25/06/2009 - 00:00

Right lost the passion for reform

25/06/2009 - 00:00


Save articles for future reference.

Australian Labor has delivered the type of economic reforms expected from the conservative side of politics.

THE study of Australian political history can be rewarding even though it means having to constantly encounter political correctness.

This came to mind last year when I met a smart young American historian working as an archivist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the campus where former president George W Bush has since located his presidential archive.

The archivist, a recent doctoral graduate, had a longstanding interest in Australia.

So whenever I was waiting for another box of Texas documents, we'd chat about aspects of Australia's past.

He asked, for example, whether our convict history was as harsh as Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore portrayed.

No, that's essentially a Hollywood-style beat-up; Australia wasn't a Soviet-style Gulag, I stressed.

Those shackles, handcuffs and irons can be overdone.

True, Britain did transport political prisoners, such as the 60-odd Chartists, so unjustly deported because they sought secret ballots at elections.

There were also Fenians, several who reached the US from Rockingham, thereby sparking a diplomatic row - The Catalpa affair, or rescue - between the US and Britain.

But I stressed that it's far more helpful to regard convictism as the most successful prisoner reform program ever, since virtually all became upright, hard working, loyal citizens after completing their terms.

Doubters and deniers should quiz mates with convict ancestry to recount their families' pasts.

The archivist next asked about Catholic Action in Australia, an issue rarely written about.

But whenever it is addressed, it's generally done with a closed mind.

That prompted me to outline the outstanding contribution made by the great BA (Bob) Santamaria, who dedicated himself from 1941 to organisationally and otherwise thwart Australia's Communist Party, which had set about emulating what Czechoslovakia's communists succeeded doing in 1948 - forcibly imposing a Bolshevik pro-Moscow political and economic order by bypassing parliamentary elections.

Last year, when volume two of his life's work, titled BA Santamaria: Running the Show, Selected Documents 1939-1996, and edited by Victorian historian, Patrick Morgan, was launched in Perth, Mr Santamaria's daughter, Bernadette, recounted several never-before-heard anecdotes about her father.

The one I liked most was how the Santamaria siblings felt different from school friends whose fathers returned home after a day's work.

Their father generally came home for a quick evening meal, after which he'd dash off to community meetings or ones with unionists to plan for another union campaign against the communists.

And there were his interstate and country trips to promote the same life-long objective.

Although there were overseas trips these were rare, since his office was an obligatory stopover for so many foreign journalists, academics, politicians, clerics, authors, and others.

The US archivist next asked about the Labor Party - our oldest parliamentary grouping - which left-of-centre academics and activists invariably treat with astounding reverence, rather than fairly and critically analysing it.

Here it must be said that, although Labor arose from local late 19th century trade unions, much of its initial ideological underpinning was borrowed from other quarters.

Early Labor, while owing much to British non-conformism and craft unionism, is also indebted to the great American political modernising movement called Progressivism, which came to dominate states west of the Mississippi from the turn of the 19-20th centuries.

Those western states closely resembled Australia's colonies in settlement, agricultural, gold and other mining and urban growth.

The archivist appreciated this, although it's rarely highlighted by history departments in our academies, so remains unknown to school history teachers, and thus Australians.

Progressivist thinking and action, so crucial during early 20th century in the US, had by 1920 transformed most of those states into Swiss-style democracies where the people, not just politicians, could block legislation at binding referendums people called.

Not coincidentally, early Australian Labor included such a plank in its national and several state platforms.

Also not coincidentally, Australian Labor spells the latter word in the American style, as Labor, not Labour, which is how Britain's Labour Party describes itself.

That deliberate but little-noted re-badging came in 1912, at the height of America's Progressivist era.

However, Australian Labor discarded its early progressivist inclinations before the outbreak of the Great War, and opted for the British-style Labour socialistic path to be enforced by an intricately devised union-dominated network that controlled party conferences.

Little wonder that by the 1940 extreme leftists of all shades had honed in on the party's union base with the intention of transforming Australia into a fully-fledged socialist entity.

However, not all Laborites welcomed such enforcement.

Those opposed to such an eventuality approached Mr Santamaria to organise a campaign to counter the wholesale takeover of the Labor Party by ardent leftists.

Here's what Patrick Morgan writes: "The Movement began in 1941 as a loose Melbourne network, inaugurated by BA Santamaria and Bert Cremean, and designed to combat Communist influence in the trade unions.

"It was variously known as the Factory Movement and the Industrial Movement, and colloquially among its members as 'the Show'.

"It was formally set up as the Catholic Social Studies Movement under the auspices of the Catholic bishops in 1945 but its existence was never announced."

The battle lines over Australia's political and economic destiny were thus drawn in the same year Darwin was bombed by the naval fleet that nearly obliterated Pearl Habour two months earlier.

By late 1942, however, Australia was saved from being transformed into a Japanese colony by superior American naval and air power.

But it wasn't for another 15 or so years - Ben Chifley and the coal miners strikes - that the same could be said of that other battle over Australia's destiny with the breaking of Communist control of the union movement.

Since former NSW Labor treasurer, Michael Costa, fully appreciates this he was able to write in The Australian: "The NSW Right emerged as a reaction to the increasing influence of the extreme Left, particularly the Communist Party of Australia, during the late 1940s and 50s.

"The key defining issues between industrial Left and Right were religion and foreign policy.

"The atheism of the Communist Party and its subservience to foreign policy requirements of the Soviet Union were what created the Right."

Then, in 1983 came the emergence of one-time ACTU president, Robert Hawke, as prime minister, and former union staffer and NSW rightist, Paul Keating, as treasurer.

They, like New Zealand's reformist Labor treasurer, Roger Douglas, and Britain's Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, moved to privatise sizeable segments of the economy.

Australian Labor thus took a path diametrically opposited to what it and the communists had been long advocating.

And now even Queensland's Labor premier, Anna Bligh, has set the same course for her state.

Why this ideological backflip, Labor doing what the Liberals claimed they believed in but lacked the courage to do?

That's something our academics will hopefully answer.


Subscription Options