Australian Labor Party

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Tue Sep 17 20:18:53 MDT 2002

Steve Painter wrote:
> A more important question, ideologically and theoretically, and a very
> useful one strategically, is to try and understand what realities are
> reflected in these strange contradictory attacks, to equip us for the
> future. When you look at it, it is a very important question to ask, how we
> got from the labor movement racism of the 1890s to the relatively civilised
> policies and practices of the labour movement today. It is really quite
> extraordinary that the same political party, the ALP, which fought extremely
> hard to entrench the White Australia Policy in Australian life, should now
> be denounced by the Hansons and Sheehans, for "being the main agency
> flooding the country with Asian migrants and pouring them into safe Labor
> seats". A serious investigation of how the labour movement's attitude to
> migration, and particularly Asian migration, was changed, has a very
> practical bearing on how we can ensure that the labor movement develops and
> entrenches a civilised and realistic policy and practice in migration
> matters.

I think we can first of all discount Hanson and co.  They are not
arguing anything truthful about Labour and they represent no significant
wing of the Australian ruling class.  They are the sound of fury of a
dying (white) petty-bourgeois layer reacting against modern capitalist

The reason the ALP has changed is because capitalism has changed.  In
the late 1800s the ruling class, the middle class and the official
labour movement united to keep Australia white in terms of immigration.
McQueen was wrong to single out the labour movement, although his
approach is quoite woidespread in the historiography in Australia and NZ
alike.  But what the White Australia and White NZ policies represented
were *nationalism* and the labour movement on both sides of the Tasman
bought into it because they were nationalists too and never really
removed themselves from the coat-tails of the bourgeoisie.

These days the bourgeoisies of Australia and NZ are far more
cosmopolitan in their outlook.  The LPs in both countries are
essentially parties of capitalist modernisation.  By the 1980s, many of
the old, non-market forms of discrimination had become outmoded.  It was
the LPs in both countries which removed them, allowing capitalist market
relations freer reign.  To the ruing class in NZ and Australia it is now
largely irrelevant whether their managers are male, female, gay,
straight, black, white or brown.  The main thing that matters is that
the exploitation of labour-power by capital proceeds uninterrupted.
These days getting rid of formal barriers of race and gender and
sexuality is, I would argue part and parcel of mainstream capitalist
thinking.  Even in the US (although the process is a lot more retarded
there than in NZ, Austrlaia and Britain).  Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell
etc etc are every bit as capable, possibly even more so, of advancing US
imperialist interests than some WASP in-breed.

So the change in the Australian Labor Party is not indicative of it
being some progressive force against racial or gender discrimination.
It is evidence that it is the chief party of capitalist modernisation in
Oz, just like the LP in NZ performs that function here.  In NZ, it is
especially transparent becoz the same Labour government which launched
the biggest attack on working class living standards since the 1930s (ie
the Labour government of 1984-90) which liberalised the laws on
homosexuality, banned US nuclear warships, advanced the careers of
middle and upper class women and maori massively, etc etc etc.

The left is often not very good at making a deep analysis of capitalist
society.  Tooo often it assumes that capitalist attacks on workers'
living standards must be accompanied by an intensification of (formal
and informal) forms of racial and gender discrimination right across the
board.  The 1980s shows that is not so.  Middle and upper class women
and people of colour have probably never had it so good.  It is working
class women and people of colour, along with the 'traditional' white
male working class, who have borne the brunt of capitalist austerity,
manifacturing layoffs, crap wages in the service industry and so on.

So there is no contraidction at all in the Aussie LP in one century
championing White Australia and in another century championing
multiculturalism.  They are merely two different faces of capitalism at
two different points in its history.

BTW, one thing the Australian left really needs to develop is a
left-wing critique of multiculturalism.  Otherwise when the whole Aussie
ruling class goes multiculturalist (much of it already is), the Aussie
left will still be running to catch up and wondering how on earth that

Verity Burgmann and Andrew Milner made quite a good start in a paper
they wrote that appears in the book 'Class and Class Conflict in
Australia' back in the mid-1990s, published by Longman's, and of which
Tom O'Lincoln was one of the editors.

Verity's early 1980s PhD on racism and the Aussie labour movement is
also well worth a read.  She's definitely one of the sharpest people on
the Aussie left, although I don't think she's active in anything these
days unfortunately.

Philip Ferguson

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