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Curtin's legacy

Curtin's name is almost synonymous with the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Labor Party is the only political party to have had an unbroken life since Australia became a nation. John Curtin's contribution to the ALP spanned over 35 years--almost half the life of this nation.

John Curtin came to the Prime Ministership on 7 October 1941 as a veteran of one of the longest and grimmest periods in Australian political history, and consequently in the history of the Labor Party. It was an iron age which began with one World War and ended with another and took in the Great Depression. It was an age characterised by the ever-present possibility of economic chaos and the equally present possibility of social disintegration and consequential moves to the extreme right or the extreme left.

It was an age in which political divisions assumed ingrained bitterness they seemed to lack before 1914 or which they seemed to lack during much of the 1950s and 1960s. These divisions remain today, although often under the surface, as a legacy of those years. The extent of that bitterness, that polarisation can be judged by the arming of the 'New Guard' in New South Wales, by the hatred and despair which greeted the Niemeyer proposals, by the ugly street meetings which signalled the dismissal of Jack Lang as NSW Premier to bring it back to John Curtin's domain, by the party splits which helped demolish Scullin's Government in 1931.

There are two commonplace statements often made by those who ponder the history of Labor in power. The first is that at times of national difficulty the electorate turns to Labor to lead it. The second asserts that Labor Governments are governments of change, of innovation and initiative. Both statements are totally inadequate. They provoke the equally convincing argument that at least at the national level, Labor Governments cause the national difficulties that they are associated with and they cause them because they are governments of innovation and change.

The view that links Labor with leadership at a time of national stress is a legacy of World War Two, of John Curtin's time. Curtin, and the cabinet he led, so clearly demonstrated their superiority over Curtin's predecessors--Menzies, Fadden and Page--that people were left with a belief that only the Labor Party was able to cope with exceptional circumstances.

The corollary is, of course, that in 'good times' Labor has no place at the helm.

In such times, non-Labor Governments govern by presiding over the economy, using in a modified form, the new instruments and policies left them by Labor.

The various statements each have some truth in them but the real question is why? Why the difficulties compared to other parties in power? Why does a Labor Government particularly feel the need for change and innovation and initiative?

It seems to me, in looking back on the brief but crowded period since December 1972, and drawing comparisons with John Curtin's experiences before the war while he was on his way to the Prime Ministership, and looking at the Chifley years, that it is the fate of Labor Governments in their determination to implement their reform policies, to reveal the real and deep divisions in Australian society,


Let me first survey some of the instruments and influences and values which form the armoury of the major barriers to reform. In seeking our understanding of these barriers to reform we get our first clues if we list the complaints one hears about the Whitlam Labor Government. I will not deal with its virtues at this stage--only list the complaints. They are that we have tried to do too much too soon; that we are bad economic managers; that we have failed to communicate our aims and objections and our achievements to the people-to our supporters. Everyone readily admits we have been an extremely active and busy Government but not enough people seem to know what we have done. We have greatly heightened political consciousness but at times it has produced a condition of collective shock not unlike that referred to by Toffler in his well-known book on the subject.

Are the complaints true? Have we been bad economic managers, been too much in a hurry, failed through incompetent PR to sell our story, too busy to stop and explain?

In 1973 we began a massive movement of resources from the private sector of the economy to the public sector. Within the private sector we began moving resources from the haves to the have nots. That was what we had been elected as a Government to do. The effect on the private sector was that wages increased and profits were cut--and inflation increased. We had and still have an investment strike with consequential effects on unemployment. Our revaluations and tariff changes were in accord with the best economic advice and were designed to benefit the majority of our people as consumers but the resistance was enormous and what we were doing could not be understood except by the few.

We instituted action to make capitalism more efficient, legislation such as the Trade Practices Act and the Corporations and Securities Bill and the proposed National Companies Bill.

My predecessor attempted to enact human rights legislation and failed. We succeeded with the Family Law Acts. In all the examples and actions we encountered unreasonable and often unyielding resistance.


