View from The Hill

Modern Labor: What Would John Curtin Think?

The Curtin Family Home Lecture for the National Trust of Australia (WA), delivered on November 25, 2013.

Australia’s wartime Prime Minister John Curtin in London. Commons

In recent years, we’ve become increasingly conscious of the need to preserve and make accessible the heritage of our prime ministers, although we are still well behind the attention the United States gives to the legacy of their presidents.

There are now several prime ministerial libraries, including the Hawke Prime Ministerial Library and the Whitlam Institute’s Prime Ministerial Collection.

The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at the Curtin University is an important centre for scholarship and for making new generations aware of a leader that many if not most historians put among the best of Australian PMs.

But in getting the feel of a leader, there is something special in being able to look at where they lived - not just walking in their shoes along the corridors of the Old Parliament House, but in their slippers, as it were, in their own home.

So it’s great that the Curtin house at Cottesloe is being preserved for the nation, and I am delighted to be able to stay there.

I put the finishing touches on this speech in the Curtin dining room where “in the evenings, the dining table would become a desk for the children’s homework and a place where Elsie Curtin read all of the newspapers and cut out items of political interest, often until midnight”.

John and Elsie Curtin.

I want tonight to look at some of the challenges facing Labor, after what has been a very difficult and in many ways quite extraordinary several years.

I’d like to begin by speculating about what Curtin might think of contemporary Labor and how modern politics is conducted.

Let’s imagine him, a traveller in time, walking along the Cottesloe beach, as he loved to do, musing with some of Labor’s current generation.

The conversation would surely first turn to a dramatic and very obvious difference between his parliamentary Labor party and today’s.

Look at the old black and white photos of the caucus of the 1930s - there is not a female face.

Curtin might point out, however, that it was during his prime ministership, and from his home state, that the first woman caucus member came. Dorothy Tangney was elected a senator in 1943, the same year as Enid Lyons entered the House of Representatives on the conservative side.

The Labor Caucus with Curtin as its leader.

But would he be surprised that Australia had had a woman prime minister? He probably wouldn’t be surprised that the nation’s first female PM had come from Labor.

In the discussion, today’s Laborites would be full of tales of the trouble and strife of recent times: the debilitating three years after the coup against Kevin Rudd.

Well, he might point out, you should put that into perspective.

In 1931 (before the disastrous election in which he temporarily lost his seat of Fremantle), Labor split for the second time in less than a generation, with Joe Lyons “ratting” and going on to lead the conservatives, while on the other wing the forces of Jack Lang fractured the party.

During his years as opposition leader, Curtin - as he tried to get a federal party that had been shattered by the Depression back into shape for office - had a constant battle with the followers of the “Big Fella”.

When the talk on Cottesloe beach turned to the nightmare of the 2010-13 “hung parliament”, Curtin would remind his modern listeners that he had trodden that rocky path first, after two independents crossed the floor in 1941 and brought him to the prime ministership.

He might be too tactful to recall that following that hung parliament, Labor won an election - and with a thumping majority - rather than lost one.

He would be familiar with the problem of a low primary vote. Labor polled 33.4% in the recent election. In the 1934 election, the one before Curtin gained the leadership, the ALP polled 26.8% of the national vote, with Lang Labor polling another 14.4%.

He would remind his modern friends how he rebuilt the vote. The ALP primary vote in the next three elections was 43.2% in 1937, 40.2% in 1940 and 50% in 1943.

But his companions would say: it’s harder these days - people are less rusted on to the two blocks in politics, Labor and conservative, and more inclined to register a protest vote.

They would tell him about Clive Palmer, and the power he will have in the Senate. That would prompt a few questions about the Senate voting system – proportional representation came after Curtin’s time.

Curtin would be surprised by Labor’s experiment (now ended) under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard of the leader selecting the front bench.

In his first period as prime minister, Kevin Rudd visited the Curtin Family Home. National Trust of Australia (WA)

In his day, caucus was more powerful and independent than under Rudd or Gillard; it is hard to see the 1930s caucus tolerating such a change of Labor tradition and culture.

