Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLIX: australian parties and policies - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XLIX: australian parties and policies - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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australian parties and policies
That political parties would grow up in each colony so soon as responsible government had been granted was a matter of course, for where the powers and emoluments of office are prizes offered to the leaders of a majority in a legislature, its members are sure to unite and organize themselves to win these prizes. But upon what lines would parties be formed? The Whigs and Tories of the Mother Country lay far behind, and most of the questions which had been party issues in England did not exist here. There were, however, those opposite tendencies which always divide the men who reach forward to something new from the men who hold fast to the old, and there was also sure to come the inevitable opposition between the interests of the few who have a larger and the many who have a smaller share of the world's goods.
Some of the questions which have been the foundations of parties in Europe were absent. There were no race antagonisms, for the settlers were all of British stock, and hardly any religious antagonisms. Apart from local questions, important wherever a new community is making roads or railways or laying out towns, the matters that first occupied the assemblies were constitutional and economic. The former were easily disposed of by the enactment in every colony first of manhood suffrage and then of adult suffrage for elections to the popular House, but in Victoria, and somewhat later in South Australia, there were long struggles over the structure of the Upper Chamber.
Economic issues cut deeper and have been more permanent. They turned first upon the tenure of land, and took the form of a conflict between those called the squatters, who had early obtained large leaseholds, and others, the “free selectors,” who, coming later, were granted rights of acquiring free-holds out of such large leaseholds in order to increase the number of cultivating owners. Simultaneously, or a little later, fiscal controversies emerged, and in some colonies the two parties were for a long time distinguished as respectively the advocates either of a tariff for revenue only, or of a tariff for the protection of domestic industries. Other questions, such as the provision of religious education and the restriction of the sale of intoxicants, from time to time arose, but the most vital differences till near the end of last century concerned land and financial policy. The Free Trade party was generally dominant in New South Wales, the Protectionist in Victoria, which had a relatively larger manufacturing population.
Every party organization is compact and efficient in proportion to the forces it has behind it, be they those of racial or religious passion, or of political doctrine, or of attachment to a leader, or of material interest.
In the United States, besides those motives of traditional loyalty to a doctrine or a phrase or a name which prompt men to unite for political action, the pecuniary interest felt by the enormous number of persons holding or desiring to hold public office built up the party Machine. In England there was a driving force during most of the eighteenth and the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century in the influence exerted by the landowners and supporters of the Established Church on the one hand, and by the commercial classes and Nonconformists on the other. In Australia none of the aforesaid forces, except, to a slight extent, that of interest, was operative till recently, nor did any leader arise who exerted a strong personal fascination. Accordingly, the party organizations were loose and feeble. There were only two parties in the legislatures, the Ministerialists and the Opposition, the Ins and the Outs, but, except at moments of high tension, members passed easily from the one to the other. The leaders frequently made new combinations, and sometimes took up and carried measures they had previously opposed, while the mass of the voters were not permanently ranged under one or other party banner. Nothing was seen like that elaborate system of local committees which has existed in the United States for nearly a century, nor even like those local Liberal and Conservative Associations which grew up in Britain from about 1865 onwards. Australian conditions did not furnish, except in respect of the land question, such a social basis for parties as England had, nor was there, outside the legislatures, any class which had aught to gain from office, so party activity was less eager and assiduous than it has been in America. The fluidity of parties and want of organization were, however, to some extent compensated by the power of the newspapers, which led the voters at least as much as did the party chiefs, while the fact that nearly half of the electors lived in or near great cities made public meetings a constant and important means of influencing opinion and determining votes.
Towards the end of last century a change came, and other forces appeared which were destined to give a new character to Australian politics.
