14/05/2009 - 00:00

Labor moves away from its roots

14/05/2009 - 00:00


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Workers are under-represented on the political left.

IN April, a Perth newspaper article headlined 'Tagliaferri faces union attack over Labor credentials' was a reminder of a widespread misconception about the nature and modus operandi of Labor's parliamentary wings.

The opening paragraph said: "Senior unionists are leading plans for a hostile campaign opposing the ALP's new candidate for Fremantle, Peter Tagliaferri, amid claims he is only 'maquerading' as a Labor man."

State Scene recalls meetings with Perth's late deputy lord mayor, Bert Tudori, who held strong views on this very issue, regularly stating that WA Labor MPs lacked what he saw as an authentic claim to being Laborites.

He said the current crop was all teachers, university graduates and lawyers, from soft backgrounds like that.

Although State Scene agreed, I recall surprising him by saying WA Labor had one MP who'd been a manual worker, so couldn't be seen as 'masquerading' as a Labor man.

I vividly recall that moment because Mr Tudori nearly spilled his coffee on hearing such an individual existed.

"You're joking, who is it?" he asked.

I'd recently read the latest edition of The WA Parliamentary Handbook, which said then Collie MLA, Mick Murray, had been a mechanic before entering parliament.

Here was a rarity.

Years later, Mr Tudori would, with a wink and a smile, nudge me, and say: "Hey, Labor's got one worker in parliament - Mick Murray."

He found the Murray exception extremely amusing, since it proved the rule.

Important to stress also is the fact that it's been a long time since a manual worker headed Labor's parliamentary ranks.

Take a quick scan of Labor's national leadership cast since, say, the beginning of the Menzies period in 1949.

After the death in 1951 of engine driver PM, Ben Chifley, Labor's leader was H V 'Bert' Evatt, historian, lawyer, even High Court Judge before turning to Canberra.

His origins were, however, working-class British and Irish.

Then came Arthur Calwell, a Victorian public service clerk whose father was of Irish ancestry while his mother was Irish-American. He was Labor's first Mandarin-speaking leader.

Gough Whitlam, another lawyer, was the son of a senior Canberra-based public service lawyer, and could easily have been portrayed as 'maquerading' as a Labor man.

Next came Bill Hayden, who was like Calwell, since his American-born sailor father was Irish.

Before parliament he served in Queensland's police force.

Bob Hawke, son of a Congregationalist minister, studied law, was a Rhodes Scholar, then rose to the top of the ALP via union jobs. His uncle, WA premier Bert Hawke, had been a union official.

Paul Keating, like Calwell, has Irish ancestry, and was also a clerk, then got a union job.

Kim Beazley, like Hawke, was a Rhodes Scholar, briefly an academic, and then followed his father into federal parliament.

Simon Crean, another lawyer and trade union official, also followed his father into federal parliament.

Mark Latham, an economics graduate became a Whitlam staffer then pre-selected for the Whitlam seat of Werriwa.

Kevin Rudd, farmer's son, Canberra graduate, diplomat, business consultant on China, staffer to Queensland Premier Wayne Goss, and then went into federal parliament.

Manual, working-class family backgrounds are there but not always as shown by Whitlam, Hawke, Beazley and Crean.

Having Irish ancestry and a union boss's job certainly helps. But not a single manual worker among them, though two had been clerks.

Obvious advantages to having a shot at the top job include a university degree, a Rhodes Scholarship or law degree preferably, a union job, or having a politician relative.

Manual labouring doesn't register on the radar screen.

The recent pattern with WA's Labor leaders is similar.

Brian Burke was a journalist, son of a one-time federal Labor MP, and of Irish ancestry.

Peter Dowding's a lawyer, whose father, Reverend Keith, was a Protestant clergyman, hard-line leftist ALP member and federal parliamentary candidate.

The Dowding case is interesting for other reasons, not least because his talented uncle, Kenneth, may become the first Australian to be canonised a saint having converted to Catholicism the night before being murdered by the Gestapo on June 30 1943.

Carmen Lawrence is a wheat farmer's daughter, academic, public servant.

State Scene recalls Ian Taylor from university days, where he studied economics.

Jim McGinty is also recalled. He studied history, and later law (what else?) then took the Hawke-Keating-Crean path into parliament via a union job.

Geoff Gallop was another economics graduate plus Rhodes Scholar who converted to Trotskyism while in England. His father managed the Geraldton Building Company.

Alan Carpenter was a journalist, while Eric Ripper, like so many WA Labor MPs, was a teacher, union organiser, and politician's staffer, like Mark Latham.

Roger Cook, Labor's deputy, is a university graduate, politicians' staffer then lobbyist. Ben Wyatt and Mark McGowan, both possible leaders, are lawyers.

No calluses or grit on any hands there.

Note, although only leaders are named, this pattern is repeated in pre-selections for winnable Labor seats and for shadow ministers and ministers.

Former Burke and Dowding government minister, Jeff Carr, in his biography, I Do Recall, says this issue surfaced when he sought Geraldton's pre-selection in the early 1970s.

"At the time there was criticism within some sections of the party that we were endorsing too many schoolteachers and other educated people who did not have grassroots industrial experience," he writes.

His distinction between "educated people" and others is telling.

Two more points.

Firstly, the worldwide leftist tradition - totalitarian and democratic - has always been dominated by non-workers.

Karl Marx never did a day's manual labor in his life. Long time totalitarian-promoting pal, Friedrich Engels, was a clerk, university student, journalist, then Manchester capitalist.

Vladimir Lenin wasn't a worker; nor was Mao Tse-tung or Fidel Castro.

Workers rarely become leftist movement leaders.

The stand-out exception is, of course, Poland's Solidarity movement, headed by electrician Lech Walesa so of the Mick Murray mould. Both even had a sizeable moustache.

But even here Solidarity's key advisers, when it was above and underground were those with university, indeed, also Communist Party, backgrounds - like Boleslaw Geremek and ex-Bolshevik Jacek Kuron.

Lenin, you guessed it, was a lawyer. Castro, a doctor, was son of a Spanish immigrant who became a prosperous investor, isn't even Cuban.

Castro's wife, Mirta Diaz Balart, was a student from a wealthy Cuban family.

Mao hailed from a quite well-off peasant family.

Finally, some observations on the Tagliaferri candidacy. He's countered criticism over a controversial council pay deal for council workers by claiming he was a baker for 20 years and his family adhered to Labor values.

Well and good.

But that wasn't why he gained Labor's nod to contest Fremantle, which Mr McGinty managed to transform from safe Labor to extremely marginal, verging on Green.

It happened because a very tight race was expected, with the Greens in with a winning chance - something they nearly did last election.

Labor and Mr McGinty feared losing a heartland seat to the Greens.

They knew no ALP member had a hope of retaining it so Mr Tagliaferri, - Fremantle mayor, Liberal Party 500-Club subscriber, and independent candidate against Mr McGinty in 1990 - got Labor's nod.


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