He’d be surprised too at the loss of clout of Labor’s extra-parliamentary organisation, which has happened progressively since the 1980s.

Steering his marquee issue, the introduction of partial conscription, through the party was a major enterprise, compared with, say, the cakewalk Julia Gillard had when she sought to get a tick from the 2011 national conference for selling uranium to India.

As he contemplated Labor’s modern national conference, Curtin might wonder at how it had become a mass stage-managed event, so different from the small but powerful gatherings he attended.

He might marvel that trade unions still retain great power in Labor, and wonder how this could be so, given the plummet in the proportion of Australians who are union members. Only 18% of Australian workers are in unions; only 13% of private sector workers.

Mark Latham’s views on unionism in the ALP would have interested John Curtin. AAP/Steve Grey

But Mark Latham, among those there on the beach, would point out that unions still have 50% representation at state conferences and direct Curtin to his book Not Dead Yet, in which he writes: “Union power is now exercised through centralised control: union secretaries donating money and staff to marginal seats and rounding up the numbers at state and federal Labor conferences.”

Perhaps Curtin would raise an eyebrow at how many MPs who get into parliament through their union affiliation have never been blue collar workers, but are university educated men and women who have often served as political staffers.

Curtin was all too familiar with Labor power groupings, but he’d need a mud map to get round the organised factions and sub-factions of today.

Similarly, he could tell plenty of tales of trouble makers and backstabbing, but he would wonder at the Rudd-Gillard story of disloyalty and mutual destruction. He’d contrast the loyalty and support, political and personal, he received from Ben Chifley, his political partner and his treasurer in government (though not his deputy PM).

Still, an agoniser by nature, he’d be thankful he didn’t have to live with the fortnightly opinion polls that fed so powerfully into the leadership instability during recent years.

Looking out at the other parties, Curtin would easily recognise the Liberal party and the Nationals, despite name changes. He was familiar with the conservatives as the United Australia Party (the Liberal Party formed the year he died) and the Country Party.

But, he’d ask his modern Labor friends, whatever happened to the Communist party? And who are these people on your left now? These Greens?

Curtin, with his plain style, would be uncomfortable with the celebrity aspects of the modern prime ministership. Even if Australia had had TV in those days, one can’t quite see Annabel Crabb in the Curtin kitchen. Nor Curtin, who was fond of his roast lamb, whipping up a dish for her.

A former journalist, Curtin had good relationships with the Canberra hacks, but he’d wonder at the intrusiveness of the modern media. At the same time, he’d also note today’s leaders were much more reluctant than he was to risk trusting journalists with serious secrets.

When he was PM he gave twice daily briefings to journalists in his office: much of the war information he passed on was highly confidential, to be relayed on to the proprietors rather than published.

But he might be uncomfortable with media dogging his every step, and startled by both the need and the capacity for a prime minister to be constantly in touch.

In a speech last week the former head of the Productivity Commission Gary Banks, talking about the intensity of modern media pressure, contrasted Curtin’s situation.

Banks had seen at the Niagara Cafe in Gundagai a plaque in honour of a visit there by Curtin. It was dated 1944.

Banks noted that: “In the depths of war, Australia’s Prime Minister would have been driving to the nation’s capital on important business and chose to stop, like my family, for a cup of tea. Wartime Gundagai would have been a media free zone.

"If our Prime Minister had tripped and fallen over on the way out of the Niagara, or had had a heated exchange with the local Country Party member, hardly anyone would have known about it. Curtin may have made some phone calls once in the town, but for much of the slow journey to the nation’s capital he would have been incommunicado.”

Curtin would have been amazed, incidentally, at the sleek VIP planes on which modern PMs travel, but not necessarily envious – he hated flying.

He’d be very curious about some issues in today’s politics – for example the intense debate about the environment. Climate change as a great moral challenge of our time would be an eye-opener. And he’d be gobsmacked that one of the main debates at the last national conference was the party’s position on gay marriage.

He’d be interested that the Rudd government tackled the global financial crisis with traditional Keynesian policies – he was an early and big fan of Keynes.

