True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party

This is the text of the speech delivered by Kim Beazley, Leader of the Federal Opposition, at the launch of “True Believers”.

The book, edited by John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre, records the history of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

It was launched at State Parliament House, Melbourne, as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations.

Text of Opposition Leader Kim Beazley’s speech launching “True Believers”.

True Believers CoverFormer Prime Ministers, parliamentary colleagues, book-writers, book-editors, and book-readers, ladies and gentlemen:

I am delighted to launch this book, an excellent production that has been a long time in the making.

And I’d like to welcome back – from the literary world – our much-loved and much-respected John Faulkner who laboured so greatly, with co-author Stuart Macintyre, and so many others to produce this truly impressive book. John and Stuart assembled some of the most highly skilled, gnarled and feisty commentators and analysis of Australian political life for this book.

And let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, this book is Caucus, warts and all.

And how refreshing it is that a political party can be honest about its past.

Whilst it is a frank and revealing reflection on the history of Caucus, it is also a testament to the federal parliamentary party’s enduring strength and resilience.

As a reader, I am pleased that the editors, John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre, did not take the easy option of glossing over our difficult times, although as party leader I have had to wince occasionally!

As Faulkner and Macintyre say in the introduction, “Some shibboleths might have escaped scrutiny but when there was a choice between the bland and the robust, the preference was for the latter.”

The history of Caucus, as told by this book, is a passionate and lively tale. It began in a stuffy basement of this very building, exactly one hundred years ago today, at this very moment in time.

It is a story of idealists and ideologues; of rousing orators, skilful debaters, and brutal number crunchers; great leaders, loyal followers, no-hopers and much-hated rats.

You know, one of the things – there are many — that distinguishes us from our opponents is our obsession with our own history.

How few books, certainly how few readable ones, have been written about the conservatives. And how many, and how controversial, and how interesting have been the ones about the Australian Labor Party!

I’ll hazard a guess as to why this is so – we are much more interesting than the Tories because we care about ideas – sometimes passionately, sometimes foolishly – but always with our whole hearts.

Working men and women trying to better their lot have always had to struggle to educate themselves. I think of John Curtin’s thirst for books as he helped his mother earn the family’s bread in the Irish slums of Brunswick, or Eddie Ward who never forgot the poverty and deprivation of his early life in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

Ben Chifley, raised by poor grandparents in a wattle and daub shack, once said he would have given a million pounds to have the educational opportunities of a Bob Menzies.

Those who work so hard to get a little learning, value it for life. Ideas are precious, and worth fighting for. Those battles can be hard, and bitter, and this book is full of accounts of Labor people whose commitment to ideas and ideals nearly blew this party apart.

But Labor is big enough to cope with hard-nosed examination of its past hundred years, and mature enough to accept criticism. We don’t want hagiography, and we haven’t got it here.

The thing that strikes you first about this marvellous book is the creativity it displays in both text and illustration.

As well as the scholarly assessments, it is full of lively, anecdotal material such as the account of the expulsion from the Parliament for sedition of Irish nationalist Hugh Mahon.

The unrepentant Mahon – a member of the first Labor Caucus – said he would hang the expulsion motion proudly on his wall. He told the newspapers: “The indignity surely attaches to the garrotter, not his victim.” He remains to this day the only member ever to have been expelled from the Federal Parliament.

Other fascinating break-outs in the book include a section on the Craft of Caucus Leaking (which I hope not too many of you read); Susan Ryan’s account of Caucus as ‘a boy’s club’ (I hope we are changing that); and an account of Eddie Ward’s speechmaking and invective. Eddie Ward refused to attend a tribute dinner to Billie Hughes, saying he never ate cheese – a reference to Hughes’s status as chief Labor rat.

This book tells the great story of Labor. It begins with nineteenth century workers realising that industrial strength alone would not win justice for them without political representation. The story continues through federation, two world wars, the great depression, a spell of 23 years in Opposition and an unbroken 13 years in government.

This is a big, continuing, unfolding story that keeps our Party together; and through it, keeps our nation together. In the past 100 years 609 men and women have occupied places in the Federal Labor Party Caucus. Each and every member of Caucus knows that they travel along the same road trod by more than 500 before them, over one hundred years.

The Caucus of today is vastly different in many ways to that of 1901 – different in educational status, in occupation, in gender and in outlook.

The first parliamentary leader, Chris Watson, in between jobs as a printer’s compositor, shovelled manure at Sydney’s Government House for a living.

Unlike the first Caucus, and thanks to years of Labor Governments, most of us in this room, although our forbears might have made their living through hard manual toil, have been able to afford a good education, for as long as we wanted. Many of us have been to university.

