A White Working Man’s Country

Osmond Chiu in his recent Jacobin piece reminds us that “Australian Labor has a history of capturing the imagination of social-democratic parties” around the world, seemingly embodying the nation’s mystique as a ‘social laboratory’ and ‘paradise’ for the working man. Both Chiu, a leading thinker in Labor’s left wing, and his opponents from the newly established Victorian Socialists—an initiative led by Trotskyist organisation Socialist Alternative—hold to a version of this hagiography.  

For Chiu, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) led the world, forming an (albeit six day) government in 1899 and governing for the first time federally in 1908, while Daniel Lopez and Ivan Mitchell instead valorise the radicalism of the convict-working class. Neither properly understands the historical and political economic circumstances of these times, rendering their commentary on later reforms, and in particular the ‘great betrayal’ of the Accord era (1983-1996) unsatisfactory.

Rather, it is vital to locate Australia within the context of racialised imperialism and institutionalised sexism that accompanied capitalist expansion in the 19th century and facilitated its continued growth well into the 20th. Genocide against Indigenous Australians, the White Australia Policy and legislated discrimination against women were not contrary to Australia’s reputation as ‘the land of the fair go’, but vital to maintenance of a small, white, relatively prosperous male workforce.

I offer here a provocation: that the prime ministership’s of Gough Whitlam (1972-5) Bob Hawke (1983-91) and his treasurer Paul Keating (1991-96) sought and failed to maintain this settlement in the face of rebellions against sexism and colonisation at home and abroad. In placing these seismic events in their proper, global, context I hope to explain why the Australian left has struggled to surpass or adequately explain the politics of that era.


The Australian Settlement

Lopez and Millett begin their response to Chiu with some puzzling historical analysis. Firstly, they make a jarring distinction between Australia receiving the “cream” of Britain’s radicals as convicts while only second rate aristocratic “dregs” made the journey to become imperial overlords. While something of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964) is ascertainable in the later case, the former is drawn almost entirely from the work of 1950s nationalist historians, and in particular Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958).

Ward’s argument, that Australia’s white male workers—particularly those from the outback or ‘bush’—cultivated a unique proletarian culture drawing from their convict ancestors (Australia’s true “founding fathers” in Ward’s approximation) has however long been discredited. Humphrey McQueen in A New Britannia (1970) categorically dismissed such claims, finding Australia’s working class to have possessed a smallholding petty bourgeois mentality. This emerged from their experiences of the peculiarities of Australian capitalism: land was widely available (expropriated without payment or consent from indigenous Australians) and primary industry was almost forever in need of labour (notwithstanding periodic and often disastrous ‘busts’) creating significant opportunities for economic mobility.

Equally, the ideologies they held to were tinged with a reactionary, racist nationalism. The politics of white Australia—first colonial era laws targeting Asian migration to gold fields in the 1860s and 1870s, before becoming a central tenant of Federation in 1901—did not “discredit” the ALP. The party’s success was based on its appearing to be the policy’s most ardent defender. Asian invasion narratives riddled politics and literature in the federation period and beyond, with the threat of coloured labour challenging the economic conditions that had facilitated organised labour’s peculiar antipodean strengths. What Chiu crows of as Labor’s pre-WWI ascendency was facilitated by the Party’s adherence to radical socialist journal The Bulletin’s masthead: “Australia for the White Man”.

For Henry Reynolds, Ward’s imagining of a rural proletarian culture of mateship, equality and distrust for authority ignored “the pistols nonchalantly thrust through the belt of his noble frontiersman”, tools of innumerable massacres against the nation’s Indigenous peoples. Women were absent from Ward’s narrative. For while only the second nation to extend the electoral franchise, a labour union victory in 1907’s Harvester judgement set a national standard male wage that could support a wife and three children, and women’s earnings were pegged to around 54% of a man’s.  

The Bulletin , 21 August 1886, via  https://dictionaryofsydney.org/media/1672

The Bulletin, 21 August 1886, via https://dictionaryofsydney.org/media/1672

It is not coincidental that the political cartoons of the early labour press represented the working class as a strong, male industrial worker defending cowering women from conniving orientals. Radical groups, while active and often fervently opposed to this exclusionary compact, failed to break the ALP’s hegemony. Local branches of the Industrial Workers of the World were crushed by force, and the Communist Party of Australia’s brief period of mass membership in 1942-5 was facilitated by an a wartime alliance between the two ‘workers parties’. 

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the Colour Line”, W.E.B Du Bois wrote in 1903, and Australia was far from unique in its racially and sexually discriminatory politics: it was part of an imagined community of masculine whiteness that ringed the world. The hegemony of this global system – and its local manifestation, ‘The Australian Settlement’ – was not really challenged until the long 1960s. It was then that its three key tenants – white Australia, tariff and import protections and compulsory arbitration – began to fall apart due to pressure from without and struggles from within.

It’s Time 

While successful before the world wars, splits in the ALP around the issue of conscription for military service in 1916 and communism in 1957 saw it hold government for only 11 years from 1916 until 1972. For Lopez and Mitchell, the latter year marks the ascendency of “about the best [prime minister] we’ve had”, Gough Whitlam, who “introduced historic reforms that brought Australia into the twentieth century”—one of few views the authors’ likely share with Chiu.

Yet, the social struggles that animated the period—and that Whitlam’s government aimed to contain in the face of recession and ‘stagflation’ in the mid 1970s—are left out of the narrative. Though often put down to the ‘oil shock’ of 1973, the period’s economic woes were just as much a result of the inability of capitalism to meet the rising demands for equality from the marginalised, particularly those excluded by Du Bois’ ‘global colour line’.