But he might say, when the Labor figures talked about this as the greatest crisis since the Great Depression: well yes, but the Depression was just so much worse for the ordinary people who were our constituency.

He’d note how not even those on the left of today’s party mentioned “socialism” anymore; that the party had become, albeit with some qualifications, a devotee of the market; and that far from wanting to nationalise anything – like Chif’s dream about the banks - Labor had in the Hawke-Keating days got the privatisation ball rolling.

Chris Bowen has strong views on socialism in the ALP. AAP/Patrick Hamilton

A great reader, he would have already bought a copy of Chris Bowen’s Hearts and Minds: a Blueprint for Modern Labor, and noted Bowen’s blunt statement that “Labor’s official socialist objective gives no guidance as to Labor’s practical governing philosophy”.

With Bowen among the luminaries walking the Cottesloe beach, the two might have a vigorous discussion about the shadow treasurer’s advice that: “It’s time to scrap the socialist objective and have a clear, concise and modern explanation of Labor’s governing philosophy.”

And what would he think of Bowen’s observation that: “Promoting the use of market forces to drive economic growth and using the national wealth created by economic growth to drive greater opportunities for people from all walks of life is Labor at its best. And we need to be much more upfront about this than we have been.”?

On the interpretation of John Edwards in Curtin’s Gift: Reinterpreting Australia’s greatest Prime Minister, he would likely empathise: “the socialist who believed that capitalism would always produce so much and consume too little became the Prime Minister who acquired for the Commonwealth the means to balance supply and demand in a successful market economy”.

Curtin would find much of the modern Labor party unrecognisable. But, being a pragmatist as well as an idealist, he would no doubt rethink many of his old positions in light of modern circumstances. And he would turn his mind to giving sound advice on coping with the exigencies of opposition.

Curtin, who became leader by one vote in 1935 and led Labor out of the wilderness and into minority government in 1941 and election victory in 1943, was a party unifier and builder. He was a plain man who could crystallise his messages (in those days, that was via compelling oratory rather than the short grab). And he connected with the public.

Now, in another century and other circumstances, Labor and its leaders have a rebuilding job; challenging, but much easier than that faced by Curtin.

Leaving the days of Curtin, it is worth comparing the situation of contemporary Labor with the two most recent experiences of defeat, which also requires comparison of the three preceding periods of government.

After Gough Whitlam’s dismissal and subsequent election loss, Labor was left with a record of poor economic management, the image of bad administrators, and the taint of scandal from the loans affair.

Labor had had only a brief period in office after 23 years in opposition. So the failures of that government made a deep impression on the voters. The ALP had in particular to convince the public that it had learned about the economy.

The public would not revisit Whitlam – 1977 was another landslide – but by 1980 there was a swing to Labor and a victory at the following election.

The Keating 1996 loss was more a case of Labor, in office since 1983, having worn out its welcome and Keating himself having lost focus and community support.

The subsequent opposition period was difficult because Labor was not sure how much to “own” the Hawke-Keating period. It was reluctant initially to claim the reforms, perhaps because it failed to see they could be distinguished from the later personal unpopularity of Keating.

While these Labor governments were very unpopular at the time of their defeats, their legacies have been substantial, and increasingly recognised as the years have gone by.

Whitlam’s initiatives in education, health (even though Medibank was scrapped it came back as Medicare), the environment, law reform and much else were transformational.

The reform record of the Hawke-Keating years in opening up the Australian economy now wins praise across the political divide.

Labor in each of those periods did more of lasting substance than it achieved in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd time.

Julia Gillard visits the Curtin Family Home. National Trust of Australia (WA)

Leaving aside the important and symbolic apology to indigenous people, the biggest single achievement of Labor in this last period was getting Australia through the global financial crisis without it falling into recession.

This should not be underestimated. It was in obvious sharp contrast with the experience of the Scullin government, in which Curtin was a backbencher and indeed with the Whitlam government’s handling of the international oil shock.

But it was a negative achievement rather than a positive legacy – saving the house from a fire rather than building or remodelling a house. And because of program glitches, and the voters’ inclination to downplay the significance of something avoided, Labor never reaped full credit.