In 1901, reflecting the newness of the country, around half the Caucus were immigrants, most from the U.K. with seven from Scotland. There were several miners, the odd farmer, a swag of small tradesmen, a Presbyterian clergyman and a journalist. Few had received much of a formal education, although all were passionate readers and ideas men.

Most of them had been active trade unionists, and after the attacks on labour following economic downturn of the 1890s had turned to political action in the colonial legislatures. A total of 15 of the first Caucus of 24 had already served as parliamentarians.

Our 1901 predecessors faced immense challenges, not the least of which was the construction of a Federal Government for our new nation – Labor was called on to form a government less than four years after gathering here for the first time.

The British Labour Party was barely in existence when we formed our first government under Chris Watson in 1904. The Fisher Government of 1910 was the first majority Labor government in the world.

Throughout its often turbulent history the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party has retained many of the core values of its early years.

Some of our earlier beliefs such as White Australia have been jettisoned. Other beliefs have been modified in recognition of the need to adapt to a changing world.

But right from the start – at our very core – we wanted equality at the ballot box, a fair system of education and health, and we wanted industrial justice for workers in bettering their wages and conditions.

Rigid ideologies have always been given short shrift in the Labor Party. While the Labor platform has undergone numerous changes over the past 100 years, our task in meeting the key challenges remains the same.

  • Firstly, to ensure that the coercive machinery of government is not directed against the most vulnerable people in our community.
  • to uphold and develop democratic and egalitarian traditions of Australia.
  • to provide a safety net for those Australians most in need.
  • to promulgate laws that recognise individual liberty within the constraints of a community consensus.
  • to protect our sovereign interests from external threat.
  • And finally, and most recently, the challenge to reconcile with and assist the original inhabitants of this country.

The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is always at its healthiest when it reflects the views and aspirations of Australians.

If we succumb to arrogance, the people of Australia will, appropriately, repudiate us at the ballot box.

Striking the correct balance between national leadership on difficult issues, and reflecting the aspirations of our core supporters, will always be crucial to our success.

Selecting and developing the appropriate personnel who will constitute the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is equally important.

We must continue to enrich the Caucus by ensuring that its membership reflects a wide experience in the Australian workforce. We have had huge success in attracting women to our parliamentary ranks in recent years – 27 women Caucus members now, and no trouble meeting our target of 35 percent women preselected for seats we need to win government at the next Federal election.

We are dependent for this enriching process on the wider party acting on the basis of inclusiveness and vision. The views of the Labor Caucus are a pretty good starting point.

I think the good news from this book is that we in the Labor Party have learnt the lessons of history. Our party today is much stronger than it has been for most of its history because we have learned to live with our differences, to tolerate different views, and to keep our eye on the main game of winning elections. As I told Caucus yesterday, I believe it is more unified now than at any time in Labor’s history, and that bodes very well indeed for our electoral success.

Winning government must always be our highest priority, not winning at any cost, but winning so that we can better the conditions of our core supporters, and improve this country’s future.

We have to acknowledge, and parts of this book very painfully attest to the fact, that very often our struggle to remain true to ideology has kept us from government.

There has never been a Labor leader that at some time has not been attacked for deviating from party policy, for compromising on ideology to win votes.

But, as Gough Whitlam said so eloquently: “Only the impotent are pure.”

Today, as I launch our Caucus centenary history, True Believers, I would like to pay tribute to all those who signed up to Labor ideas and ideals. But perhaps greatest praise should go to those like John Curtin and Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke and Paul Keating who went beyond party orthodoxy to listen to the people. They gave leadership, but they also listened and tried to better reflect the mass of the Australian people who support us.

I think today I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the other True Believers; the countless thousands of ordinary Labor rank and file who have, throughout the century, made up the life blood of the Party.

They have preselected Labor candidates for House and Senate and worked tirelessly to see them elected; they have run countless raffles and fundraisers and made countless cups of tea. They have played their part in both determining Labor policy and in communicating it to their communities; and they have unselfishly supported those of us lucky enough to represent the party in Caucus. Caucus members have always depended, and will always depend on them.

True believers work for the cause.

They never forget where the Party has come from.

But, as well, they never forget to focus on the future from whose ranks our next generations of party workers, leaders and thinkers will come.

Finally, I want to thank all those who contributed to this book, to its informative chronological chapters, and to its incisive analytical sections. I want to thank Allen and Unwin for a splendid production – it is a good-looking and well-edited book as well as being full of fascinating insights.

And I want to thank the National Council for the Centenary of Federation and the National Secretariat of the ALP whose financial assistance made this great project possible.

I declare the True Believers book launched.

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