In examining the system which produces this cacophony resistance to Labor Government reforms it is sensible, I think, to begin with our legal system and its basis--the Australian Constitution. We can take our opponents at their word--in Parliament, in the High Court, before the bar of the Senate, when they constantly charge that the Labor Government has acted unconstitutionally, or has sought to circumvent, overturn or pervert the constitution. This charge has formed an important part of the rhetoric of reaction in each of these arenas. In Parliament the allegation has been used indiscriminately to delay practically every important piece of legislation. The originally well-understood role of upper houses has been perverted over and over again by the actions of the Senate. The High Court has been and is being used to attack our major welfare initiatives--the Australian Assistance Plan and the Australian Legal Aid Office, and even to prevent the granting of a Senate vote to residents of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

In appreciating the relationship between the Constitution and the aspirations of a reform Government, a basic fact about the parentage of the Constitution is of great importance. That fact has been most bluntly stated by professor Geoffrey Sawer in a book The Australian Constitution published this year:

The main political divisions at the conventions (called to debate the drafting of the constitution) were between Liberals and conservatives between state-righters and centralisers and between small-staters and big-staters ... To an important degree an overwhelming majority of the delegates at all stages were state-righters. It was federation they aimed at, and ... a federation in which there was a strong emphasis on preserving the structure and powers of the States so far as consistent with union for specific and (only) limited purposes.

Thus the Constitution produced was primarily concerned with setting limits to Australian powers. It was far less concerned with establishing a political framework within which Australia could develop and have a reasonable chance of solving the problems of nation-states in the 20th century.

There is a distressing irony in the fact that Australia as one of the youngest countries has a Constitution which reflects political realities far more outdated than that say, of France. Our traditions are also essentially conservative. Consider the different tradition that accommodates change in the USA. Our High Court has a strict legalist tradition that allows far less scope for innovation and change and reform than the different tradition that permeates the Supreme Court of the USA. In that country, a different tradition has allowed its Constitution to be liberally interpreted and doctrines like the "commingling" doctrine have allowed a more material growth of central power.

The consequence of this situation is that Australia has at its disposal far less power to tackle the economic and social problems of our time than almost any of its colleagues in the OECD countries.


The role of the present Senate as a barrier to reform is obvious. By continually rejecting bills passed by the House of Representatives it has materially effected the ability of the Lower House to transact the Government's legislative program. More dramatically, it made necessary the double dissolution of April 1974 thereby disrupting the administration of the nation by a mid-term general election.

The present power of the Senate is based upon two factors. The first is that in the debates of the constitutional conventions which developed the Constitution, debates which I might add were characterised by attention to short term political questions, the state righters and the small staters who wanted the Senate to represent the states equally, and to have equal powers with the House of Representatives, were overwhelmingly successful in gaining their case. Thus, the Constitution is largely frozen in the postures of Australia of the turn of the end of the 19th century.

The voting system for the Senate also virtually guarantees that representation will be very nearly equally divided between Government and Opposition, thus heightening the possibility of a deadlock based on the equal powers of the two Houses.

A recent writer has summed up the pernicious potential of these two factors:

... it is possible for an Opposition, having no majority but merely an equal tally of votes in the Senate, to veto legislation emerging from the House of Representatives, no matter what the majority of a Government in that House or at preceding elections.

I put this view to you as a reasonable description of the present state of affairs in the Parliament. Thirty men, choosing to believe that the results of two general elections are a bad dream, have persisted in asserting their right to judge the best interests of the nation; and behind them is the Constitution and the High Court.

If the implementation of an Australian Labor Government policy means altering the relations with the States as it must then the Senate exists to stop it--the Senate is a State House designed specifically to protect State rights.

Behind the Constitution and influenced by the same tradition is the media and our educational system--all self-reinforcing.

Recently we had the example of the decision of these 30 Senators in Opposition calling senior public servants to the bar of the Senate. It amounted to an attempt to demonstrate that the federal administration is answerable to the Senate first and foremost and moreover to the Opposition in the Senate, for its behaviour in implementing the elected Government's wishes. The Senate's attempt can only be judged as a clear instance of an attempt to usurp the powers of an elected Government.

There is no easy way out of the impasse. A double dissolution gives a chance of a joint sitting but produces a corrosive element of instability and unpredictability. Uncertainty thus continues to pervade the political atmosphere and further complicates the task of effective Government.