One could point to the carbon price as an achievement - but that will not be lasting in the immediate term, and there must be doubt whether it could become a repeat of the Medibank-Medicare story.

Although it is a long bow, if Rudd had been better as a negotiator, it is conceivable he might have got the carbon price through parliament, so that it would have been embedded earlier, and therefore harder to dismantle.

The Rudd government had a tax inquiry but the big thing that the government picked up out of it, the mining tax, was botched.

Starting the National Broadband Network will be a legacy, but the rollout was slow and by 2013 the program was still partial enough to allow the conservative government to take it in a less comprehensive direction.

The Gillard government produced the Gonski blueprint for schools funding but failed to leave itself enough time to get it in place. Although Tony Abbott partially took it over, the extent to which it is implemented will be limited.

The Curtin Family home. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library

Julia Gillard started the progress towards a national disability scheme, but the work is in its infancy.

Let’s glance back for a moment and contrast Curtin’s use of his time.

The Rudd and Gillard governments were in power for a combined six years, half of it a hung parliament. Curtin was in office for less than four years; about half of it was a hung parliament. Apart from running the war effort, during his administration Curtin put in measures and work that shaped post-war Australia, including most importantly the introduction of uniform taxation which made possible the expansion of social welfare and much else.

In being impressed with how much Curtin got done, one qualification should be made. The war emergency provided him both with additional powers and, to some extent, an easier political climate than he would have had in normal times.

Of the three modern Labor eras, it was the Rudd-Gillard period when Labor squandered power, and it did so mostly by its own hand - because of leadership flaws, and the failure of cabinet ministers and the caucus to speak up when they needed to.

The Hawke-Keating period had its leadership problems and saw Hawke brought down by Keating. But that decision was later on and the process more understandable to the party and the public.

While parties will often have to cope with leadership tensions and battles, Labor in the last few years let them consume its governments.

Yet out of the destruction has come a big and radical step forward in party democracy: a new method of choosing the leader. The rank and file now have 50% of the vote.

One of the tasks in opposition will be tidying the leadership election rules at the 2015 conference. There is no way the power will go back to the caucus alone. But there could be a push to give the unions a say – which would not be a good idea - and there may be questioning of the thresholds to trigger a spill (currently at 75% for a PM and 60% for an opposition leader).

Dealing the grassroots into selecting the leader reflects what happens in many parties overseas.

The new system cushioned the ALP in the immediate aftermath of this year’s defeat. The party gained new members, and the leadership contest absorbed interest and prevented what would normally have been serious bloodletting.

The ballot between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was a downbeat, respectful contest, a restrained, managed battle, in dramatic contrast to the years of leadership backstabbing that preceded it.

Does this dose of democracy have any potential downsides for the party? Some would argue that giving a say to the rank and file – who lean further left than the caucus – could result in a leader who is less representative of the community.

But in the recent ballot we saw a sort of adjustment factor in the caucus part of it – Shorten received a bigger vote than just that of his right faction.

Another, more serious issue is whether this system builds in too much rigidity.

For example, should a leader who is performing badly have as much protection as these rules give? Has the party, reacting against “rotisserie” leadership, gone too far the other way?

And there is one very practical complication. If a leader did fall over mid-term, the month-long election process could be difficult.

It worked all right after the election, but two years into a three year term it would be another thing.

That would put on pressure to avoid a contest by having only one candidate, thus defeating the whole object of a more democratic system.

More broadly, the period in opposition will see a push to further democracy in the party. Whether it will come to much is another question.

Hillary Clinton visiting the Curtin Family Home. National Trust of Australia (WA)

One notable feature of the post-election period is that the factions have been as powerful as ever, regardless of more democracy in the structure. We saw this to an extent in the leadership ballot but also especially in the ballot for the frontbench, which was all neatly tied up at a factional level before people went into the caucus meeting.

Although the leadership ballot produced something of a mini-surge in membership, I think Labor will continue to face difficulties getting people to join. There is just not that much interest these days, even aside from the deterrent provided by the heavy factionalism.

