Speech to launch Story of Our Country: Labor’s Vision for Australia, by Dr Adrian Pabst

Not very long ago, I would not have been asked to launch a book like this and some might be surprised that I would accept.

People who don’t know much about the Labor Party might think the fact that I’m here means either the party has changed, or I have.

At one level, neither of those things is true.

It has always been true that the Australian Labor Party, as Manning Clark said, has many rooms.

Though at another level, of course, some things have changed.

For example, we no longer support the white Australia policy and I think everyone here would say that is a good thing.

I have to say that I come unashamedly from a very different tradition from that in which this book is written.

So let me state my credentials. I am a life member of the ALP, and I have been a member of no other party.

I am the longest serving member of the party’s national executive since the executive was formed in 1915.

I am a secular humanist, and a longstanding member of the Socialist Left.

Dr Pabst has written his book, Story of Our Country, from the perspective of what media commentators like to call the Catholic Right of the ALP.

That’s a misleading term, of course, because Catholics can be found across the broad spectrum of Labor politics.

But it is also true that, for historical reasons, they are more likely to be found on the right than on the left.

Many of you will know that history.

You will know that religion has often been a factor in the splits that tore the Labor Party apart, consigning it to the electoral wilderness.

It is important to emphasise that sectarianism has been one of the great curses of Labor history.

Sectarianism was an element in the first great split, over conscription, in 1917.

And it was present in the third great split, over attitudes to communism and Cold War tensions – some of us would say Cold War hysteria – in 1955.

I repeat: it is worth remembering that Catholics could be found on both sides in that split.

It was not only a split that divided the Labor Party, but the Catholic Church as well.

Some Catholics in the party were adherents of Bob Santamaria and eventually formed the DLP, which helped to keep the Liberals in power for so long.

But others, like Arthur Calwell, Pat Kennelly, and my very good friend the recently departed Barney Cooney, remained in the ALP.

It should also be remembered that some of the comrades who fought against the Groupers were not motivated by secularism, but by implacable religious hostility to Catholicism.

Freemasonry was strong in the party in those days.

My earliest lesson in the Socialist Let came from the legendary leader of the meatworkers union, Wally Curran, who inspired the creation of this building. He told me: “Beware the Masonic brothers”.

So, although the party has been too insensitive to questions of religious conscience, it has continued to have many rooms. We don’t need to re-prosecute old battles.

The circumstances of the Labor Party have changed, though its enduring values have not.

I want to emphasise, however, that I don’t believe that having an ethical view of politics and society requires a religious conviction.

It is a view shared by the majority of my Labor colleagues in the Senate.

When the 26 Labor senators in the current Senate were sworn in, less than half chose to take an oath on a sacred text.

That has been the pattern after the most recent elections.

Compare that with 1964, when all senators took an oath.

And I note that, as Dr Pabst points out in his book, the perception of the ALP as being a party that was disproportionately Catholic only took hold after the first split in 2017.

Remember that the cabinet of Labor’s first Prime Minister, John Christian Watson, in in 1904, was almost entirely comprised of non-conformist Protestants.

I might add that after the first split it became common in the Protestant ascendancy of the time to regard the Labor Party as a disloyal organisation because of the Irish Catholic influence within it.

I must say that the impression sometimes conveyed in Story of Our Country – that Catholic social thought has been the great driver of ideas in Australian Labor history – is a view I cannot hold.

Catholic social thought has been present in our tradition, to be sure.

Sometimes it has been a creative presence, perhaps most notably in Justice Higgins’ Harvester judgment in 1907, which introduced the notion of a living wage.

That judgment reflected both labour thinking and papal teaching at the time.

But the Australian Labor Party’s intellectual inheritance includes many strains of political thought, including, I will say frankly, those derived from Karl Marx.

Now, you’ll be wondering why Kim Carr, of all people, is standing here launching this book.

It is partly because Story of Our Country, whatever differences I might have with some of its historical interpretations, is a contribution to a debate we should be having.

One of the great strengths of the Australian Labor Party has always been that we are keenly aware of our long history.

We turn to that history especially at times like this – in the wake of electoral defeat.

We seek to reconnect with our past as we strive to rebuild for the future.

Dr Pabst’s take on Australian Labor history will no doubt prompt responses by other scholars.

That is as it should be.

Labor’s many rooms do not have locked doors, and we engage with each other in the contest of ideas.

I am not here to say that Labor people can’t disagree without causing further substantive division.

That should go without saying.

I am here because there is a deeper and more important reason why I agreed to launch this book.

It is because there is so much in this book that I do agree with.

I am speaking of a problem that is at the core of Labor’s present predicament.

Though Dr Pabst and I come at the problem from different perspectives, we would both, I think, say that the greatest problem facing social democratic parties around the world – is that we are becoming disconnected from our base.

In Australia, that was clearly evident in this year’s federal election.

The most important reason for our defeat was that many working-class families, especially in Queensland and WA, turned against us.

They did not switch their vote to the Coalition but, more alarmingly, to populist parties of the far right like One Nation and the UAP.

Their preferences then flowed to the Coalition, producing the result we all know.

