Tag Archives: australian labor party

Political Climate Change

Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.

Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier.

Perhaps we should blame Dorothea MackellarMy Country was first published in 1908, and has been anthologized in countless schoolbooks ever since. It is surely one of Australia’s favourite poems, celebrating a wide brown land full of droughts and flooding rains, her beauty and terror – her unpredictability.

Dorothea Mackellar My Country MS

First published in The Spectator, 5 September 1908, from Wikipedia

And so it was for early European settlers arriving in Australia who had no idea how to read the weather or anticipate the seasons. The Aborigines had their own seasons and methods of prediction. ‘When the blowflies come [in November], there are no more whales,’ the Yuin people told Oswald Brierly, a whaling station manager on the far south coast of New South Wales in the 1840s. Unfortunately most settlers didn’t ask, or didn’t listen as respectfully as Brierly, and as a result they struggled.

We now know that Australia’s climate is less unpredictable than people once believed – and the great pendulum that governs the climate of Eastern Australia is the vortex in the Pacific Ocean that swings Australia, and all the continents bordering the Pacific, between El Niño and La Niña effects.

The strength of these swings can be measured by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), but it was a part of Peruvian folklore long before. El Niño – the boy child – came about Christmas, and marked the start of a particularly good year’s fishing, as warm water welling up to the surface brought millions of anchovies and the larger fish that fed on them. La Niña – the girl – brings the opposite conditions: bad fishing in South America, but good rains in Australia.

Most historians now think that when James Cook and Joseph Banks described the east coast of Australia in 1770, they saw it in the middle of a La Niña event. Eighteen years later, the First Fleet arrived just before an El Niño event (1790-92), and the settlers found the country dry and difficult to cultivate.

These early events depend on a retrospective evaluation of meteorological measurements so their dates are a bit fuzzy, but according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology there have been 12 ‘canonical’ strong El Niño events since 1900: 1905, 1914, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1965, 1972, 1977, 1982, 1991, 1994, 1997, with no strong El Niño since 1997/8.

Looking at this list as a historian, I find some of these dates rather curious. Since federation in 1901, Australians have overwhelmingly elected conservative governments, and tend to stick with a government through two or more elections. Since just before World War I, when the party system began to stabilize, there have only been 12 changes of the party in government. Labor Governments were elected only 6 times: in 1914, 1929, 1941, 1972, 1983, 2007. Four of those elections, if we include the Hawke election on 5 March 1983, coincide with El Niño events.

I don’t for a moment suggest a deterministic relationship. Obviously other factors are important, particularly depression (Scullin in 1929), war (Fisher in 1914; Curtin in 1941) and internal division (Whitlam in 1972). But I wonder.

Long before Australians knew about El Niño, or cared about climate change, they worried about the weather. Dorothea Mackellar’s celebration of a sunburnt country is all very well, but farmers prefer predictability, and until recently, Australia’s economy depended on farmers. People get tetchy when the weather turns against them. Perhaps they prefer the security of a welfare state when times are hard and the future is uncertain.

The missing date is 2007, the last occasion on while a Labor Government was elected in Australia. One of the key issues in this election was anxiety about drought, the degradation of the Murray-Darling basin and – yes – climate change. Then the girl-child arrived and it rained. Water from the Queensland floods poured into the Murray River, and the political landscape changed.

People are fickle. But perhaps, like the Australian climate, they are not as unpredictable as they appear. We may be overdue for another El Niño, and we may be heading for a particularly intense one. It will be interesting to see what happens when it arrives, as it certainly will some time soon. The pendulum swings. Tick, tock.

Dismissals and True Believers

In one of those weird moments when the whole universe seems to come into alignment, I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975 marking undergraduate essays on the dismissal of Jack Lang.

I was a very junior tutor at the University of Queensland, with a phone-less office in an overflow building on the outskirts of campus.  There were neither mobile phones nor the Internet, so it wasn’t until I carried my pile of marked papers back to the History Department that I heard radios blaring from offices, and realised something extraordinary had happened. Continue reading

Gracious words in a hung parliament

The last time Australia had a hung parliament was more than 60 years ago.  In 1939, Robert Menzies, an ambitious Victorian lawyer, became Prime Minister, replacing the more popular Joe Lyons, who came from the outer state of Tasmania.  The following year, Menzies scraped home in an election that failed to deliver him a clear majority.  His government hung on precariously with the support of a couple of independents until the following year, but his backbench became increasingly restless, and began to look around for other possible leaders.  Sound familiar?

Continue reading

Images of Cinderella

Footage of Julia Gillard in Canberra being dragged by a security detachment to a waiting car went viral yesterday.  At one stage, she was running neck and neck for top viewing on the BBC website with George Clooney.

There will be an investigation, endless analysis and blame – but the image of the stumbling PM was probably more striking than anything that may follow.  And the image reminded me of another picture, in grainy black and white, of another woman dragged across the bitumen by solid men without necks, and losing a shoe in the process – Evdokia Petrova, nearly 60 years ago. Continue reading

Their ghosts may be heard: the rise and fall of the Australian Labor Party

Labor has just produced a report on the state of the Australian Labor Party and the 2010 election.  These reports usually amount to a statement of the bleeding obvious, but one issue reflects a global trend, true for other countries, and other political parties: people just aren’t joining things these days. Why?

An American sociologist, Robert D. Putnam, studied this trend in America in Bowling Alone. He described how Americans were dropping out of all sorts of organisations – including bowling leagues, which is where the title comes from. He looked for various reasons for this, but although he tried very hard not to, a lot of his explanation came down to the changing roles of women: as women join the workforce, they drop out of voluntary organisations, and a household with two workers has to share the burden of childcare, so men are less likely to join community organisations outside the home.

