2012, 392 p.
I was too young to vote at the 1972 Federal election that brought Gough Whitlam to power. Until Gough came along, it seemed to me that politicians were always grey men in hats, exemplified for me by Arthur Calwell, Whitlam’s longstanding predecessor, who seemed to come from a political gloom that seemed to have stretched for decades. As the daughter of a small business owner, but with much more progressive tendencies than my parents, I would not have dreamed of voting Labor at either federal or state level until the 1970s. I didn’t like Calwell, and at state level I didn’t particularly like Clyde Holding (1967-77) either.
While reading this history of the Victorian political Labor Party, written by Paul Strangio, the vision of the grey men in hats came back to me in all their depressing drabness. The author unashamedly wears his Labor sympathies, but it’s not at all a triumphalist history.
Instead, it’s a rather sad one. Even during 1914-5, during the first months of World War I and a high point of Labor Party influence, Victoria was the only state not to have a Labor government. Even though Victoria is often now viewed as the most progressive state in Australia (along with ACT), the Labor party in Victoria has had a chequered and ruptured history.
Although this book starts in 1856, the date of Victoria’s independence from New South Wales, things only start to hot up in the 1890s when Labor members began being elected to the Victorian parliament, albeit in very small numbers. For the early years of Victorian Labor’s history, there was not a great deal to distinguish the Labor party from the relatively progressive Deakinite Liberal party (a situation that I suspect might occur today should former Liberal premier Rupert Hamer miraculously rise from the grave).
Much of the shuffling in the first 40 years of the 20th century involved the balancing of power between Labor, the Nationalist/Liberal Party, and the Country Party. The first Labor government lasted all of 13 days in 1913 while the Liberal party patched up a split in its ranks. In 1924 a Labor government took power with Country Party support, and this time it lasted from June until November, at which point the Country Party again reconciled with the Nationalists, and together they defeated Labor in the Legislative Assembly. Nonetheless, in that small window of government, the Labor party extended assistance to unemployed workers, called Royal Commissions into the police strike of 1923 and the prices of bread and flour, and was involved in the soldier settlement scheme.
There was a brief minority Hogan Labor government in 1927-8 and another minority victory in 1929 when, quite frankly, no-one really wanted to be in government anyway as the Depression loomed. The United Australia Party won the 1932 election, and then there was another little mini-Government headed by John Cain Snr in 1943 that lasted four days- again, until the ructions between the conservative parties sorted themselves out yet again. Cain had a second stint as premier in 1945, but could get little legislation through either house, where he held a minority position. It was not until 1952 that Cain could form his third government. Although he was again hampered by the Legislative Council, he managed to get through progressive legislation in a range of areas. But by then, the Labor party split over the influence of the Communist Party again condemned the ALP to decades in opposition – until 1982 in fact, when John Cain Jnr. won government.
In between these tussles for parliamentary control, and quite apart from being a bystander to conservative party powerplays, there were two other internal struggles that kept the Labor party roiling. The first was the influence of businessman and underworld figure John Wren, referenced in the title of this book Neither Power Nor Glory, which of course alludes to Frank Hardy’s barely fictionalized story of political machinations with the Labor Party, Power Without Glory. Then there was the split itself over the question of Communist influence in the unions, and Santamaria’s Movement and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which by combining with the Liberals, kept Labor in opposition for so long.
This book is full of names and acronyms, and the text is fairly dense. Nonetheless, even though I only intended reading it up until the 1916/17 referendums, it captured my interest sufficiently that I happily read until the end. As you might expect, it is a very political book, and unless you had an interest in politics, I think you’d find it heavy going. It’s also a book that absolutely cries out for a list of acronyms at the front. I found myself using the index a lot, particularly the entries for each year, which acted as a form of timeline.
It’s a fascinating and rather depressing story of the perils of minority government and the tragedy of internal splits. Paul Strangio spoke about the book at the Royal Historical Society back in 2013, and you can get access his lecture through RHSV’s podcast page (and find some other good podcasts while you’re there!)
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: I was initially interested in the WWI section, but then kept on reading.
Rating: 8 (but it won’t be to everyone’s taste)