THE GREAT TRADITION-LABOR REFORM FROM CURTIN TO HAWKE
JOHN CURTIN MEMORIAL LECTURE-1986
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Revival of Interest
In recent years, there has been a big revival of interest
in John Curtin's career. It is not altogether accidental that this revival
has coincided with the advent of a Federal Labor Government under another
adopted West Australian, Bob Hawke.
There has long been an almost unanimous recognition of
Curtin's greatness as a wartime leader. But the recent re-assessments have
expanded our perceptions, by re-examining--almost rediscovering--his contribution
to Australia's postwar reconstruction. It was this aspect of his work which
I dwelt upon in my first Curtin Lecture in 1981.
We had always recognised the essential tragedy of Curtin's
career--that of a profoundly peace-loving man called upon to lead his nation
through the supreme crisis of war. It is this kind of challenge-to go against
the very grain of one's nature--which provides one of the most severe tests
of statesmanship. Curtin met that challenge triumphantly--and he met it
twice, both in his personal life and in his public career. But the focus
on his tragedy, and the extent of his triumph, tended to obscure his work
for peace. Yet the truth is that the Curtin Government not only worked for
the survival of Australia in wartime, but planned its reconstruction in
peace. The foundations of the postwar reconstruction were firmly laid during
the war years. And to ignore this was to tell only half of the real Curtin
Yet there is one crucial aspect of his leadership to which
sufficient attention is still to be paid. That is--Curtin as a Labor Party
man and Curtin as a Labor leader. For John Curtin was not only leader of
the Australian nation at war but, emphatically, the leader of the Australian
I shall not deal tonight with Curtin's leadership as it
affected the party organisation; although it should always be remembered,
to his everlasting credit, that his crucial contribution to the unity conferences
in New South Wales led directly to the election of the McKell Labor Government
in 1941, and made possible the tremendous Federal Labor victories of 1943
But it is not that aspect of Curtin's Labor leadership
with which I wish to deal tonight.
Rather, I want to touch upon Curtin's concept of the higher
role of party leadership in terms of the implementation of the policy, platform
and philosophy of the party. And in so doing, I place his work of 45 years
ago firmly in the context of 1986. I place it in the context of the challenges
and difficulties we face as a party, a government and a nation today. And
I place it in the context of the task which confronts Curtin's present successor
as leader of the party and Prime Minister of Australia.
I believe that there are powerful lessons to be learnt
today from Curtin's example. And by that I mean not only lessons for the
party leadership. Perhaps even more relevant, in our present circumstances,
are the lessons for the party itself, in terms of the response it should
make to the efforts of the leadership to grapple with the great problems
of the time.
There can be little doubt that Curtin's highest act of
party leadership, as distinct from his national leadership, was to secure
the reversal of its policy against conscription for war service overseas.
He secured this in the face, not only of the party's deepest convictions,
but of his own. It was the reversal of a lifetime. The personal cost was
immense. But the highest price, for Curtin, was the accusation he faced
from sections of the party--even some of his colleagues-that he had sold
out-that he had betrayed his principles. The accusations were made quite
publicly, against a Labor Prime Minister, during a deep crisis of the war
There is a staggering secret from wartime, revealed only
when the Caucus Minutes were published ten years ago. Arthur Calwell, then
an aspiring backbencher from Melbourne--where else?--asserted publicly that
Curtin "wanted to lead a government from the other side". Curtin's
immediate response was to write to the Caucus Secretary resigning the leadership
unless the accusation-the ultimate accusation of disloyalty--was unanimously
repudiated by the Parliamentary party. In the event, Calwell moved the motion
repudiating himself and declaring total confidence in Curtin.
Yet, such are the pressures to which a Labor Prime Minister
can be exposed--even the greatest, even in wartime.
But the example of Curtin can leave no doubt--there are
times when the greatest but hardest service a Labor leader must render the
party and the nation is to challenge and, if necessary, to change the party's
perceptions and predilections, even if some of its most deeply-rooted attitudes
and assumptions, and most cherished preiudices may be involved. And Curtin
saw clearly that his role as leader of both the party and the nation required
him to make that challenge and achieve that change.
Let me stress, at once, that I say attitudes, assumptions
and prejudices--not our goals and ideals.
And it should never be forgotten that Curtin's next two
successors as Labor Prime Ministers of Australia accepted the same responsibility
of the Labor leadership to challenge some fundamental attitudes.