A glance down the list of bills rejected for the second time by the Senate confirms that the Opposition is quite prepared to assert this destructive power on almost any pretext. Among the 23 bills so far rejected twice by the Senate are the Superior Court Bill (No 2) rejected in one form or other four times; the Electoral Redistribution Bills for each State, despite the fact that the Act authorising these Bills was passed at the joint sitting; three Bills concerned with broadcasting and television, each of which has been rejected at least four times; and two Minerals (submerged lands) Bills, which seek to implement the philosophy of a former Liberal Prime Minister.

Let me turn to some of the arguments which make up the armoury of our Opposition.

When Senator Maunsell (National Country Party, Queensland) began a speech in the Senate on 27 May 1975 by denying the right of Senator Walsh (ALP, Western Australia) to speak about Queensland, he was making use of a long tradition of parochialism in Australian politics. The tradition has adopted many forms--all of them inimical to rational government.

Curiously, State Governments have sometimes been more the targets of parochialism than Federal Governments--I refer to the 'new state' movements which disfigured the State politics of New South Wales and Queensland between the wars.

Today, in the National Parliament, it is usually members of the Country Party, ironically at the time when that party has chosen to rename itself the National Country Party, who are the most vociferous exponents of parochial arguments against the efforts of a National Government to carry out programs for Australia as one nation.

The role of the Country Party is central in this matter. Non-Labor Governments at both State and Federal levels are forced to buy off the Country Party, thereby fulfilling and reinforcing parochial aspirations in their efforts to attain and maintain power. The relative success of parochialism at the State level has wholly unfavourable consequences at the National level. It has subjected national concerns to tests of parochial needs and parochial aspirations.

The states-right argument

The states-right argument is still as strong as ever after more than 70 years of having an Australian Government directing the business of the nation.

Let us take as an example of the states-right argument the Senate debate on the Superior Court Bill. Senator Greenwood rejected the claim that there was "any real logic or justification" for taking federal law out of the administration of the State Courts.

Supporting Senator Greenwood, Senator Wright based his argument on a submission made to the Royal Commission on the Constitution by the then Mr Owen Dixon, KC. In 1929, citing (no doubt in violence to the context), the statement that federal jurisdiction forms a grave impediment to the practical administration of justice.

The other side of the states-rights argument, what might be called 'primitive territoriality' was most eloquently expressed by Senator Sheil.

"The proposed court would degrade our Supreme Courts ... What would be left of our State courts? They would be nothing but property courts of an inferior status," cried the Senator. In using 'our' to describe state courts in distinction to the federal courts which would presumably be called 'their', the Senator summed up the peculiar territorial imperative states righters suffer from. The argument is further elaborated by Senator Shiels' ritualistic response that ... "This is a Centralist Bill." Such a claim is ritualistic inasmuch as it is used at some point in virtually every debate about virtually every piece of legislation and almost any reform our Government attempts to introduce.

There is also a comic-opera air about manifestations of this 'primitive territoriality.' Soon after Mr Lewis became Premier of New South Wales State public servants were circulated a directive informing them that on any approach by a representative of the Australian Government Public Service, no matter how trivial, the State public servant must immediately inform his permanent head. Furthermore, State public servants would be forbidden to appear before Australian Government Committees of Enquiry without permission of the Premier's Department. If they are permitted to appear, they are to supply facts but no opinions.

In the early stages of the debates on the Constitution Convention, the States argued the Australian Government should not have direct discussions with local government authorities because they were 'creatures of the States'. They even sought to oppose representation for local government at the convention.

Entrenched Interests

One of the major problems facing a reform government is, naturally, the power of entrenched interests. Curtin's Government was largely able, at a time of total war, to overcome the operation of these groups. The passing of the war crisis and the significant change in the political climate after the war signalled renewed activities by vested interests.

The Opposition is willing to become the captive of groups whose narrow self-interest sets them at odds with a government concerned to reconcile competing claims in the public interest. The debate over the Australian Government Insurance Office might well have had the Opposition speeches scripted by the more vociferous of the large insurance companies. The debate over the Broadcasting and Television Bills (rejected four times in the Senate) provides an excellent instance of the Senate opposition adopting uncritically the standpoint of an entrenched interest. And in the debate over the Superior Court Bill Senator Greenwood regaled the Senate with a list of the various State law societies who had expressed opposition.

