What we now call the NSW Left grew out of opposition to the industrial groups associated with the Catholic Church and Bob Santamaria.
The early years for those active in the Steering Committee, like John Garland of the AEU, and Tommy Uren, were dedicated to flushing out Groupers in the Party, calling on parliamentarians to declare their support for Evatt, and pushing progressive policy.
As the Grouper threat receded the Steering Committee changed. The Centre unions left and a more coherent left-wing base emerged.
But the politics were complex. The left of the union movement in Sydney was populated with many communists of all persuasions as well as Labor Party members. Often these forces competed in union elections. Also in that mix were anti-Catholic Masons, Irish Republicans and the emergence of people radicalised by the Vietnam War.
Labor Party branches in the inner-city became battlegrounds as progressive people were organised by the Left. As the vicious attack on Peter Baldwin attests, these battles were hard fought.
In the 70s and 80s great social changes were driven by many in the Left.
Women became prominent in the faction, including pioneers such as Delcia Kite, Jeanette McHugh, Ann Symonds, Meredith Burgmann and Jan Burnswoods. In later years Carmel Tebbutt, Tanya Plibersek, Linda Burney, Penny Sharpe, and Verity Firth have carried on their work.
In Left history we see dramatic change, but just as important are the constant themes.
Our values: the fight for fairness, justice and progressive policy reform. Our unions: the mainstay of resources and organisation, the direct conduit to working people and their needs, to the real economy. These enduring elements unite us.
At the Waterfront Workers Federation, now the MUA, I learned from people hardened in battle. Many had a hardline ideology. Some were aligned with Left Labor, Right Labor, the CPA, SPA and the CPA Marxist-Leninist.
Young people have got it easy these days. They think it’s tough having the Greens to the Left and Tories to the right.
Some of these ex-communists, most of whom joined Labor, were enormous influences on me.
In 1993, when I moved to Melbourne to work for the ACTU, I was gripped by the difference in the Left. In NSW there is a hard interface with the Right but in Victoria the Left was all over the place, personality driven. They faced a much softer Right because in Victoria the Groupers had gone in the split.
So history is important but the future even more so. We need to learn the lessons from Gough Whitlam: policy reform is essential but so is Party reform.
The ICAC revelations of corruption are a disgrace to the Party and graphic evidence of the need for democratisation, which is inevitable.
Recent reforms in Britain require unions to affiliate to Labour based on the number of union members who have individually agreed to affiliate. Unions retain 50:50 at conference, but individual union members have a direct relationship with the Party, not the union.
It might be a big challenge for some union secretaries, but a union confident of its campaigning and organising ability should be leading democratisation as the way of the future.
The Left also needs a coherent position on economic policy and a plan to win reforms. The truth is that the Hawke/Keating reforms boosted economic growth, productivity and per capita income and delivered social benefits including universal superannuation.
It is impossible to turn back the tide of economic change. We must look for new sources of growth that are environmentally sustainable.
The Left should lead this argument. We have always been at the forefront of progressive policy and democratic engagement. It takes courage to fight for reforms but there’s no shortage of that here.
GREG COMBET IS A FORMER ACTU SECRETARY AND FEDERAL LABOR MINISTER. THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF HIS SPEECH TO THE 60 YEARS OF THE LEFT DINNER.