The Australian Labor Party is the oldest political party in Australia with a continuous history which precedes Federation. However, prior to the 1980s, it was relatively unsuccessful in electoral terms, having weathered three splits and long periods in opposition.
The roots of the Labor Party are found in the workers’ desire to have their interests represented at the political level. While the party is one of the few labour parties to retain its formal affiliation with the trade unions, it has been “middle-classed” over the last 40 years. In the words of Kelly, the party embraced “a coalition of white collar professionals – teachers, social workers, university lecturers, journalists, reformist lawyers, environmentalists, civil servants and union officials – products of liberal education, affluence and the women’s movement.”
Labor’s middle classing saw the concerns of the party expand to include a wide range of issues which would not have been traditional preserve of the blue collar worker, including: women’s issues, conservation, quality of life, environmentalism, and uranium mining.
Any discussion of Labor’s ideology must begin with their socialist credentials. Socialism was formally incorporated into the party’s platform in 1921, and it is currently expressed as the commitment to the “democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in those fields”.
In spite of this rhetorical commitment to democratic socialism, most commentators agree that Labor’s project is the civilisation of capitalism, not its replacement. Indeed, in 1913 Lenin said that the Australian Labor Party was really a (small-l) liberal bourgeois party; and the then Liberals were really conservatives. While the influence of the socialists in the party should not be under estimated, they are in a minority. The party includes a large number of radical popularists, liberals, social democrats, nationalists and Catholics who would not subscribe to socialism. The socialist objective is retained largely for tradition’s sake, and as a flexible commitment to social justice.
Rather than socialism, two ideological themes streams dominate in Labor’s history. The first is the centre-left theme of social liberalism manifest as the commitment to positive equality under Whitlam; and the largely equivalent notion of social justice under Hawke and Keating. The second is the centre-right theme of labourism. Labourism is the broad commitment to protect the most vulnerable members of the working class; safeguard the position of workers; ensure a fair day’s wage; and paid employment as the primary guarantor of human welfare. Laborism promotes full employment as the key strategy to prevent poverty and social distress.
A third ideological theme to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s is the Hawke and Keating Governments’ willing embrace of market and quasi-market mechanisms to achieve their policy objectives. This move to the right has been criticised by many in Labor as an embrace of neo-classical liberalism, economic liberalism or what Pusey described as economic rationalism.
A fourth theme, which also emerged in the 1980s, is electoral pragmatism. Beilharz and Jaensch argue that Hawke and Keating sacrificed their reforming zeal for electoral pragmatism.
Jaensch argues that the Labor party become a catchall party with one overriding objective: to win the next election. While Labor has always had critics who thought reform was sacrificed for success at the ballot box, the Hawke and Keating governments shifted Labor’s focus from short term reform to long term electoral success.
Their justification was that enduring reform required the Party to be in Government for the long term; and that governments achieve little by alienating the electorate. Some have argued that in the framework of Gay’s dilemma, Labor in the 1980s and 90s chose the political impotence of staying in power, whereas Labor in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s remained faithful to their principles and as a consequence the impotence of opposition.
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