Mark Latham in his book characterises the party’s present situation in this description: “The grand old party of working class participation has become a virtual party, top heavy with union/factional bosses.”

A way that has been canvassed to get more people involved is through a system of primaries, which is being trialled. This brings in registered supporters rather than just party members in the choosing of MPs. I must say I would have concerns about the potential for stacking and rorting, but it is worth the experiment.

One thing Labor needs to do, by whatever means, is attract a wider range of strong candidates and candidates from more diverse backgrounds. Although it has quite a talent pool even in its reduced caucus – and Rudd’s saving of some seats helped this – it should aim for top-of-the-range and diverse candidates for 2016.

In opposition, Labor has to show that it can manage itself, and the trauma of recent years will help it there – it knows the consequences of failing to do so.

But maintaining unity can’t be carried to a point where it stifles internal policy debate. Because Labor’s big challenge is defining what it stands for and convincing the public of the worth of its policies.

This is more complex than when Curtin was opposition leader – in those days the parties were more sharply defined.

Rebuilding after the Rudd-Gillard era requires Labor to acquire again credentials on economic management (which it should never have forfeited, given it handled the fundamentals of the GFC fallout well, as distinct from the administration of key programs such as home insulation). It must convince voters a new Labor government would manage administration competently.

In positioning itself Labor has its usual challenges of a base split between the battlers (broadly defined) and middle class progressives.

It faces not just its traditional electoral battle with the right but the threat from the Greens on the left (although the September vote suggests this might have peaked). It has the further complication that its main base spreads from aspirational voters to what Mark Latham calls an “underclass” surviving on welfare.

Carbon pricing highlights the problem of juggling the various constituencies. The party is sticking to its election policy – support for an emissions trading scheme - at the moment. But once the tax is repealed, as it almost certainly will be by the new Senate, and assuming global warming doesn’t revive as a huge issue of community concern, how difficult will it be to go to the 2016 election proposing a new impost?

The progressive part of the base would support it but the battlers are another matter.

With money tight, it is difficult for Labor to carve out new initiatives that will catch the imagination of the electorate.

In making Shorten leader the party has chosen on the basis of potential rather than experience, capacity for ideas rather than combat-readiness in the parliament.

Shorten’s natural pitch is more consensus than confrontation. There is a touch of the Bob Hawke approach. He often describes himself as a negotiator. If he can build on this, it is an approach that could have appeal to an electorate that is jaded and sick of all the shouting.

Shorten is looking to tap into particular constituencies, especially the female vote, where he thinks Abbott is vulnerable. He also wants to make Labor competitive with the small business sector.

One of his early efforts needs to be to regain some Labor credibility with big business.

This will be among his hardest tasks. Business was relieved to see the change of government and has been given a special “in” with the new one. The head of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd, chairs the Commission of Audit.

Shorten can’t win over the big end of town, but he will need to blunt its ill feelings about Labor.

Bill Shorten must rebuild trust with business. AAP/Alan Porritt

Shorten has shown that he can identify and push good ideas. His seizing on and pushing of a disability insurance scheme, when he was a parliamentary secretary, highlighted an ability to understand needs and opportunities.

In updating its agenda Labor doesn’t necessarily have to toss overboard all it was doing before (just as Abbott refreshed, rather than replaced, his 2010 agenda).

Labor’s problem was not so much what it proposed and promoted, but that it failed in execution and explanation.

But it will need to review and update, to drop some things, and to add some fresh policies.

Labor cannot rely on the Abbott government handing the sort of electoral gold to its opponents that Labor did, although given the way today’s politics and the news cycle operate, there is likely to be reasonable ammunition.

This week’s Nielsen poll, while it may be a flash in the pan, reminds us that Labor could become a competitive force again reasonably quickly. But that will require the ALP to handle itself very well and the government to run into considerable problems.

And, of course, it will require leadership of high quality, in the best of Labor’s tradition. That leadership has to be all about trust – the leader winning the trust of the frontbench, the caucus and the community.

Curtin historian David Black says that ultimately “John Curtin’s greatest ally and strength was trust”.

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