A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, launch

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Book Launch

A little history of the Australian Labor Party

Luke Foley MLC, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council

Balmain Town Hall

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay respect to their elders.

What a perfect day for a book launch.

June 16. Bloomsday.

Ulysses is a book that spans one day.

This book, A little history of the Australian Labor Party, spans one hundred and twenty years.

The English writer Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, defied the then traditions of the writing of biographies, argued that "the first duty of the biographer" is "to preserve a becoming brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant".

Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno have taken Strachey's approach to biography and applied it to this history of the Australian Labor Party.

This work is an ideal introduction to Australia's oldest, and grandest, political party.

It will appeal to the general reader, to the student and to both the oldest, and the newest, member of the Labor Party.

It is the first generalist history of the party since Ross McMullin's The Light on the Hill was published in our centenary year.

Today, too many people with positions of responsibility - as staffers, and as ministers and caucus members - inside Labor governments are wilfully ignorant of our Party's history. 

Some behave as if the Labor Party began the day they joined it, or perhaps I should say, the day they first scored a job out of it.

Some knowledge of the events of 1916 may well have helped the NSW Labor Government in 2008.

Frank and Nick write in their introduction,

"That a nation knows so little about its oldest continuing political party.... arguably diminishes us as a people".

I would add:

That many people with influence in today's ALP, and that many people with influence inside modern Labor governments, know so little about our party diminishes the Labor Party.

The greater problem for Australia is that so many members of the Labor Party know so little of our history.

Once Graham Freudenberg could describe the ranks of the Labor Party as a "collective memory in action".

Not now.

I would like to see the state and territory branches of the ALP buy bulk copies of this book – I'm sure the publishers would concur - and provide a copy to every new member upon their admission to Party membership.

Reading this book should be a prerequisite to gaining employment with a Labor member of parliament.

Reading this book should be a prerequisite to contesting Labor preselection.

It was in the Unity Hall in Balmain, just down the road from here, on April 4, 1891, that the first labor electoral league was formed.

Before the 1890s membership based political parties did not exist.

Candidates representing ruling class interests simply put themselves forward.

The labor electoral leagues were formed by working people and their families.

Nick and Frank write of the early Labor Party,

"Above all Labor was a local affair.

"The mass party's success owed much to its rank-and-file members, many of whom devoted their lives to the Labor cause.

"Branches sprang up in most suburbs and towns across the nation.

"Members didn't merely work for their favoured candidate come ballot time, but debated each other with vigour at branch meetings, raised vital funds and actively sought to shape party policy, sometimes by rebuking the parliamentarians.

"Laborites prized their party membership, and as they worked and socialised together they created a distinctive fellowship."

This book tells the story of our party from the 19th century to the present day.

It covers both the grand achievements and the crushing defeats.

The narrative of A little history.... ends in January 2011, with Lara Giddings' elevation to the Tasmanian premiership.

With exquisite understatement, the authors write of the - then - NSW Labor Government, 

"Its prospects seemed poor as the 2011 election approached".

 As we now know, on March 26, 2011, NSW Labor suffered the most crushing defeat in our Party's history.

Losing an election after sixteen years in office is part of the natural cycle of politics.

Receiving our lowest vote since 1904, and winning our lowest number of seats since 1898, is anything but cyclical.

We gather at a serious and difficult time.

There can be no talk of cycles.

Our primary vote was 25 per cent.

This was an electoral cataclysm.

The people of this state spoke with a vengeance three months ago, and transformed the political landscape of NSW.

New South Wales politics, and our party's place in it, has changed utterly.

The voters expressed their fury at the way Labor ran this state for at least the last four years.

One in three voters who expressly identify themselves as Labor did not vote Labor.

These voters have values that they feel were violated by the fourth term NSW Labor Government.

The State Parliamentary Labor Party conducted its affairs in recent years in a way that destroyed the public's faith in NSW Labor's integrity.

As our new Leader, John Robertson, said in an address to Party members on May 23,

"We have to face up to the reality that, at times the NSW Labor Government in those final four years behaved in a manner that was represhensible.

