Diary of a Labour Man 1917 - 1945

Full Text On the Backbenches



WESTRALIAN WORKER, 21 July 1933, page 1.

WHY LABOR IS STILL DISUNITED Conference Rejection of N.S.W. Demand.


In an article reviewing the decisions of the recent A.L.P. Conference at Sydney, Mr J. Curtin wrote in the Melbourne “Herald” as follows:-The Federal Conference of the Australian Labor Party could have succeeded very easily in its endeavours to restore unity had it been weak enough to mistake an illusion for the reality.

It offered the State Labor Party of New South Wales no more and no less than the identification with the Federal forces that is the accepted basis of unity in every other State.

Because these principles were not to the liking of New South Wales does not mean that the Federal conference was a failure; it means with probably greater truth that the conference was somewhat premature in point of time in that the New South Wales State Labor Party has not yet discovered that the Commonwealth is a continent peopled by equals, but wrongly assumes that Australia is a land in which government reposes solely in those who are living contiguous to its greatest capitalist centre. It was not the formulation of what is known as the Lang Plan that originated the present disunity between the Federal Labor Party and the State Party in New South Wales. That somewhat famous proposal was merely its most dramatic advertisement. For many years New South Wales had resented what it declared to be the undemocratic constitution of the Federal Conference and the Federal Executive, which gives equality of representation to the smaller States with the larger ones, and more particularly the largest. This point of view was not due to a selfish desire to dominate: rather did it arise because of the variations in the conditions of the States.

Differing Appeals In principle the Labor Movement is a workers’ party. Only in New South Wales, however, is it possible for the Labor Movement to regard electoral victories as probable by confining its appeal solely to the workers; in all the others States the appeal of Labor is to the people. This distinction is the keynote to the more militant expositions of policy which have animated New South Wales Labor policy compared with statements made by representative leaders elsewhere. The enormous relative industrial population of Sydney and the industrial zones in the north, south and west of the State give to New South Wales a more intense and a much more extensive trades unionism than is the case with the rest of Australia.

In a sentence, there is in New south Wales the equivalent of the proletarian basis for the Labor Movement, whereas everywhere else the Labor Movement takes its roots in a political democracy that is born of trades unionism, but is more or less wedded to the hopes and needs, as things stand, of the middle classes, the small farmers, the small traders, and the non-capitalist elements of their respective communities.

Reason for Expulsion

The resolution of expulsion from the Australian Party was carried in 1931, because the State party of New South Wales had written a formal notification to the conference refusing to participate in its deliberations, which would, of course have involved an acceptance of its decisions. The most recent conference was ready to rescind the expulsion, provided the State party would have acknowledged that the autonomy which the State should have should be the same as that of other States – namely, that it would be related to the State platform; the claim, however, was repeated that on all matters affecting members of the party in that State, and this necessarily included the provisions of the Federal platform, the State party should be the directing authority.

This would mean, in practice, that instead of Australian Labor in the Commonwealth Parliament being a unified entity it would be a collection of six parties, and, in the nature of things, it would be almost certain that the New South Wales representation, plus the probable addition of a few representatives from the pronouncedly industrial electorates of perhaps one other State, would constitute a veritable hierarchy in what is a democratic movement. On this basis unity in New South Wales would mean disunity in Queensland and Western Australia.

These States most certainly are not ready for what may be described as an imperialism of Labor. Their view is that they are, when the long view is taken as it should be taken, integral parts of the nation. They have always been willing to participate in the deliberations whereby the Labor programmes they will support are framed. Very often they have been outvoted, but that aspect of the matter does not weaken their loyalty to the common platform. They will not, however, at present accept programmes made for them, and which are to be interpreted by an authority from which they are in fact excluded.

Yet in some respects Queensland and Western Australia agree with the New South Wales claim. It is however, imperative that the points of agreement should not lead to any misunderstanding regarding the points of divergence. In part the Labor platform envisages a unification of Australian government, although the nation operates what it calls a system of Federation. In this respect Labor is not the only party that suffers the effects of this contradiction. To it the people owe much that is awry in the conduct of governmental affairs; it stalemates progress and stultifies initiative, while placing the heaviest burden on the weakest shoulders.

Broadly stated, the State Labor Parties operating through the State Governments, deal with the matters that most intimately affect the lives of the people. These embrace unemployment relief and the organisation of employment, the maintenance of health, the provision of education, child and maternal welfare, the major part of the public utilities, and the developmental works which make for the settlement of the lands of the nation. For the most part the policy of the Commonwealth Parliament has stripped the States of the resources essential for the performance of these functions without undertaking them itself.

The New South Wales Labor Party’s conflict with the Australian Labor Party has aspects not fundamentally different from the secession movement in Western Australia and the protests against the Federation which are waxing in strength in South Australia and Tasmania. All are influenced by the assertion of a centralised authority which cripples much that is good and does not avert that which appears to be evil.

That is why I say the Federal Conference should have agreed to what New South Wales demanded, but would not have thereby made unity a tangible thing. There needs to be a clear demarcation of what matters are Federal in their nature and those which are essentially for the States as States. Not only has the Labor Movement to accomplish this clarification of functions – the nation as a whole has to do it if the unity not only of Labor, but of the Australian people, is to be preserved and strengthened!

Local Autonomy The Western Australian Labor Party, which I represented at the conference, believes that there are purposes and services which can be performed only by an Australian Parliament and an Australian Government. It does not believe that in these matters any one State should be dominant, let alone the exclusive authority. In these matters it regards State autonomy as a negation of unity. That is why, in common with my colleagues, I did not accept the stand of the New South Wales Labor Party in respect to the Federal Labor platform.

But having said this much it is required that I should make it clear that in our view it is not practicable or desirable to transfer to a central authority, whether in the Labor Movement or in the nation, the performance of matters which in their nature do not admit of an Australian-wide uniformity and dominion. We need, urgently need, in regards to these questions, not only a confirmation of the rights of local autonomy, but also, as a logical consequence, the endowment of the local authority with the resources that will admit of their adequate performance.