Upon Ben Chifley fell the horrendous responsibility of
sending troops into the coalfields of New South Wales in 1949--not to defeat
the striking miners, but to save the jobs of 250,000 New South Wales workers.
And an entire version of Gough Whitlam's rise to the leadership
of the party and the nation could be written in terms of the challenge he
mounted and maintained relentlessly to rid the party of the taint of racism
and sectarianism. Yet hardly more than 20 years ago, few things seemed more
immutable in Labor orthodoxy than support for White Australia and opposition
to State Aid for Catholic schools.
It is easy enough today to see these issues, from conscription
in wartime to White Australia and the State Aid issue, as mere shibboleths,
waiting to be swept aside by the inevitable tide of history. But in the
days I speak of they were part of a deep and strong Labor tradition. Indeed,
loyalty to them was often held to be the basic test of loyalty to the party
itself. And the great Labor leaders who challenged them all faced accusations
of disloyalty from within.
This is what we have to bear in mind when we speak of Labor
traditions or, more frequently, when they are assessed by others who care
nothing whatsoever for Labor traditions and detest all the party stands
The truth is that there is more than one authentic Labor
But one of the proudest traditions is Labor's ability to
produce leaders and governments with the foresight, wisdom and courage to
challenge even the most cherished assumptions and attitudes, if that is
necessary to achieve Labor's higher goals and objectives for our nation.
I propose tonight to examine the performance and purposes
of the Hawke Government in the context of that part of the Labor tradition.
of Federal Labor Governments
And I propose to test that performance, and its claims
to be placed in the great tradition by comparing its record with its three
predecessors--the Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam Governments.
Let me stress this point: There can be no valid judgment
on the work of any of these Labor Governments unless we place them squarely
in the context of their times. No government operates in a vacuum. Its decisions
must reflect the realities of the time--the economic and social realities,
the constitutional realities, the international realities-and not least,
the political and electoral realities.
The pace--and indeed the very means--of progress towards
Labor objectives must inevitably be conditioned by those realities.
This is not just a matter of political expediency. It is
the very basis of effective reform. Reforms which ignore the realities cannot
endure. The most effective and enduring reforms of our Labor Governments--State
as well as Federal--have been precisely those which were most thoroughly
rooted in the recognition of reality.
And it is one of the great historic facts that these great
Federal Labor Governments were called upon to lead Australia when the realities
were harsh indeed. It might almost seem our destiny. But if that is so,
what a glorious destiny.
The Curtin Government faced the supreme challenge of total
The Chifley Government had to grapple with the problems
of demobilisation, reconstruction, the postwar austerity with its concomitants
of rationing, black marketeering and inflation, and the chronic crisis of
the pound sterling.
The Whitlam Government confronted the backlog of 23 years
of structural and social stagnation, at the very time at which the period
of almost uninterrupted postwar growth of the Western economies came to
an abrupt end, following the oil crisis of 1973.
In each case, the impact of international events profoundly
influenced both the shape and the pace of reform. But common ground of each
of these governments was that the work of reform went hand-in-hand with
the effort to cope with the immediate crisis. They never lost sight of the
longer-term goals and objectives. Crisis was never used as an excuse to
These are the standards-the Labor standards--by which the
Hawke Government should be measured. This is the authentic tradition of
THE HAWKE GOVERNMENT
The Hawke Government has in fact had to confront two economic
crises. Both had their origins in policies-or lack of them-of its predecessors.
The first crisis was, of course, the inherited economic
crisis of 1982-83--in terms of the level of unemployment the worst for 50
The Hawke Government's effort in overcoming that crisis
and subsequently creating 670,000 jobs within three years stands as a remarkable
But there are important aspects of that achievement which
deserve closer study than they have been given so far. In particular, critics
within the party, who sometimes seem to question the Labor credentials of
this Government, should be prepared to examine closely what was done in
the Hawke Government's first term.
Because the solution which they brought to the problem
of restoring growth and creating jobs was not only unique; it was a uniquely
Labor solution. It was a solution that only a Labor Government could conceive.
It was a solution that only a Labor Government could achieve.
The practical basis for recovery was of course the Prices
and Incomes Accord. I doubt if the radical nature of the Accord in its conception,
its content and its consequences--is yet fully appreciated-perhaps not by
all its beneficiaries in the ranks of Labor, and certainly not by significant
sections of business. It represented an original and radical approach to
Australia's economic and industrial problems. But it was--and remains--much
more than a daring experiment in economic policy making. It depended upon
an appeal to, and a response from, the Australian Labor movement and the
wider Australian community which had never been tried in peace time.
