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18. Chapter XVIII. Political Action.

THE effect of the maritime strike was to galvanise into life the hitherto latent idea that voting power carried with it not only choice of the Parliamentary representative, but also of the work he was expected to do when sent to the Legislature. Labor had, through its organizations, influenced legislation before, but it had always been content to allow its work to be done by those who were attached to old political parties, and who had but little influence as units in a party dominated by other aims than those of distinctly Labor interests. In many matters affecting trades interests something had been done, and unions had in that sense taken up political work; but the industrial war which saw the Governments siding with the capitalists, together with the enormous power displayed by organized capitalism, had at last brought home to the worker the fact that he had a weapon in his grasp stronger than Governments or capitalists.

The idea of self-government came to him in a new light, and he saw that he must not only vote, but must make the platform, and select his own political war-cry. Labor set about becoming a new force and a new party in political life. The awakening came in every colony, and in each, as opportunity offered, candidates from the new party were put into the field, and with a considerable


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measure of success. In each colony, for the first time, the truly democratic method of making laws was introduced. Reform was initiated by the people. Labor leagues were established, conferences were held, and a platform was drafted. These organizations then selected the men who were to carry the flag into action, and those not selected stood down so as to secure unanimity and avoid splitting the vote.

The first elections after this were held in 1891. In New South Wales thirty-six members were returned on the party's platform. Like all movements arising out of a time of excitement, much that was disappointing arose. The political organization was imperfect. The platform was too large, and a goodly number of those who as candidates adopted it only did so to catch votes. Too much was expected, and as a result there was partial failure. The most earnest and genuine of the party had no previous experience, and the wily old politicians soon found out the weak spots and saw how to produce division and that lack of cohesion so essential to their continuance in power.

The governing powers of every country depend upon ignorance and sectarianism to keep the masses in subjection. Thus fiscalism was the question upon which the party was split. Some, of course, had never really belonged to it, and stood aloof immediately after the election. Nevertheless, in spite of divisions and weakness, much good was done, and the voice of democracy was heard in a distinct and new form. Division and lack of cohesion were not confined to the party inside the House. It


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characterised those outside also. The Central Committee of the Labor Electoral League had big ideas as to its functions, and at one time wanted to dictate to those in Parliament as well as those without.

It seems a universal tendency in all young organizations to be imperialistic. They assume autocratic powers at once, and the democratic idea has to fight its way against obstacles, even amongst those who set up as the mouthpiece and vanguard of government by the people. With the exception of one or two bodies, such as the A.W.U., the trades unions had not then taken up political work as organizations, hence there was always the opening for mere adventures to gather two or three together in the name of Labor and get themselves appointed as delegates to the Annual Conference.

Some of our enthusiastic workers, who, though they do not realise it, are still in the imperialistic stage of evolution, have a great idea that much is accomplished by carrying a resolution. They are strong on majority rule, and not over-sensitive as to how the majority is secured. They forget that passing a law before the people are educated up to a desire for it, and consequently willing to observe it, is only to add force to conservatism and to retard progress. To carry a resolution by packing a meeting beforehand is the worst kind of foolishness, and can never have any other result than to create division.

A large conference held in Sydney on November 9, 1893, did much harm to the Cause, owing first and mainly to its constitution being opposed to the


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democratic idea of fair representation. The members of the Central Committee were given seats on it, and also votes; though the Leagues of which they were the members were likewise represented by delegates. As the Central Committee was naturally composed of city men, the question of town versus country was raised. A form of pledge favored by the Central Committee was forced on the Conference, in spite of the fact that the men who had had experience in the House pointed out its impracticability. The result of this badly-organized Conference was to cause a split at the next election, and the loss of some good men to the party for some time. Subsequently, mainly by the intercession of the officers of the A.W.U., a modification of the pledge was agreed to, and several who had stood out came into the party again, and it has remained solid ever since.

The experience of the first party gave its warnings, and ever since then the party in the House has been guided by the trades union principle of acting as a solid body on all platform questions, with individual freedom on all other matters not considered essentials. The Labor Party got rid of sectarianism of every sort, and in addition was soon prepared to support or vote against a Government, no matter what their fiscal faith was. New South Wales elections had, prior to 1891, been run largely on sectarian grounds, and the advent of Labor purified politics by putting that into the background. The old political party, which had for years lived on such a cry, recently revived the silly appeal to ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry. It has


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been helped by a considerable portion of the alleged Protestant clergy, who have entered upon a crusade against Labor which can only have the result of doing injury to their own churches. This narrow bigotry is not confined to New South Wales, but has been extended to other States, and into Federal politics also.

The Orange Institution has been used, not for the purposes it claims to have been organized for, but to fight against Labor. No matter whether a candidate was Catholic or Protestant, Liberal or Conservative, so long as he was against the Labor Party he was supported by them. This only shows how desperate has become the position of the old parties, who dare not oppose Labor on its political proposals, but try to hold back the day of its complete success by appeals to the lowest and most unpatriotic of human frailties.

The worker has ever been foolish, and he is only slowly awakening. He has never seen the capitalists divided by any question of creed or dogma. They are always alive to their own interests as a class, but the workers allow themselves to be deluded and divided by any silly bone of contention thrown to them by wily schemers who live upon the workers, and who hope to keep them in mental slavery and ignorance. The whole spirit of Australian democratic feeling is in favor of the utmost freedom of thought in regard to religious views. They want everyone to be absolutely untrammelled as to how he or she may choose to worship or otherwise. There is no State Church, and a clause in the Australian Constitution expressly forbids


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religion being any bar to service under the Commonwealth. The Labor Party stands strongly for this attitude, hence it has the bigots against it.

