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The Ideology of the Australian Labor Party

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Labor history is a subject of much debate and intense discussion. The Australian Labor Party seems to be fraught with division, and each faction or fraction has its own ideas on the nature of the Labor tradition. Four major themes can be discerned in discourse on the history and ideology of the Party; namely socialism, liberalism, pragmatism and 'Laborism'.

Those who subscribe to the socialist ideology posit that four elements of socialism are prominent in Labor's past. 'Moralism, egalitarianism, rationalism and libertarianism ... are to be recognised in the doctrines and activities of the Australian Labor Party.'

Liberals within the party make reference to the free-traders among pre-federation Laborites and point, in particular, to the Hawke and Keating years, under Labor governments that embraced economic rationalism and globalisation.

Others argue that Labor has always been a pragmatic party. The ALP's core blue-collar constituency will always be a small sector of the overall population. It must therefore seek to gain other support; as the 1905 Commonwealth Conference report put it, the support of 'every interest in Australia... except the interest of the parasitic classes'.

Palmer argues that a key element of Party thought is Laborism:

Laborism 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.

This entry will look in turn at the development of the socialist, liberal and pragmatic Labor traditions, and argue that neither is inconsistent with Laborism. This ideology is, in fact, the product of dialogue between the other three positions.


The Labor Party's very name indicates its working class roots. From its earliest days, the party has expressed a fundamental desire to better the lot of the worker, often looking to socialist methods to achieve its aims. The Australian Labor Federation, ancestor of modern Labor, clearly made restructuring Australia a priority:

Political Aims of the Federation

  • The Nationalisation of all sources of wealth and all means of producing and exchanging wealth.

  • The conducting by the State authority of all production and all exchange.

  • The Reorganisation of Society upon the above lines to be commenced at once and pursued uninterruptedly.

This theme has continually resurfaced, often with militant overtones. One union group went so far as to seek the Party Interstate Conference of 1905 to endorse a statement that:

Capitalism is the enemy... Its development is through the legalised confiscation of all that the labour of the working class produces above its subsistence wage.

However, socialist ideology within the ALP was by no means limited to the early years of the Party's existence.

Modern commentators, such as Battin, argue that many of the greatest achievements of Labor have been a result of 'the most sustaining, energising and characteristic of all intellectual traditions in the ALP in recent decades, namely the socialist tradition'. Such achievements include various pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits, the establishment of the Commonwealth Employment Service, and State regulations governing all aspects of working life including occupational health and safety, fair bargaining practices and the training of apprentices.

The continued influence of socialist thought on the Labor Party is demonstrated by the recent achievement of greater unity in the working class:

The appeal to the common interests of employees, irrespective of differences of status, has been a very old Labor and Socialist theme... The bringing together of blue and white-collar workers in a single trade union movement is one of the most notable achievements of Australian labour in the last 15 years1.


Despite this evidence, critics of the Party frequently call into question the socialist credentials of the ALP. Mulligan, for example, attempts to dismiss the socialist tradition as mere puff:

Any objective analysis of the ALP's history indicates that there has never been anything more than a rhetorical commitment to socialist ideas. Bob Hawke is not a betrayer of the party's tradition. Indeed he is correct to say that he is much closer to the mainstream traditions of Labor politics than his left-wing opponents... Even more than that, his government embodies a continuation of traditions established very early in the party's existence.

Indeed, the suggestion that Labor was formed only by a socialist working class is nothing more than a myth. An analysis of the early NSW Labor caucus reveals 'a band of unhappy amateurs', constituted by blue-collar workers 'and - with bated breath - a mine owner, a squatter and an MD'. Furthermore, many members who were drawn from the working classes supported the liberal notion of free trade between the colonies. Of 35 Labor members in the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1891, 17 were free-traders.

Many commentators suggest that the commitment of Labor to the development of democratic principles shows that the 19th Century colonial liberals were more directly the forerunners of the Labor Party, both intellectually and historically, than even the Liberal Party. In fact, the Russian Bolshevik Party's founder, VI Lenin, 'suggested it would be more accurate to call the ALP a 'bourgeois liberal party' than a social democratic party as understood in the European context'.