The success of that appeal and the response it achieved
was overwhelmingly the personal success of Bob Hawke. I confess that I myself
had my doubts whether the spirit of consensus which characterised the Economic
Summit of 1983 could be translated into durable, practical action. I am
delighted to acknowledge here that I was wrong. But its success has been
much more than a personal success for Bob Hawke. It cannot be overstressed
that it is essentially a Labor success, the success of a Labor leader drawing
his strength from the Labor movement and the Labor tradition.
By any standard, the Accord has proved an effective mechanism-without
precedent-to resolve, in a disciplined and sustainable way, the conflicting
aims and aspirations of different sections of the Australian community.
The consequences of the absence of such a mechanism were
amply illustrated in the declining years of the Fraser Government.
The Accord meant that for the first time in Australia's
postwar history a resurgence in economic growth was not followed by a wages
More recently the Accord has also proved to be, despite
predictions to the contrary, a mechanism capable of providing aggregate
wage flexibility with the 2% discount delivered at the most recent National
With confidence, the Government can claim that the same
basic framework will continue to form the basis of an effective wages policy
in this country. Indeed it is essential that it should do so.
For this reason--for the first time Australia has been
given a chance of breaking the boom-and-bust cycle. And that was a vicious
circle which always hit hardest the Australian workers and the Australian
pensioners--that is, the core of Labor support, first through inflation
then through unemployment.
There is a second fundamental point which has to be recognised
about the Accord--and here I mean not just the mechanism of a wages and
incomes policy but the whole approach which underpins the Accord. So I use
the word Accord in its most comprehensive sense.
And the point I emphasize here is that the Accord itself
embodies the key elements of Labor's program of social reform.
It is, in a very real sense, Australia's social contract.
Most importantly, it redresses the basic flaw-almost the
fatal flaw--in the implementation of the great reform program of the Whitlam
Government. My authority is no less than Gough Whitlam himself who has written
in his book The Whitlam Government:
The chief economic failure of my Government resulted from the wage explosion of 1974. In part, our failure was a failure of communication, our failure to persuade the trade union movement to accept the central concept of Labor's program ... the failure to convince the unions of the reality and worth of the social wage concept.
Who in the Labor Party will contest so great an authority?
Who, then, in the Labor Party or outside it will deny that,
through the Accord and all it represents, the Hawke Government has provided
the Labor Party and the Labor movement with a new and powerful weapon to
advance its whole program of social and economic reform?
I cannot here go through the whole list of significant
social reform which has restored, continued and in some cases extended,
the Whitlam program. I need only highlight:
The list could go on. But let me state two basic propositions:
First, there could be no successful Accord without a program of social reform,
and second, there could be no successful program of social reform without
And this linkage goes to the very heart of any understanding
of the approach of the Hawke Government to its responsibilities and commitment
as a Labor Government of Australia.
It is in the context of reform that I now turn to the Hawke
Government's handling of Australia's second crisis--the very serious economic
difficulties we now face as a Government and as a nation. The origins of
that crisis lie in the structural imbalance of the Australian economy--the
legacy of three decades of lost opportunities.
I want to preface my remarks with this general statement-it
would be a very grave mistake for any of us to think that true Labor reforms
can be limited to welfare issues or matters usually referred to as quality
of life issues, such as environmental issues, important as they are.
The simple fact is that if we were to leave a declining economic structure
in place we would not be able to support social and environmental change.
In other words, if we were to accept the structural status quo, all our
pensioners, all our welfare recipients would be worse off as the economy
got worse. The only chance for the people whom Labor most claims to represent
is to tackle the major economic problems, and to establish the conditions
for sustained, non-inflationary growth.
That is what Hawke and Keating are doing. And the thing
that is most compounding the difficulties they face is the fact that anti-Labor
Governments for the best part of 35 years refused to tackle any of the real
problems of structural change in our economy. And that means that if Labor
supporters in Australia genuinely wish to see the cause of Labor reform
advanced, they are bound to accept the obligation to support and sustain
their Labor Government in its Herculean task of economic structural reform.
At this critical period in our country's history, economic
reform has become the reform of all reform. It is not something marginal
to the real goals and objectives of the Labor movement. It is fundamental
to their achievement.
That is why it has never been so important that the whole
Labor movement be mobilised in support, and why it is so important that
the entire Labor movement understands exactly what must be done and why
it is being done.
