party’s side. Along with its undoubted successes and achievements, Labor’s story has often been one of crisis and renewal. Some problems that the party faces today are unprecedented; others recall the challenges of the past.

When the Australian two-party system emerged in 1909, Labor was the party of Australian nationalism, strong on defence and nation-building yet loyal to the British Empire. In 1910 it became the first labour or social democratic party in the world to form a majority government. But World War I proved a rugged testing ground for Labor’s philosophy and machinery, and the party split over conscription for overseas service.

After 1916, Labor rarely held office nationally until the 1980s. Of the six federal Labor governments formed between the elections of 1910 and 2007, only three died of natural causes. Two split; another was dismissed by the governor-general. Labor did better in the states, but federally it has managed just 35 years in office since 1910. The ALP was a precocious child but thereafter it suffered from the kind of stunted growth associated with juvenile smoking.

Labor became especially vulnerable to the accusation that, as the instrument of a class or narrow clique, it could not govern for the nation. In 1921 Labor was apparently an instrument of Sinn Fein, the Bolsheviks, the Catholic Church and militant unions. Ninety years later, unions are still a stalking horse, but Labor is more commonly derided as the mouthpiece of ‘inner-city elites’, who prefer chardonnay to amber fluids. These are said to be university educated white-collar professionals. They listen to the ABC, read the Fairfax papers, or subscribe to The Monthly.They champion trendy issues such as gay marriage, the environment, multiculturalism and asylum-seekers.

The outlook and material interests of this group are said to contrast with blue-collar workers, contractors and small business people, collectively known as battlers. They’re patriotic and hard-working, and reside in outer suburbs, possibly in ‘McMansions’ . They’ve been educated in the school of life rather than the seminar room. They read tabloids and listen to talkback radio. They own plasma TVs but never use them to watch Insiders or Q & A.They’re hostile to intellectuals and to the causes they champion. Conservative politicians like to think of them as natural Liberal Party supporters but recognise that they are in danger of being seduced by an astute Labor politician such as Bob Carr.

This image of Australian society is simplistic, but it shapes how politics is now done. On the Labor side, it determined the hard line on asylum­seekers adopted at the 2010 election, and influenced the decision to drop the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme. It guides the law-and­ order campaigning of state governments.

The erosion of party loyalty is critical in this context. Just as people’s identities are more fluid now than a half-century ago, so are their votes up for grabs. Until the 1980s, the major parties between them would normally manage to capture well over 90 percent of the primary vote in a federal lower house election. In the 1975 landslide that followed Gough Whitlam ‘s dismissal, Labor’s primary vote was still 43 per cent. In 2010, Gillard Labor’s share didn’t quite reach 38 per cent.

It is on the Labor side that the deepest soul-searching has occurred. Membership is in decline and vast numbers of branches have closed as the party became increasingly dominated by a relatively limited cadre of politicians and paid officials. The few active members who remain often feel excluded from a meaningful role.

And with the decline of heavy industry, Labor can no longer rely on a base of highly motivated unionised blue-collar workers. Many younger people, too, if they’re interested in politics at all, find the established parties hard to take in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Of course, similar complaints were being made about Labor in the 1960s; yet by the end of that decade, under Whitlam’s leadership, a renovated party structure, platform and image had helped Labor tap into the idealism of many young people radicalised during that era.

As Labor marks its 120th birthday, the party’s near-death experience in the 2010 federal election, its recent humiliation in the NSW state election and less spectacular defeat or decline everywhere else, have prompted a despair comparable with that following the party’s failures of the 1950s and 60s. And yet, ironically, those years were followed by an era that was arguably the most successful in Labor’s history A party dismissed as full of ‘ aged doctrinaires gumming up the works’2 – a sad relic in an age of rising affluence and declining class consciousness – would, by the 1980s, become widely regarded as the natural party of government.

Perhaps the best consolation for Labor in the early 1960s was that its organisation, image and leadership only seemed marginally more out of date than the Coalition’s. Robert Menzies and Labor leader Arthur Calwell belonged to the same generation: the latter was already in his mid-60s when he became leader. It was hardly surprising that Labor was polling especially poorly among the young, migrants and women. In the age of the Beatles, the federal party seemed to belong to yesterday: dominated by ageing men, committed to a White Australia and out of touch with a fast-changing society. It was a similar story in the states, where a coterie of nominally left-wing union officials ruled what roost there was.

The Labor king of Westralia, ‘Joe’ Chamberlain, in tandem with his Victorian protege, Bill Hartley, prevented even the mildest reform of the party platform and organisation. However, from the mid-1960s, a gathering chorus of internal party critics would accuse this dominant old guard of preferring glorious defeat to the potential corruption offered by victory.

The party’s poor performance wherever the ‘traditionalists’ were strongest – notably in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia – suggested that such judgments were not entirely ill-founded.