While in the legislatures the ceaseless strife of the Ins and Outs went on in the old British fashion, though with more frequent swings of the pendulum, the leaders of the working men were beginning to exert themselves outside the regular party lines. They pressed forward Labour questions, such as that of the Eight Hours' Day. Chinese immigration had been stopped under their pressure, because it threatened to affect the rate of wages. The English Dockers' Strike of 1889 had quickened the activities and roused the hopes of Australian trade unions, already well organized. In every colony Trade and Labour Councils, embracing and combining the efforts of a number of the existing Unions, began to be formed, and their leaders began to busy themselves with politics in a way distasteful to Unionists of the older type. Already in 1881 the Labour Unions of a New South Wales constituency had returned a member to the Legislature to advocate their aims. The example was followed in South Australia in 1887, in Victoria in 1891, in Queensland in 1892, in Western Australia in 1897, and in Tasmania in 1903, so Labour parties grew up in every Legislature. The movement received a stimulus from the great strike which, arising in Melbourne in 1890 out of a dispute between the Marine Officers' Association and their employers, spread far and wide over the country, and involved many industries. This, and another great strike (in 1894) of the wool-shearers, was attended with many disorders, in dealing with which the State Governments incurred the wrath of the Union leaders. The Unions continued to grow in membership and influence till their large membership, led by energetic men, came to constitute a vote with which candidates and ministers had to reckon. For a time they were content to press upon successive ministries the measures they desired, but when they came to form a considerable element in the legislatures, they adopted the plan, familiar from its use in the British House of Commons by the Irish Nationalists, of voting solidly as one body, and transferring their support to whichever of the old parties bid highest for it by a promise to comply with their demands. This was the easier because the two preexisting parties, divided chiefly on Protection or Free Trade, could practise a facile opportunism on labour issues.
When the first Parliament of the Australian Commonwealth was elected in 1900, there appeared in it a Labour party already numbering, in House and Senate, twenty-four out of a total of one hundred and eleven members. The two older parties, which had existed in the former colonies (now States), reappeared in the Federal Parliament. One was practically Protectionist, the other largely composed of Free Traders. The existence of these three parties promised ill for stability. The first ministry fell (after three years), defeated by a combination of Free Traders and Labourites. A Labour ministry came in, but although the General Election of 1903 had raised the numbers of the Labour party to twenty-six in a House of seventy-five, their strength was obviously insufficient, and after three months they fell, to be succeeded by another ministry, whose head was a Liberal, but which included both Protectionists and Free Traders. This administration was in its turn overthrown, after ten months of life, by the other two parties voting together against it. A ministry of a Protectionist colour followed, and held office for three years by judiciously “keeping in touch” with the Labour party. When the latter, having obtained many of the measures they desired, suddenly withdrew their support, these ministers fell, to be succeeded by a second Labour Cabinet. Its life also was short, for after six months the leaders of the other two parties, alarmed at some utterances of the Labour men, which seemed to be taking on more and more of a socialistic tinge, resolved to effect a fusion. Thereupon, by the joint efforts of two sets of politicians theretofore mutually hostile, the Labour men were turned out, and a Coalition Government installed at the end of 1909. Next year came the regular triennial dissolution of Parliament. The Labour party had been continuing to gain strength in the country, and on this occasion it was favoured by the occurrence, while the canvass was proceeding, of a strike among the coal-miners of New South Wales, which led to grave disorders and irritated the working class. The coalition of two theretofore antagonistic parties had, moreover, displeased many electors who had previously given their support to one or other; and many of these seem to have now abstained from voting. The result was a victory for the Labour party, who secured a working majority in the Assembly and an overwhelming majority in the Senate. Thus ended that triangular conflict which had caused six changes of Government within the first ten years of the Commonwealth, rendering ministries unstable and breeding constant intrigues and cabals. Those who had formerly been Protectionists and Free Traders were now united as one Opposition, following one group of leaders, and offering what resistance they could in a conservative or anti-socialist sense to the dominant Labour caucus. In 1915 the Labour party split up on the question of compulsory military service, its smaller section retaining office by a coalition with the Liberals, some of whose leaders entered the Cabinet. The new party thus formed took the name of National. In 1920 it held a majority in the Commonwealth Parliament.1
While this was happening in the Commonwealth, politics were taking a similar course in the six States. The Labour parties which grew up found it at first expedient to play off the two pre-existing parties against one another, and so to get legislation from whichever was in power as the price of support. Ultimately the Labourites succeeded, first in Western Australia in 1904, in securing majorities which placed them in control of most States till the split of 1915, after which they lost the other States, except Queensland, to the Nationalist party. The coalescence in the States of the two old Liberal and Protectionist parties came the more easily because the tariff, having been transferred to the Commonwealth Parliament by the Federal Constitution of 1900, no longer furnishes a State issue. Thus everywhere in Australia the two-party system came again to hold the field, though at the general election of 1919 many votes were in three States given for a party called the Farmers' Union and in two other States, a smaller number of votes for those who called themselves Independents.