As Michael Hardt and Tony Negri put it in Empire: “the fall of the rate of profit and the disruption of relations of command in this period are best understood when seen as a result of the confluence and accumulation of [struggles] against the international capitalist system”. The ‘long 1960s’ saw rebellions all over the world targeting colonialism, capitalism and sexism—concepts that were seen as fundamentally inter-related.

Growing numbers of third world nations allied with Communist powers to shame Australian policies of immigration restriction at international institutions. Labor finally removed a commitment to the White Australia Policy from its program in 1965 after arduous debate, paving the way for Whitlam’s government to declare the policy “dead and buried” in 1973. Women and indigenous Australians were no longer content with their secondary place on the economic ladder. In 1967, Aboriginals employed in the pastoral industry were granted equal pay, the same year that a famous referendum formally granted them citizenship status.

Rejecting mere paper equality, Indigenous activists began pushing for reparations and land rights, with the first such case going before the High Court in 1971. Women’s groups had campaigned for decades to overturn the discriminatory pay structure unions had won at the dawn of the 20th century, finally succeeding in the first days of the Whitlam government. For many, however, such reforms went nowhere near far enough.

Anne Summers described Australian women as “colonised” in her 1975 epic Damned Whores and God’s Police, and the Women’s Liberation Movement she was a part of launched stinging critique of their second class citizenship. Joined by women around the world, they demanded an end to divisions between the public and the private, the homemaker and the wage earner, that lay at the centre of Australia’s economic model.

With the global ‘long boom’ of the post-war years petering out by the mid 1960s, Australian unions had also entered a new period of militancy. A million workers struck in May 1969 demanding the release of Melbourne union chief Clarrie O’Shea, imprisoned under the penal powers of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

O’Shea—a member of China-line Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist) —was freed after six days of industrial action, and the powers were never employed again. Whitlam, who had first secured the Labor leadership in 1967 on the basis of ‘modernising’ the party to better reflect these progressive social movements and an increasingly affluent society, responded with a process of incorporation. Australia’s first Indigenous led advisory council was created, Women’s Liberationist Elizabeth Reid became Advisor to the Prime Minister on women and while non-white immigration remained rare, the nation became nominally ‘multicultural’.

Whitlam’s 1972 campaign slogan “It’s Time” captured a national mood ripe for change, one Labor hoped to tap into and incorporate through the model of consensual governance it had employed since the 1900s. Yet, such a turn would require a break with the party’s commitment to the white male worker as synonymous with the working class.


A Banana Republic

Considered from this perspective, the reforms of Hawke-Keating take on a different appearance, as further attempts to corral and control those excluded from what capital dubbed a fair share of the nation’s resources. Neoliberalism, as scholars like Quinn Slobodian and Jessica Whyte have recently argued, emerged in the late 1970s not to facilitate free flow of capital around the world, but rather to create legal and political devices that protect elites from the threat of a more equal world.

Indigenous demands for land and reparations in Australia were reflected at the global level by now largely forgotten demands by third world nations for global equality via the ambitious New International Economic Order. Australia sat at a crossroads in these debates. It’s positioning as a bastion of settler-capitalism rested somewhat incongruously beside protectionist economic policies similar to developing nations in Latin America.

Hawke and Keating chose their side clearly, however. When Keating stated that Australia risked becoming a “banana republic” in 1986, he referred to crises across the global south brought on by what was termed structural adjustment. A new concept coined by global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, these programs of ‘shock therapy’ were used to discipline governments who demanded too much of the global pie.

Unlike the Fraser government, constrained both by economic moderates in its own ranks and mass protest in the streets, Hawke and Keating were able to make the sorts of ‘adjustments’ Australia needed. Most of Australia’s state owned enterprises were ‘sold off’, the dollar was floated and many tariffs that had protected Australia’s otherwise uncompetitive industries were abolished, achieved consensually through processes known as the Wages and Income Accords.  

At the centre of the ‘Accords’ was a social wage—free medical care, unemployment benefits and superannuation—that the trade union movement exchanged for drastic limitations on strikes. While wages had risen dramatically since the O’Shea dispute, as Elizabeth Humphreys writes, these served only to push up inflation and unemployment was rising significantly for the first time in the post-war era.

Unions had no strategy to counter this, and indeed participated fully in its implementation, hoping that a type of Scandanavian style social democracy would eventuate. I venture that it is not coincidental that these reforms were rolled out at the same historical conjuncture as the racialised and sexualised division of labour and incomes globally and in Australian society was falling apart.

The accords and the social wage they promised were a response to the inability of the ALP—and social democracy sui general—to deal with the fact that the working class it had long valorised (and played no small part in cohering) was recomposing.  

Despite its dire history, there are signs that the Australian labour movement is beginning to learn its lessons: that focusing on shrinking numbers of traditional industries is a failing strategy. The National Union of Workers campaign targeting farm workers in Australia—many female foreign nationals working in conditions approximating slave labour—points towards a strategy of paying real attention to the working class not as we have historically imagined it, but as it presents itself today.

Jon Piccini is a historian at Australian Catholic University and co-host of Brisbane’s smash hit anti capitalist podcast ‘Living the Dream’.

Photo: ‘Gough Whitlam visits the Echo Wall by the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China, 1973’ [NAA: A6180, 14/11/73/209], from National Archives of Australia