The Hawke and Keating years saw the ascendancy of liberal thought, and in particular the pursuit of internationalism. Consequently these regimes are often the centre of any debate over liberalism within the ALP. Hawke admitted that the ideology underpinned all his policies:

The days of our being able to hitch a free ride in a world clamouring, and prepared to pay high prices, for our rural and mineral products, are behind us. From this fact flows everything else.


However, Hawke also defended policies on the basis of another Labor tradition; pragmatism.

In justifying the move to allow the privatisation of Australian Airlines... Prime Minister Hawke emphasised at the special 1990 ALP National Conference that Labor was not changing its principles, merely changing the means of implementing those principles. 'So delegates, this conference is not a conference about ends. It is a conference about means.'

One of the greatest concerns of any Labor government is supporting labour policies without alienating other sectors of the community. Hawke's Accord was an attempt to balance trade union interests with the internationalist demands of employers. Early Labor governments appear to have been quite effective in their pragmatism. Indeed, the parties' very rapid rise to electoral success meant they could not have been supported only by unionists and people like unionists.

Debate about the pragmatic nature inevitably considers the 'middle-classing' or 'gentrification' of the ALP during the Whitlam years. The leader was successful due to his ability to attract middle class voters in addition to Labor's blue-collar constituency. Whitlam modernised the Labor Party in three domains - ideology, structure and social composition. Under Whitlam Labor became a respectable party for the expanding middle classes.


Clearly, then, the socialist, liberal and pragmatic traditions have prominent places in the ideological history of the ALP. The fourth tradition, Laborism, overarches these others, defining them and yet defined by them:

The overriding ideological basis which dominated the Labor Party, and became its major rationale, from the beginning of the century has been that of 'Laborism'. This ideology assumes that 'the capitalist state could be managed to the best advantage of the working class by a combination of a strong trade union movement with a Parliamentary Labor Party.2

The essence of Laborism is the conflict between these three ideologies. Due to the existence of trade unions pushing socialist working-class agendas, a caucus relying on the support of more liberal elements of society, and the fundamental need of any political party to secure votes, Laborism is a controlling influence on the party. This overarching philosophy provides the framework in which competing ideologies can dialogue.

Should socialist, liberal or pragmatic elements be perceived to have excess control, the Party loses its focus. For example, the Great Split that plunged Labor into Opposition in the 1950s is often seen as part of Evatt's wish to make the ALP more 'socialist'. The landslide defeat of the ALP in 1996 was largely due to the discernment of the Hawke and Keating governments as economic rationalist regimes which pursued globally driven free market policies that undermined the interests of traditional Labor supporters.

At all times the emphasis has been on moderate change focussing on the working class, and the changes Labor has made are prolific. The establishment of an Australian defence force, the system of compulsory arbitration, the introduction of pensions and maternity benefits, and of course the Accord35 have all been ALP initiatives aimed at bettering the lives of, first and foremost, the working class.

The Laborist tradition is responsible for these wide-ranging and far-reaching policies. Their development was certainly aided by the dialogue between different ideologies. Hawke suggests:

... we can see that the truly remarkable fact about the Labor Party's history is not its turbulence, or its failures - and we've had our share; not its inconsistencies - and no organisation as complex and diverse as ours could exist without them in abundance. What stands out is the Labor Party's capacity for change and renewal in a world of immense change, throughout a century of unprecedented change; and yet, at the same time, the consistency with which it has held to the fundamental principle: the pursuit of its program through parliamentary democracy.

This is the nature of Laborism. Contradictions and inconsistencies between socialism, liberalism and pragmatism lead to turbulence, failure and, above all, change. The framework provided by Laborism, however, maintains a focus on the working class, a concentration on ameliorating capitalism's excesses.

Laborism allows Labor to encourage internal debate without abandoning its working class values. The party is free to adapt to new political and societal conditions without losing its focus. The vibrancy and dynamism Laborism provides will ensure that the Australian Labor Party remains a major political force for the foreseeable future.

Relevant links

1Rawson, D 'For Whom Were the Labor Parties Founded?' in Easson, M The Foundation of Labor. Leichhardt: Pluto, 1990, 18.2Markey, R 'A Century of Labour and Labor: New South Wales, 1890-1990.' in Easson, M The Foundation of Labor. 39.

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