The ALP’s cultural and organisational problems were clear in the lead- up to the 1963 federal election, when a photograph emerged of Calwell and Whitlam standing outside a special federal conference awaiting instructions on foreign policy.  Menzies made much of the claim that Labor was run by ’36 faceless men’.

In reality, there was nothing novel about the party’s extra-parliamentary organisation formulating policy But that was the problem: what had once been taken for granted as Labor democracy seemed now to belong to another age.Why should three dozen men dictate policy to the people’s elected representatives? Where were the opportunities for properly trained experts to influence policy? And how could a growing, increasingly self-confident middle class influence the party’s philosophy, program and image? In an era when Australians were becoming more affluent, better educated, less class-conscious and more concerned with ‘quality of life’ issues such ‘the environment, town planning and the arts, the case for reform was undeniable.

It was Whitlam who emerged as the party’s principal internal critic and the focus of reformers’ hopes.  He was of a type then still quite unusual in the ALP: a university educated middle-class radical. For Whitlam, shibboleths such as nationalisation and opposition to state aid for non-government schools were a distraction. In the age of abundance, government’s role was to create social goods that individuals could not provide for themselves, Following Labor’s crushing defeat at the 1966 federal election, fought largely over the issue of Vietnam , Whitlam succeeded Calwell. At the Victorian annual conference in 1967, amid boos and catcalls, he condemned that state branch’s culture of defeat, pointedly reminding locals that only ‘the impotent are pure’. 3

Despite such hostility, and a close brush with expulsion over his criticisms of party officials, Whitlam survived and achieved many critical reforms to policy and party. At the 1969 federal election, Labor almost achieved a remarkable victory, with a swing of more than 7 per cent. Only another poor showing in Victoria cost it victory, yet hard-liners continued to dig in over state aid, stimulating a growing recognition across the party that unless something was done, the modest promise of 1969 would be snuffed out.

The result was a vigorous federal intervention in Victoria and an intervention of sorts in NSWThc old Victorian branch was dissolved and replaced with a new one based on proportional representation of factions. The position of the Left remained strong, but there was now a guarantee that other, more moderate groups would be represented on the executive and able to share in preselections. Right-wing domination of the NSW branch continued, but with the Left’s position slightly strengthened.

Intervention laid the foundations for Labor’s federal revival. But it did more than that, creating the basis of the modern Labor Party, and successfully bringing together a winning coalition of working-class battlers and middle­class progressives. Labor’s electoral success in the 1980s and beyond would hinge on these changes and, later, similar party reforms elsewhere, notably in Queensland.

But electoral success bred complacency, especially about party reform. Unions that represented a declining and increasingly unrepresentative proportion of a rapidly changing workforce continued to exercise a powerful influence on the party’s internal affairs. Factions that once stood for coherent ideologies and had utility as a means of managing party conflict hardened into instruments for the distribution of party spoils. Local branches founded as the party’s basic unit at a time of cohesive and overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic working-class communities are rather less suited to the cultural and ethnic diversity of 21st-century Australia.

Labor’s dream coalition of battlers and progressives proved more of an electoral nightmare.An organisation founded as a party of the working class in an era when many believed in ‘socialism in our time’ has struggled to adapt to the collapse of international socialism and the resilience of a capitalist system which most of its members had once seen as fundamentally inefficient and unjust.

These challenges have had to be faced at a time when centre-right parties around the world appear in the ascendant and many social-democratic parties are in disarray. Is it any wonder that Labor’s project of creating a viable, progressive coalition now seems so difficult?

Political parties do come and go, and Labor’s demise has been confidently predicted before. But Labor has endured because it has not ignored the transformation of Australia. Indeed, at every point in its history, Labor renewed itself by examining, restating and sometimes redefining its fundamental goals of democracy, equality and social justice. Its ability to survive the next century, however, will depend on how it responds to challenges at least as daunting, and failures as depressing, as any faced by the men and women who, during the past 120 years, have made its cause their own.

Nick Dyrenfurtb is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney He is the author or editor of several books on Australian history and politics including Heroes and Villains: the Rise and Fall of the Early Australian Labor Party and All That’s Left:What Labor Should Stand For (with Tim Soutpbommasane).

Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University and is the author of a history of the early Labor Party in Victoria.

He is a member of the Labour History editorial board and recently contributed an article to its hundredth issue. His next book, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History, is published by Black Inc. in 2012.


  1. WM. Hughes, Crusts and Crusades: Tales of Bygone Days,Angus & Robertson, Sydney and London, 1948, p. 121.
  2. Australian Financial Review, 24 April 1968, in Henry Mayer (ed.),Australian Politics: A Second Reader, Cheshire, Melbourne and Marrickville, 1971 [1969], p. 381.
  3. Quoted in Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam A Moment in History: The Biography, Vol. I, The Micgunyah Press, Melbourne, 2008, p. 289.