These were not people worried about losing their franking credits if Labor formed government.

Or about not being able to negatively gear their investment properties.

Most of them don’t have investment properties.

They don’t have the sort of incomes that would allow them to become self-funded retirees.

They are working-class Australians.

And they are being dragged into what has been called the precariat.

Their jobs are no longer secure, and many of them are dependent on precarious casual employment.

They didn’t choose Labor, because they felt that Labor did not represent them.

I have made this argument in greater detail in the John Curtin Research Centre’s journal, The Tocsin, and other places.

But for the purposes of this present discussion, perhaps the most important reason is that Labor’s activists and Labor’s base no longer talk the same language.

To many people in our working-class base, our activists seem to talk the language of the inner cities – of the affluent middle class.

They see Labor and its activists as part of a class that has benefited from three decades of neoliberal economic policy and globalisation.

Obviously, that is not the complete picture, but it is how many people see it.

In politics what matters is how people perceive the world, and the perception I have just set out increasingly holds sway among the precariat.

Because their own living standards are being eroded, and they fear that their jobs will disappear in the next wave of automation or economic restructuring.

So they feel increasingly alienated from them, and suspicious of them.

Of course, these concerns are not just held by people on low incomes.

Many people on high incomes fear new technology, and fear job insecurity.

They fear not only for their own futures, but for the futures of their children and grandchildren.

What is really frightening is that the Labor Party has lost the capacity to communicate effectively with people who feel this way.

This is a profound problem for social democracy, and that is why I think this book is important.

But it is also a problem for liberal democracy, because of how effective the new breed of militant right-wing politicians has been in hollowing out the political centre.

That is why I have launched a Senate inquiry into national identity, citizenship and democracy.

The focus of the inquiry is the loss of confidence in democratic institutions.

This gives us an opportunity to talk to Australians about how to restore the legitimacy of democratic processes.

These challenges, not what religious heritage you adhere to, are what should unite the Labor Party and social democratic parties like ours.

We should all take very seriously the fact that so many of our heartland voters have become prey for some of the darkest elements of Australian politics: for racists, xenophobes and fascists.

The threat this poses to respect for human rights is deeply disturbing, particularly in the deteriorating international context.

Dr Pabst sets out that context very well in Story of Our Country.

He reminds us that we have seen similar discontents in the US, where Donald Trump was elected in 2016 because voters in manufacturing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin abandoned their long-held allegiance to the Democratic Party.

We see the same phenomenon in the UK, where it has been an element in the Brexit debate.

Working-class voters in northern England voted strongly to leave the EU, and are no longer rusted-on supporters of the UK Labour Party.

British Labour is becoming a party of the London middle class, or at least is being seen to be such.

The same fraying of old allegiances has also happened in Germany.

The once-great German Social Democratic Party received only 20 per cent of the national vote in 2017.

That is its lowest level of support since 1933, and many people who would once have voted for the SPD have turned to the far right Alternativ fur Deutschland.

So the ALP is not alone in facing these problems, though it is hardly consoling to say so.

As Dr Pabst writes, we have to learn the hard lessons from our loss in the federal election:

The first and most important is that Labor cannot win without cultivating working-class support …

“By attempting to be all things to all people, the party lost core working-class voters who care primarily about safe and meaningful jobs, so that they can feed themselves and their families and get social recognition for their contribution.”

With all of that, I can agree.

And I hope that the party elders who have been entrusted with the task of reviewing our federal election campaign take that advice to heart.

The crucial question is what is to be done about the problem.

The weakening connection between Labor and its base is a cultural problem as well as an economic one.

Dr Pabst and I would agree on that, too, though my characterisation of that problem would not be quite the same as his. He writes:

“If it is to prevail against the Coalition, Labor needs to speak to small-c conservative values of belonging to community and country.

“In an age of insecurity, people desire a measure of stability and cohesion.

“They do not want their lives of the places they inhabit to change radically unless it serves their wellbeing in tangible ways.”

The importance of stability and cohesion to people living precarious lives cannot be denied.

But I am wary of what sometimes appears in so-called “small-c conservative” agendas.

We need to remember, for example, that although family life remains important as the basis of communities, traditional family structures have changed everywhere.

Many people live in what would once have been seen as irregular relationships, and that is not only so in the inner cities.

These are more tolerant times, respectful of diversity, and we should uphold and defend that change.

To try to restore traditional family structures as the norm would be an impossible task.

But even if we could attempt it, we should not.

Any more than we would try to unravel the rich diversity that has been created by migration since the end of the white Australia policy.

But, with that caveat, I am pleased to launch Story of Our Country.

This book will provoke some arguments and, I hope, much thought in Labor circles.

As we begin the task of rebuilding this party’s fortunes, we need the benefit of the long view – of where we have come from as well as where are headed.

Dr Pabst’s book certainly does that. I commend it to you.

I thank the John Curtin Research Centre and the Australian Catholic University’s PM Glynn Institute for inviting me to speak tonight, the PM Glynn Centre for so generously providing the catering, and the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union Superannuation Fund for providing this venue.

And thank you all for coming.

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