Before giving some idea of the work accomplished, I will briefly outline the method of organization. Taking New South Wales first, Political Labor Leagues, as they are now called, are formed in each electorate. With these are affiliated all trades unions willing to join. Subscriptions are paid in by members of the League, and the unions contribute so much per capita from their funds. Some time previous to an election, nominations of persons willing to contest the seat in the interests of Labor are called for. Such persons must have been members of some league or union for at least one year. If more than one nomination is received a ballot of the members of the league and unions is taken, and the highest on the poll, if approved by the Central Executive, is announced as the selected candidate, and he begins as soon as he likes to work up the electorate.

With the nomination a pledge is signed, and three copies are kept—one by the local league, one by the Central Executive, and the other by the Parliamentary Labor Party. The pledge has been found useful for two reasons. It is both a record and a test. Near election time men come forward and say that they quite believe in the Labor platform and are willing to support it in the House. They are asked to sign the pledge and stand for selection, when they at once find an excuse, and shy off. That sort of person is of no use to Labor, and cannot be depended on. He is of the old school of opportunists,


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of whom too many are in political life to-day. In some cases, where no local organization is prepared to take up the work, or where they request the Executive to do so, the latter body makes the selection.

The method in other States is much the same, though the name may differ. In Victoria it is called the Political Labor Council. In South Australia it is the United Labor Party, which selects candidates by grouping a number of electorates, leaving to the central authority the final allotment of the men to the electorates. This allows for special knowledge being used to advantage, such, for instance, as sending a farmer for a farming constituency. In Queens land the name most used is that of the Workers' Political Association.

In each State annual conferences are held, the business for which has been sent in by the various sections, and then submitted in a printed agenda paper to all the branch leagues and unions, so that they may discuss it and instruct their delegates. Thus the voice of all who take enough interest in their country's well-being is heard through their representatives at the meeting of Labor's Parliament, as the press now terms it. The numbers present become greater each year. Dates when other people are enjoying a holiday are selected for the purpose by Labor, so as to save loss of wages or perhaps position by those attending as delegates. At the last conference in New South Wales, which met on Foundation Day (26th January); over 230 delegates were present. That held in Melbourne, opening on Good Friday, March 29, 1907, consisted


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of 95 delegates; that of Queens land, held on March 11, 1907, consisted of 41; and South Australia's conference, September 11, 1908, 112 delegates.

One has only to visit one of these conferences to see that the movement is a live one, and is being pushed on by able, earnest, and enthusiastic men and women. The delegates are all practical, and have had all their lives to face difficulties in their struggle for a decent living. They call things by their right names, and are strong and earnest in their denunciation of injustice, because they have felt and still feel it in their lives. Whilst each strongly, and often positively, feels that his or her own proposal may be the best, yet the discipline and training of the unions and leagues prevent any break in the loyalty to conference decisions. The rules also check any sudden changes in the most important matters, as for some proposals a two-thirds majority is required. Labor members of Parliament are present—some as delegates, others as visitors—and their experience is found useful.

The splendid work put in, not only at these gatherings but all the year round, and the unselfish devotion to the Cause characteristic of most of the members and officers of leagues and unions, are the envy of other political parties. This is particularly noticeable in the country districts. Union men have walked thirty miles to record their votes. Men have ridden over fifty miles, and have had to do the same distance back again to get to their work. I have known a man walk twenty-five miles to attend a public meeting, and walk the same distance back again next day. I am sorry to say that thousands


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in our cities will hardly cross the street to attend a meeting unless in times of great excitement.

Here are one or two instances of the loyalty of bush unionists: Opal ton, in the Mitchell electorate, Queensland, had been refused a polling booth, though there were eighty names on the roll. The electors held a meeting, and decided to go to the nearest polling place, which was eighty miles away. Horses were mustered, and the whole of the voting strength rode those eighty miles, recorded their votes for the Labor candidate, and rode back. In another case two men rode 200 miles to vote for George Kerr, then straight Labor. When Donald Macdonell contested the Barwon against the notorious W. N. Willis, two men rode seventy miles and voted for Donald, who was the Labor candidate.

Such men value the franchise, and from such men Australia can hope for advancement and real progress. Such men understand the need there is for social reform, and when there is a majority of men and women with similar intelligence and earnestness, the social salvation of Australia will have been accomplished.

Since the advent of Labor into politics there has been a noticeable change of thought in regard to what may be termed Empire matters. Previously there was a fairly widespread sentiment in favor of republicanism. The Sydney “Bulletin” openly advocated the latter form of government at one time, and a good many public men, such as the late Sir George Dibbs, Sir T. McIlwraith, and others, also advocated the setting up of that form of government for Australia. At the time of the Darling grant


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trouble in Victoria there were loud threats of “cutting the painter.” In Queens land McIlwraith ran an election practically on the separation idea, and the local Tory press in at least one instance supported him. He was elected, which proves how strong the feeling was.

The discussion of constitutional questions evoked by the submission of the Australian Constitution brought us into closer acquaintance with the defects in the American Constitution, and at the same time increased our friendship towards that great people. The practical independence of government granted under the Australian Constitution, with the manifest advantages of being part of a big Empire and under its protection if need arose, together with the growth of the national spirit of a “White Australia” and the broad humanitarianism taught by the Labor Party, have developed a feeling of loyalty to race rather than to governments, but have abolished any talk of either republicanism or of independence.

The desire for the unity of the white race is strong. The recent visit of the “Great White Fleet” of the American navy emphasised the feeling of warm friendship previously existent, and the very general desire that unity should be definitely established between all self-governing parts of the British Empire and the American nation. The striking unity of the Labor Party nationally, and the breadth of its teaching and aims, have made its influence felt in Australian thought, and have developed a higher and more intelligent loyalty than previously existed.

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