Daily Archives: 24/02/2011

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)