An attitude to Government which accepts that political representatives become the mouthpieces of small, wealthy, highly-organised professional groups cannot but be reactionary. Yet this is exactly part of the armoury of the opponents of this government--an attempt to protect the haves against what is perceived as the encroachment of the have nots.

It is instructive to reflect on how our traditions, our Constitution, particularly our Senate, our parochialism, the states-rights argument and special pleading for vested interests are all interrelated, forming a front against change itself--any change. One gets the strange feeling that what some Opposition members want to do is to stop the world at some vaguely-remembered golden age. This sensation is heightened when you read some of the speeches in the Senate emanating from Senator Wright. In one such contribution recently, Senator Wright referred to what he called "the spawning that is taking place with regard to all sorts of newfangled ideas from the web of this government." There is a note of truculent despair in the Senator's lament (one feels one should pat the awe-struck Senator on the shoulder and murmur, "there, there Senator. Everything will be alright"). But beyond that--in the two images used, 'spawning' and 'web'--there is a clumsy attempt to promote feelings of unease and revulsion.

Politics of Fear

The Liberals and their Country Party colleagues have mastered the art of playing on the fear of insecurity of the people. It has been their classic tactic in the past two years, but it goes back through the 'Red Peril' days, through the inflation scares of the 1949 Put value back into the pound election, back to Curtin's day and beyond. The politics of fear have found a welcome place in the conservative armoury indeed. But just in case I am accused of generalities, of criticism without substance let me relate two recent examples of the politics of fear.

On a whirlwind visit to Launceston during the Bass by-election campaign in June, the Liberal Shadow Minister for the Public Service, Mr Vic Garland, issued a press statement in which he claimed he had learned that Labor was proposing to move the Launceston railway repair yard to Bendigo, as Bendigo was a marginal federal electorate with an unemployment problem, notwithstanding the patent absurdity of this proposition--shipping an ailing railway engine across Bass Strait for repair and then shipping it back--the press release was run, uncritically, by the local media. This could be nothing but a deliberate attempt to threaten the security of railway workers and their families, and those who derived their income from providing goods and services to the railway workers.

Thus we see the object of the politics of fear--to threaten the security of those who lack power or access to it, to provoke feelings of powerlessness, confusion and insecurity.

The second example is just as outrageous. It relates to an Ordinance recently debated by the ACT Legislative Assembly, implementing the motion carried by the House of Representatives (and sponsored by Moss Cass and John Gorton) which declared that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should not be subject to the criminal law. In the Ordinance, provision is made to ensure that homosexual rape and homosexual incest are still subject to the criminal law,

Yet soon after the Ordinance went to the Legislative Assembly, and before it was debated, a speaker on a Brisbane talk-back radio program asserted that Labor was determined to legalise incest. Last week it was Melbourne's turn. On a Melbourne talk-back, an indignant citizen repeated the assertion of the Brisbane caller, prompting anti-Government protests from other listeners. It is significant that the issue was one of the traditional taboos--matters which are beyond the pale for the average citizen.

The tactic there was to create an uneasy feeling that there is absolutely no area of Australian life which is not under threat of subversion by the Australian Government. It is also significant that until recently, this view of Australian politics was being cultivated only by groups such as the league of rights--groups which perhaps can best be characterised as existing in the twilight zone between politics and psychosis.

As I have said, the politics of fear is not peculiar to the current period of Labor rule. It dogged Curtin and Chifley. It also prolonged the Opposition days for Labor in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is also the use of the spectre of 'socialism' as a weapon against reform. It is important to realise that in the statements of such spokesmen of the right as Jo Bjelke-Petersen and his students in the National Parliament the attack is not so much on 'socialism' but on change per se, on reform.

Most of the targets of these attacks cannot be regarded as 'socialist' measures no matter what definition of 'socialism' you choose. It is absurd and dishonest to describe legislative reforms such as the Trade Practices Act, the Family Law Act, the Corporations and Securities Industry Bill, the proposed National Companies Bill, the Racial Discrimination Act, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Bill, the Ombudsman Bill, the defeated Human Rights Bill, as having anything to do with socialism. Yet they are the best examples that occur to me of the law reform initiatives attempted by the Government. The Australian Government Insurance Commission Bill and the National Compensation Bill are at least consistent with a move towards socialism but they are the exceptions more than the rule.