"We have to face up to the fact that we are haemorrhaging members and that our party is shrinking.

"If we aren't honest about those facts we will be relegated to Opposition for decades."

Labor will only recover if we are searingly honest about what happened over the last few years.

Many felt that we stopped being a Labor government: that we weren't on the side of the people, but rather hostage to self interest and to special interests.

Labor - the party formed to fight for the outsiders – ultimately became identified as a government for party insiders, property developers and coal mining companies.

With 20 seats, Labor is weaker in the Legislative Assembly than at any time since the 19th century.

If we are honest, we must admit that we are as weak in the community today as we are in the new Parliament.

In the past sixteen years more than 130 Labor Party branches shut their doors. 

One in four branches closed down, and many of those that remain are on life support.

While Labor governed, the Labor Party was disappearing from the everyday lives of many communities. 

NSW Labor won elections without the Labor Party.

A political model of corporate donors funding massive electronic advertising helped deliver election victories in the good times.

When the tough times arrived, the corporate donors were long gone.

The cost of the long neglect of the Party's membership became clear.

 In March 26, Labor was able to staff fewer polling booths than at any election since the 1930s, when the Lang tyranny tore Labor asunder.

That had very real consequences.

Our candidate would have held this seat, Balmain, but for the absentee vote.

The absence of a Labor Party in much of New South Wales cost us this seat.

Throughout New South Wales, the remaining Party membership is ageing and diminishing.

Most of the stalwarts who keep the Party alive in local electorates are over the age of fifty, many are now in their seventies.

Look forward sixteen years, know the age profile of those who remain today, and understand that the Labor Party will have disappeared as a membership based political party; unless we find the courage to change.

The founders of our party came together because they knew they could only achieve decent treatment at work, free schooling, extensions to the franchise and reform of land laws through collective, rather than individual, action.

Yet today our party has ceased to be a campaigning organisation or a movement for change.

Our Leader, John Robertson, said on May 23,

"It is an indictment on all of us that we have allowed our very foundations to decay and disintegrate.

"Party reform is not an esoteric argument...

"Party reform should be driven by a fundamental desire for the party to genuinely connect, communicate with and listen to local communities, workers and families.

"We need to embrace reform that gives a louder voice to Party members and allows more people to participate."

Our party does not have an automatic right to exist, or to be powerful.

Labor has to earn its future.

We must rebuild the Labor Party from the ground up.

Labor's organisation and rules must be overhauled to democratise the party and empower individual members.

The Labor Party must reach out to our supporters in the community.

The road map is there: the 2010 ALP National Review Report delivered by Carr, Bracks and Faulkner.

We need a new campaigning model that is connected to our grassroots and connected to our supporters.

We need community organisers on the ground to prosecute our case and to organise for political change.

We can say that the conservatives will get it wrong in government, that they're not as nice as they made out in the campaign and that the mask will slip.

That is true, but it is not enough.

The 2011 election does not spell the end for NSW Labor.

How we respond to the result will determine our party's future.

Our internal governance – our structures, rules and culture – failed us.

In turn, we failed the people of New South Wales.

In the 1930s, Ben Chifley and Bill McKell knew that Labor in this state had to reform before it would ever regain the confidence of the people.

Nick and Frank make the point that the quarter century dominance of Australian politics by the conservatives could only end, and did end, once Labor reformed itself in the largest state of the Commonwealth.

In the 1960s, Gough Whitlam understood that the party had to change in order to become a credible alternative national government.

It's all in this book.

Once again, in 2011, Labor has to have the courage to change.

As we rebuild, there is a core principle that should guide us along the way – our belief in active government as a force for good.

The conservatives problem is that in their hearts they believe that government is the problem, never the solution.

Since 1891 Labor has stood for a fair go for all and a decent life for everyone.

Each Labor member knows the promise of Labor politics – to provide opportunities to every child, to remove discrimination, to engage with the world, and to provide better services that only the community can provide.

Those of us who are left as Labor members of the NSW Parliament now carry a very heavy burden: we must redeem the promise of Labor politics.