MRC Executive Director Nick Cater writes:
Fifty years ago today Gough Whitlam became the first openly intellectual leader of the Australian Labor Party.
The true significance of the peaceful revolution of February 8, 1967 is downplayed in official ALP history where the myth of constant purpose prevails. Yet the caucus vote that chose the socially liberal Whitlam to succeed the socially conservative Arthur Calwell marked a decisive victory for the new Left over the old.
At the time the prospect of an intellectual running for the leadership of the workers’ party seemed extraordinary. Two days before the ballot, Alan Ramsey and John Stubbs wrote inThe Australian that Whitlam’s middle-class background was a serious handicap. “His complete lack of trade union background… is the reason why he is considered by many of the party’s rank and file to be an opportunist, a ‘silver tail’, a Liberal who has ratted on his own party.”
Yet Edward Gough Whitlam, QC, overcame the impediment of twin degrees, in arts and law, to become the duly elected leader of the opposition. Three other intellectuals were chosen as his Praetorian Guard; Lance Barnard, a teacher, became his deputy; Lionel Keith Murphy, QC, BSc (Sydney, 1945), LLB (Sydney, 1949), would lead Labor in the Senate; and Samuel Herbert Cohen, QC, BA, LLM (Melbourne, 1942), became Senate deputy.
Few in the Canberra press gallery saw the real story, interpreting the vote as a victory for the moderate Whitlam over his Left-wing challenger Jim Cairns.
In the following morning’sThe Australian, however,Ramsay identified the real divide. It was, he wrote, “a break from Labor tradition and a sweeping victory for the party’s new-look politicians. None has a union background but three have a university education.”
Calwell’s memoirs were to conclude with the mournful cry: “I do not know whether the Labor Party is passing me by, or whether I no longer understand the reason for the party’s existence … What I do know is that the Labor Party in 1972 is no longer the Labor Party that existed from 1891 to 1955.”
Whitlam’s election changed the political landscape decisively. It opened a gulf between a technocratic political class and the rest that half a century later has developed into the dominant fault line in civic debate.
The tension between crusading progressives of the new Left and working-class conservatives of the old has played out at Labor Party conferences ever since. Martin Ferguson argued in the late 1990s it would be a profound mistake “to repackage ourselves as the party of the ‘progressive, activist’ middle class, or the ‘rainbow coalition’ of special interest groups”.
“We must ask whom we truly represent,” wrote Ferguson, “and what is needed to recapture the trust of working-class people who once looked to the Labor Party for hope and inspiration.”
Ferguson lost the argument. He left the political arena in 2013 along with two other prominent Labor social conservatives, Simon Crean and Dick Adams. With the resignation of Senator Joe Bullock last March over his party’s stance on same-sex marriage, the purge of the social conservatives is complete.
Labor is now the single-minded champion of progressive causes. It pays lip service to working people, but apart from those represented by the big trade unions it has very little to do with Australians who arrive home with dirt under their fingernails.
It went to last year’s election promising to introduce a carbon tax, scrap proposed plebiscite on gay marriage and deliver a fresh referendum on a republic. If elected it was committed to strengthening anti-discrimination laws, introducing a human rights charter and establishing a National Gender Centre “for support and advocacy for transgender and intersex Australians.”
As I wrote in The Australian last March, “this human-rightsy moral vanity might play out well in Northcote and Newtown but it leaves most Australians utterly bemused.”
Bullock, an honourable man, found himself torn between his convictions and his party’s social justice policies. “How could I reconcile my position on this issue with my obligation to the party?” he said. “If your job requires you to do something which you believe to be wrong, there is only one course of action open — resign.”
In his valedictory speech Bullock described the suffocating intolerance within Labor, a party hamstrung by political correctness. There is no room for debate between fair-minded people; those who deny conventional new Left wisdom are not just wrong but morally wrong.
Labor’s intolerance towards the socially conservative instincts of working people caused it to misread the mood of the electorate for more than four decades. Time and time again, it underestimated the strength of social conservatism, dismissing it as irrelevant, old-fashioned and even dangerous.
It is quick to accuse these deplorable, uneducated people as racist, sexist, homophobic or plain ignorant, while denying them a fair hearing.
Labor is undoubtedly a very different party than the one Whitlam led into office. The new Left has replaced the closed-minded parochialism that prevailed in the early 1960s with and equally illiberal dogma of its own.
The preachiness is stultifying; the reluctance to stand up for free speech intimidating. Anyone who challenges the official position risks instant condemnation since the new Left claims not just a monopoly within the party but a monopoly on truth.
Parts of this article were drawn from Nick Cater's book, The Lucky Culture (HarperCollins Australia, 2013)