I realise very well that gaining acceptance for change,
much less active support for it, is no easy task. I certainly don't underestimate
the difficulty for a Labor Government in asking the nation's workforce to
take a cut in real wages, when there have never been so many overnight millionaires--most
of them apparently in Perth; when the Stock Exchange soars to record levels;
when company after company chalks up record profits. I, for one, can't be
surprised if appeals to patriotism meet a certain cynicism, when the hard-nosed
men of business who have made billions out of Australia--people like the
Liberal Party Treasurer, Mr John Elliott--tell the world that Australia
is the last place in which to invest.
Well, I have a message for Elliott and his ilk, whether
they call themselves the New Right or just plain die-hard old reactionaries.
Most Australians have had a gutful of people making their millions in Australia,
taking it overseas to make more millions and then telling the rest of the
world what a bunch of bludgers the Australians are.
And Brian Burke is absolutely correct in exposing these
people for what they are--not just un-Australian, but anti-Australian.
But the real harm done by the so-called New Right is to
divert public attention from the real problems and to distort perceptions
of their real cause, nature and cure.
For too long Australia had relied on the export of commodities,
first agricultural produce and, as that market weakened, unprocessed minerals.
This reliance on such a narrow export base saw us decline as a world trading
power and rendered us extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in world commodity
prices--to the sort of dramatic decline in the terms of trade we have seen
But the fall in prices is only one aspect of the problem;
or to put it more accurately, the fall in prices reflects the deeper seriousness
of our situation.
And this is the situation we have to confront today--world-wide
production of food is up dramatically; production of practically all metals
and minerals has gone up between 20% and 35% in the last ten years; there
has been a world-wide collapse in the raw materials economy without any
countervailing impact on the world industrial economy; yet countries like
the United States of America and EEC members are subsidising increased food
production; import markets for food are all but disappearing; demand for
practically all farm commodities is shrinking.
In other words, for so much of what we have traditionally
relied upon to sell in order to maintain our standards of living, (coal,
iron ore, wheat, etc), the world markets are either shrinking or, because
of international oversupply or national self-sufficiency, have virtually
This situation has been building up over years.
But at the same time, successive postwar Liberal-National
Country Party Governments-30 out of the last 35 years-presided over the
ossification of our manufacturing sector. The sector did not have to compete
on an equal basis with imports-initiative, enterprise, innovation, was put
at a discount. The sector did not need to compete, and indeed was rendered
almost incapable of competing in export markets.
Yet in all those years manufactures and services were the
fastest growing areas of world trade, and those countries with an export-oriented
manufacturing sector grew fastest and prospered most. Australia was falling
behind. As our terms of trade declined, so has our ability to sustain our
standard of living.
This is the situation of which the Prime Minister has said:
"We are now in a crisis which is as great as the crisis of war."
Let me say that that is no mere rhetorical flourish from
a Prime Minister whose admiration for John Curtin is no secret. It contains
this essential truth--that the response which will be required from the
Australian people, and especially from the Labor movement, parallels the
kind of steadiness and steadfastness required in the war.
And the response from the Australian Labor Party and the
Australian Labor movement must be based on a recognition of this fundamental
fact: no reforms in financial, fiscal, trade, industry and technology policies
would mean stagnation and decline in Australian living standards, and a
crippling of our ability to pay for Labor's program of social reform.
That is why the Hawke Labor Government has embarked on
sweeping structural reform in these areas.
And I repeat and emphasize that structural reform of the
Australian economy is now the crucial area of Labor reform, the reform upon
which all hope of real Labor reform--our most deeply held aspirations for
justice and equality--ultimately depend.
Now that I'm iust a humble lawyer again, I suppose I can
say it is the sine qua non of reform--the indispensable condition.
But if it is argued that these reforms which the Hawke
Government has undertaken are not authentic Labor reforms-if, for example,
it is argued that the process of financial deregulation is in some way contrary
to our principles, or irrelevant to the achievement of our wider objectives,
one need only pose the counter-question: why, then, did anti-Labor Governments,
throughout their three decades of almost uninterrupted power, never move
in these directions?
And that, of course, is the whole point. The great and
powerful friends of the Conservative coalition did very well indeed out
of the old system. But it is now the ordinary working people, the farmers
and small businessmen and women of Australia who are paying the price for
the years in which the locusts ate.