V I Lenin once wrote:

The Australian Labor Party does not even claim to be a socialist party. As a matter of fact it is a Liberal-Bourgeois party, and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really conservatives ... The Labor Party has to concern itself with developing and strengthening the country and with creating a central government. In Australia the Labor Party has done what in other countries was done by the Liberals...

In this context, it is interesting to see who is doing the defining--it is not the so-called 'socialists' who define 'socialism', it is the opponents of change; the conservatives who choose the definitions. It is like asking an Irish Protestant to define the IRA, or asking an Israeli cabinet minister to define the PLO.

The debasement of the concept of 'socialism' in the political debate in Australia has its unfortunate parallel in intellectual life. Unlike the social democracies of Western Europe, Australia has long failed to produce any significant contributions to socialist theory or thought. Nor have we produced a socialist figure of world standing. Jim Cairns perhaps comes closest to that ideal. The resultant aridity of much of Australian writing about politics can be traced to the wholly destructive activities of those opponents of reform who are content to mouth clichés and contribute nothing by way of serious definition, or relevance, or of lasting value to political debate or to political awareness in this country.


I have touched briefly on some of the more common themes in Australian politics which have provided the opponents of reform with the tools with which they prevent or destroy the impact of Labor's policies in Australia. None of these themes are new. Perhaps all that is new is the vehemence with which a Government twice elected by the citizens is continually attacked. In describing the politics of the early war years, the Curtin years, Paul Hasluck described a situation very like the one I have briefly sketched. He wrote:

Chronic lack of trust seemed to be one of the most marked characteristics of Australian politics, as of Australian social life, in the early years of war. Some of this lack of trust was due to experiences in the period between two wars; some was due to deep differences in outlook and theory; some was the fruit of sectional creed, for any person or group which has not learnt to make concessions or sacrifices itself cannot believe that the action of other persons or groups is anything but mean. Perhaps other and more deeply involuted reasons for distrust could be found in the course of a more far-reaching exploration of the historical, social, and physical influences that had shaped the character of the nation.

Sir Paul was writing about the milieu which confronted John Curtin. Earlier in this paper I said that perhaps Labor Governments are somehow fated, because they are committed to change, to reveal deep but previously-ignored divisions in political life. Hasluck grouped these divisions under "chronic lack of trust". Contemporary political commentators describe the same phenomenon as 'polarization'. It would be easy, I suppose, for us now-now that the public opinion polls are not as good as they used to be--to borrow from the politics of fear and accept the challenge handed out by the conservatives to turn Australian politics into a morass of irrelevant lies and half-truths.

Some Labor Party spokesmen try and do this when they talk about the Liberal and Country Parties being agents of big business and the multinationals but I suspect it does not come naturally to them and they are not really very good at it.

The politics of fear work best for an Opposition, particularly Oppositions with wealthy backers and access to uncritical media outlets--often their own.

Certainly Curtin and Chifley did not rise to the bait. Their view of Australia's future was bigger than that. Some say Chifley ignored the politics of fear at his own cost; in the bank nationalisation election of l949 Chifley resorted to logic and reason while Menzies exploited fear and insecurity--the spectre of 'socialism'. Chifley lost--Menzies won.

I believe, however, that the answer still lies in reason. It is not always easy to identify and expose the underground rumours that erode support for a Government.

As a Government, we have in two and a half years done much towards changing the priorities of the nation,

Where the Liberals had conscription and Vietnam, we have new laws on the rights of the individual and a high standing as an independent, forward-looking nation in the forums of world politics. Where the Liberals had massive handouts to the privileged and a laissez faire attitude to the pressing problems of urban living we have a new order in education opportunities and an organised national program to improve the quality of life of all Australians. It has all been very unsettling but our record speaks well for us. I do not believe that the politics of fear, no matter how assiduously cultivated by our opponents, can break down these achievements, nor take away the will of the needy, the under-privileged and the inarticulate to see them succeed.

I have said that Curtin's long apprenticeship can teach us much about the tactics of the opponents and the material with which they worked. Curtin's record as Prime Minister, and the record of Chifley, have survived almost a quarter century of Opposition rule. It has survived because it made an enduring contribution to the life of the Australian people. So too, in 32 months has this Government.

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