But there are other reasons, too.  One is the physical size of cities.  Earlier this week, I spent 7 hours on a computer, 2½ hours sitting in congested traffic, and when I finally got home we ate takeaway (hamburgers and a bottle of red).  And I’m retired!  There is no way, in these circumstances, that I would follow this up by going out to sit in a public hall somewhere, on a stackable chair, listening to somebody reading the minutes of the last meeting, and buying tickets in a chook raffle.  And I wouldn’t risk the breathalyser, either.  So those who are prepared to turn up for these things can find the plums of office fall into their laps – whether as treasurer of the Parrot Appreciation Society, or as preselected candidate for public office.  Parrots or pollies, there’s a similarity there.

Political organisations seem to play a different social role these days, too.  John and Janette Howard met through the Young Liberals, which was once considered a good place for young people from the right side of the tracks to meet suitable partners.  No doubt the same is true of political couples on the other side of politics (but the same side of the tracks).  But the days when women were content with auxiliary roles, handing out how-to-vote cards, is long gone.  We say today, of someone who is incompetent, that s/he couldn’t even run a chook raffle – but how easy is it? How many do it these days? And if these days there is nobody to take around the meat tray at the RSL, then how does an organisation raise funds for stationery and the hire of the hall and all those small but necessary functions?

Next week, I’m one of a few historians from the University of Queensland who will be giving talks to high school students in Toowoomba, 100 kilometres from here.  The theme this year is ‘Conflict’.  Australia is a bit lacking when it comes to conflict.  My colleagues will talk about sexy topics like Nazis and Cathar heretics (doubly sexy thanks to Dan Brown), but the options in Australian history are less obvious.  Years ago, I had a student who told me he wasn’t going on with Australian history because ‘there wasn’t enough blood in it’.  I hope he was happy with Russian history instead.

In fact there is plenty of blood in Australian history, but it is too often anonymous blood.  We know the names of the men hanged for the Myall Creek Massacre in 1838, but not the names or life stories of the Aboriginal men, women and children they slaughtered as they slept in their camp by the creek.  Often we know nothing about the people on either side in the race wars of the 19th century.

Hence my decision, for pedagogic rather than political reasons, to talk about another sort of conflict, the class war of the Shearers Strikes of the 1890s, one of the key moments in the labour movement, and part of the foundation myth of the Australian Labor Party, a conflict with identifiable heroes and villains.  The trouble is, it’s mostly mythology.

The story of the strikes is fairly straightforward.  There was a long economic boom in the 1880s.  Shearers haggled for improved wages and conditions, and threatened to walk off if the graziers brought in non-union labour, or employed any Chinese workers.  Then in the 1890s conditions changed.  There was drought, falling wool prices, and tighter organisation amongst employers.  The Australian Workers Union confronted the United Graziers Association in a series of strikes – and lost.

There was violence on both sides.  Unionists were accused of destroying Chinese market gardens, burning woolsheds, and of several unproven murders of ‘scab’ labour.  There was even a threat of environmental terrorism, 19th century style, with rumours that someone planned to import 100 pairs of rabbits into western Queensland, where there were as yet no rabbits.

On the other side, the Queensland government supported the graziers and sent soldiers with machine guns to defend their non-union workers.  By the end of 1894, the ringleaders were in gaol, some of the most radical agitators had left Australia to form a workers paradise in Paraguay, and the remaining moderates turned away from industrial action to politics.  One of those moderates, T.J. (Tommy) Ryan, later became Premier of Queensland.  And Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda.

Thus – according to the legend – the ALP was born, under a ghost gum known as the Tree of Knowledge in the western town of Barcaldine where the unionists met.  The reality is much more chaotic and complicated – it always is – but it makes a good story.  Today the ALP seems to retain only the ghost of that old passionate class war – and a good thing too, I would argue.  The old ALP was racist, sexist and violent, and contained its fair share of villains along with the heroes.  But something has been lost, too.

The ALP has always thrived on myths.  But how will Toowoomba schoolkids respond today?  Union membership is in freefall, and the idea of Class War seems as archaic to them as the Cold War.  Joining organisations – whether unions, political parties or an orchid society – seem just too hard, especially for teenagers who are juggling study with casual jobs and surging hormones.

Meanwhile the story of the Tree of Knowledge ends with a moment of drama.  In 2006 somebody killed the tree, boring holes in it and filling them with a herbicide.  For someone, at least, the birth of the Australian Labor Party still arouses passion.  It takes real passion to take out your hatred on a tree.

Update: Shearing the Rams

I should add something about the illustration, another example of myth-making at work.  Tom Roberts painted Shearing the Rams at Brocklesby Station, near Corowa on the Murray River, in 1890.  Mechanised shearing machines had reached the shearing shed by 1885, but Roberts shows the men shearing by hand, because he thought this made a more heroic image of labour.  At that time only the rams were hand shorn.  They were more valuable, and the slower hand shears meant the men could take more care around the dangly bits.  So Roberts chose a title that adjusted the reality of the shearing shed to match his painting.

He adjusted reality in another way too.  The young boy on the extreme left, holding a shorn fleece, was originally a girl, the daughter of Brocklesby Station’s owner.  Roberts may had hoped to sell him the painting, and his daughter’s presence would help sell it.  But that didn’t happen, so he repainted the figure as a youth.  If you look closely, you can just make out the edge of her long skirt to the right hand side of his legs.

So there you have it.  This is one of the most famous Australian images – and everyone in it, even the sheep, are male.


Elizabeth Huf, ‘Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891′ in Queensland Historical Atlas

Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

Stuart Svensen, The Shearers’ War: the story of the 1891 shearers’ strike (1989)