And without the reforms now being undertaken by the Hawke
Government, the ultimate price would be ruinous-not only to those groups,
but to our entire nation.
of the Hawke Government
Let me briefly bring together the principal reforms which
the Hawke Government has undertaken. And in so doing, let me emphasize that
this work has not been some sort of panic response to a sudden, unforeseen
crisis. It is a work which began in 1983-consistent and comprehensive.
The major measures include:
In the program of structural change and reform, one area
of fundamental importance is science and technology.
The Hawke Government will be seen in years to come as a
major agent for reform in science and technology.
It has recognised the necessity of a strong science and
Research and Development infrastructure to support Australia's long-term
economic health. Since the Government has been in office it has introduced
the National Research Fellowship Scheme to improve links between industry
and researchers in tertiary education; the Management and Investment Companies
program to provide management support and venture capital to develop innovative
ideas and technologies; and the 150% tax deduction on Research and Development.
Recognising the profound social implications of science
and technology, the Government also established the Commission for the Future
(CFF). The CFF is already filling a major gap in community understanding
by providing information and education about changes in science and technology
with far-reaching social and economic implicatioins. It is helping to establish
an innovative and productive culture for Australia by working with a variety
of community and business organisations.
One of the significant achievements of the Hawke Government
is in the area of community attitudes. There is now much greater community
and media interest in science and technology. Government and industry analysts,
newspaper editorialists and economics commentators now invariably include
technological innovation and research and development in their recipes for
improving Australia's industrial competitiveness--something that rarely
happened two years ago, and never five years ago.
Much of this advance is directly due to the Minister for
Science, Barry Jones. There could be no more fitting choice. For years he
was a voice crying in the wilderness. His warning of the need for structural
reform was almost Churchillian in its foresight. Now, indeed, to use the
title of one of his books, the sleepers must awake.
Be that as it may, I have given some outline of the measures
the Hawke Government has taken to bring about the most comprehensive reform
of the structure of the Australian economy ever undertaken in our peace
Underpinning all this is the program of tax reform undertaken
since the return of the Government in December 1984. I certainly do not
intend here to enter into the current debate. The manufactured anguish over
the Fringe Benefits Tax represents merely a preliminary skirmish before
the massive campaign which will be mounted against Labor in the coming election
year. Let me say only this--whatever modifications may be needed to remove
anomalies, were we, as a party and a Government, to succumb on the basic
principles involved in the total package of the Keating tax reforms, it
would represent an irretrievable retreat from the one Labor ideal which
is never subject to change, however much we may sometimes have to change
the means towards our goals-the ideal of equality and fairness in our society.
All this leads, I believe, irresistibly to the conclusion
of the theme I have tried to sound tonight: that the Hawke Government has
proved itself to be, not only a great reform government, but a government
in the highest traditions of Labor reform. It is a Labor Government not
only in the true tradition; it is a government restoring and renewing, strengthening
and entrenching the best traditions of Labor reform.
But I could not tonight--in this particular week of October
1986--invoke the tradition of Labor reform without reference to an Australian
whose contribution to that tradition was without equal. I refer, of course,
to His Honour Mr Justice Lionel Murphy.
For there, writ large in his person and career--larger
than life--was the grand Labor reform tradition and the great Labor ideal-justice
for all, equality for all.
No Australian gave more for those principles. No Australian
suffered more through the denial of those principles. For never let it be
forgotten that Lionel Murphy was the first chosen victim of the obscene
doctrine that Australian men and women of distinction should be denied ordinary
justice and equality before the law.
But let his light shine, undisturbed and unclouded by recrimination
or bitterness-for a while at least. And let the brightness of that light
put to flight his detractors and persecutors, into the shame and obscurity
and oblivion which is their deserved and inevitable fate.
But in the context of my theme tonight-the continuity of
the Labor reform tradition--there is a commanding imperative for the Australian
Labor Party in the lesson of Lionel Murphy's life and death. It is exactly
the same lesson to be drawn from the life and death of John Curtin himself.
I said earlier that one of our proudest traditions was
Labor's capacity to produce great leadership in times of crisis.
But there is a darker side to that tradition--our frequent
failure to give the support and encouragement the leadership needs and deserves-to
be sustained in the really tough times, when the really hard decisions have
to be made.
In Australia's darkest hours, there were those of the Labor Party who denied that support and encouragement to John Curtin. In these times, when our party, our Government and our nation face challenges of a different order, but no less significant for Australia's future, let us resolve that for all our mistakes and shortcomings, that shall never be a charge brought against us, in our generation, by the generations of future Australians.