Labor’s Historic Mission

The two main traditions of political thought in Australia have changed their policy profiles considerably since the Second World War.

Both have moved to the political right. The Labor Party has rejected the remnants of its nineteenth century socialism, accepted private ownership of most of the means of production, distribution and exchange, made a pact with the trade unions to limit wage claims, and evolved into a modern social democratic party.

The Liberals, on the other hand, have rejected their earlier social liberal agenda, which accepted public ownership, and strong government support for infrastructure, universities and social services.

Instead, the Liberal Party has been swept along with the neoliberal tide to become a reactionary conservative party.

Like the Tories of Britain and the Republicans in the US, the Liberals now believe strongly in user-pays principles, and insist that all of the means of production, distribution, information, and exchange should be firmly in private hands.

This paper is concerned mainly with the Labor tradition, and the lessons that are to be drawn from its history and philosophy. Historically, I will argue that Labor’s mission has, at least since Federation, been to work pragmatically to create a fair, fully employed, and prosperous society.

This fact was evident even before Federation. The Frenchman, Albert Metin was so impressed by Australia’s social pragmatism, that he published a book entitled ‘Socialism without Doctrine’ in 1901.

Indeed, the pragmatic achievements of state Labor governments were, to his way of thinking, the first indication that the kind of state we now call ‘a social democracy’ could well exist in reality, and that Australia was showing the way.

The Second World War was a turning point in the history of political movements. And the direction of this turn was clearly indicated by the human rights doctrines that emerged at about this time.

The most notable of these were President Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights (1944), the Preamble to the French Constitution for the Fifth Republic (1946), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

But these human rights doctrines were clearly different in intention and content from those of the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century, the doctrines of natural rights (based on medieval theories of natural law) were charters for the new republics, which their authors were seeking to establish. And, as such, they were essentially revolutionary documents.

Moreover, they were seen as such. But the post-war documents were essentially moral statements, which aimed to bring peace and security to the world. The modern documents spell out the duties of national governments to provide adequately for the dignity, development, and social and economic security of the people they are required to serve.

Nevertheless, I will argue, the social democracies and the modern doctrines of human rights all have the same theoretical basis. For, any state that was founded on any one of these doctrines would have to be a social democracy, or welfare state of some kind.

It is remarkable, therefore, and a credit to the Dr H. V. Evatt’s presidency of the United Nations General Assembly, that this doctrine was passed nem con by the General Assembly.

To achieve this result, Dr Evatt is on record as having advised the Australian representative on the drafting committee to be pragmatic, and not get bogged down in political theory.[1]

It seems, therefore, that Dr Evatt was not only among the early pioneers of the welfare state, as Metin argued, but also one who understood that its development required such a process.[2]

A distinctive feature of the UDHR is that it requires all nations to provide, as adequately as they reasonable can, ‘through national effort and international co-operation’ for ‘the economic, social and cultural rights’ which are required, if people are to live with dignity in their own societies, and freely develop their own personalities.

This is all stated clearly in Article 22 of the UDHR, and the economic, social, and cultural rights of mankind, which are all things Mr Hockey would call ‘entitlements’, are then spelled out in detail in Articles 23 to 29.

The welfare state that evolved in Australia from 1945 to 1975 was extraordinarily successful, as indeed were welfare states everywhere they existed.

In France this period is known as ‘Les Trentes Glorieuses’. But here it has no name, mainly, I suspect, because Australian intellectuals were much too doctrinaire to acknowledge these pragmatic achievements.

The welfare state was not a creation of intellectuals; it evolved simply from the intuitive fairness and decency of Labor people. Yet, it proved to be a very successful kind of state.

Throughout the period from 1945 to 1975, GDP per capita rose steadily in Australia, despite the rapid increase in population due to immigration, and wages/per hour kept in lock-step with productivity. Moreover, the increases in wages and salaries that occurred did so fairly uniformly across all of the quintiles of wage and salary earners, as indeed they did elsewhere in the world.

Yet unemployment was almost non-existent. It averaged just 2% for the whole of this productive period, i.e. from 1945 to 1975.

However, the welfare state that existed in Australia in this period was not without its faults. It suffered from the social ills of most of its contemporaries. In the 1940s and fifties, it was exclusive of some minorities.

It was technically racist, sexist, extravagant in its use of raw materials, utterly dependent upon the United States strategically, and showed no particular concern for our natural environment.

It also contributed heavily to polluting the atmosphere with CFCs and CO2. So, any revival of the welfare state would clearly have to deal with all of these problems, and any new problems of a social or economic nature that might arise.

In short, it would need to be a welfare state for the 21st century. Nevertheless, I believe that creating a welfare state for the 21st century is precisely the task that should be undertaken by the next Labor government. It is one that the ALP is historically and philosophically very well prepared to undertake. It is also Labor’s historic mission.


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[1] Or, words to that effect. See Hogan 2008, Faulkner 2008, and Kirby 2008.

[2] The drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and it is likely that this moral approach to the drafting process was also hers.

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