Diary of a Labour Man: 1917 - 1945

Full text Leader of the Opposition




"The statement in a section of the Press that I was paving the way for a National Government is a malicious fabrication. It is utterly untrue. The fact is that all the manoeuvres against which I fought last week were leading to a violation of the Federal Conference's decision that there should not be a National Government.

"I had in mind and kept in mind and will keep in mind the obligation we entered into to make Parliament workable, and that the establishment of the War Council, as authorised by the Federal Conference, was for the purpose of enabling Labor to give its best in support of the war effort.

"Had the War Council in the discussions last week in regard to the Budget been able to get a greater increase in old-age pensions, the recommendation for the acceptance of the terms (which I made) would have been overwhelmingly carried.

"The 19 who voted against acceptances were not 19 members united against my leadership nor did they constitute the material or the elements available for the formation of a National Government. The majority of that 19 were concerned solely with the failure to get a higher pension rate.

"I set myself, when the war commenced, to do the maximum for Australia and to preserve the unity of the Labor movement. Forming a National Government would mean that the Communistic element in Australia would constitute the de facto opposition to the National Government and would attract to their leadership every section of the people who were dissatisfied with what the National Government was doing. The result would be an increase of subversive and destructive acts in regard to the war effort and carrying as a re-enforcement all those elements which, while patriotic, felt that legitimate grievances were not being properly dealt with.

National Unity would be less in reality, although Parliamentary unity would have the appearance of being greater, were a National Government formed.

"I frankly do not agree that an election for the House of Representatives at this juncture would do other than weaken the Parliamentary system and ultimately – and, in some respects, immediately – strengthen the reactionary elements in the country.

"Labor did not compromise last week. Labor only compromises when, as a Government, it surrenders part of its programme. The compromise was made by the Prime Minister (Mr Menzies). It was initiated by Mr Menzies after he had said he would not compromise.

The result is a better Budget from the Labor standpoint.

For Labor, as a minority party in both Houses, to do better for the masses than the Government intended should be the case, is an achievement to be judged on its merits. This achievement, in my view, having regard to the state of the war and the dangers confronting us, is of great national value.

The summoning of a special Federal Conference can be initiated by anybody, but it is entirely a matter for the State Executives. It seems to me extraordinary that men should oppose a compromise one day and then the next day promote activities which would lead to a National Government.

A National Government would be an hour-to-hour and day-to-day series of compromises conducted in the secrecy of the Cabinet room.

The compromise last week was open and above board. The Labor Party know precisely what were the terms and so did the public. The condemnation of the compromise of last week would be as nothing to that of the perpetual compromises which would be inseparable from a National Government.

The assumption as to what would have happened had the terms not been accepted can be many, but my own conclusion based on some experience, is that when Mr Menzies delivered his 'challenge speech' (no compromise) he was willing to allow a Labor Government to be formed knowing it would have been in a minority in both Houses and in a helpless legislative position. In those circumstances Parliament and the Labor Party would have soon appeared a little ridiculous and absurd.

On reflection and, probably, on persuasion, Mr Menzies in effect, withdrew his challenge and was ready to concede. Having outlined his concessions, he regarded his electoral prospects as enormously improved – if the concessions were rejected and the Government defeated in the House. He would then have advised a dissolution of the House of Representatives.

I felt that that alternative was one no well-informed or experienced Labor man should embark upon."

Canberra, December 9, 1940.