Against the contingency of schism within its ranks the Labour party has, by its organization, long taken every precaution to provide. The system deserves a short description. It is novel: it is effective: its example may probably be followed elsewhere.
The organization has two objects — to select the party candidates and to formulate the party doctrines. The former is primarily a local task, the latter is for the whole of the party in the State, or in the Commonwealth, as the case may be.
In every constituency there is a Trade Union Council and a Political Labour League. Every member signs its constitution on entrance, and is bound thereby. These two bodies work together, the Labour League selecting the party candidate for that constituency, while often conferring with and influenced by the central Labour Council of the State. Every candidate is required to take the party pledge, i.e. to declare that he accepts the authorized programme for the time being in force, and will, if elected, vote as the majority of the party in the legislature decide.
In each State there is held, shortly before the approaching triennial general election, a Conference of delegates from all Trade Union Councils and Political Labour Leagues, at which a legislative programme of the State party is discussed and adopted. Once adopted, it is binding on all members of the party, and especially on candidates and members of the legislatures. The State party becomes, for the purposes included in the platform, both as respects the general election and for the duration of the incoming legislature, an army under discipline, moving at the word of command. The members of this Conference are elected in each State according to rules prescribed by the State party authority. Similarly in the Commonwealth there is held once in three years, shortly before the impending Federal elections, a Conference consisting of six delegates from the central authority of the organized Labour party in each State. This Conference discusses and determines the party platform for political action in the Federal Parliament, and by this document, when adopted, every member of the party in Parliament is bound, as respects both the points set forth in the platform and also his own votes on any “questions of confidence” that may arise in Parliament, i.e. when the question is that of supporting or opposing a ministry on issues involving its tenure of office.
The terms of the pledge, as first settled, were as follows:
I hereby pledge myself not to oppose the candidate selected by the recognized political Labor organization, and, if elected, to do my utmost to carry out the principles embodied in the Australian Labor party's platform, and on all questions affecting the platform to vote as a majority of the Parliamentary party may decide at a duly constituted caucus meeting.1
When a Legislature (either Commonwealth or State) is sitting, the members who belong to the Labour party meet regularly in caucus once a week, or oftener if some emergency arises, to deliberate, with closed doors, on the course they are to pursue in debate and in voting. Each member is bound by every decision arrived at by the majority upon questions within the scope of the party platform, including all amendments to Bills falling within that programme. As the total number of Labour members in the two Houses is considerable, secrecy is not easily secured. The debates in caucus are said to be thorough, so every member can master the questions on which he is to vote. When the party commands a majority, its unanimity enables it to run its Bills through quickly, because there may be little or no debate on its side, while the resistance of the minority can be overcome by the use of closure, which is in fact constantly applied.
Sometimes the whole party, except one or two left to keep the debate going in the House, withdraw into caucus to consider their action, and return to vote when they have reached a decision.
This parliamentary caucus has also the right, when it constitutes a majority in the legislature, of selecting the members of the Administration. The leader of the party in the Assembly whom the Governor has summoned to form a government, is not free to choose his colleagues, but must take those whom the caucus names. Much canvassing goes on in the caucus on the part of aspirants to office, and when a minister has been chosen, he holds his post at the pleasure of the caucus, which is entitled to require his retirement if he fails to give satisfaction. To them, and not to Parliament, each minister is responsible. This is in effect a supersession of Cabinet government, and largely of Parliamentary government itself, because a majority in an Assembly, debating secretly, is not the same thing as the Assembly debating openly, and also because the caucus itself is largely ruled by a power outside its own body.1
Until this organization of the Labour party, both in the constituencies and in Parliament, had been built up, the two old parties, and, after their fusion, the united party, which was generally called Liberal, but now (1920) constitutes the large majority of the Nationalists, had possessed very little organization. In each electoral area the local heads of the party arranged who should be their candidate, and in Parliament the members followed their party leader upon the main issues, retaining their independence in minor matters. The bonds of party allegiance were not drawn tight in Australia any more than they had been in Great Britain before 1890–1905. When, however, the Labour party became a formidable fighting organization, the other party, obliged to follow suit, created a political machinery approximating to that of its opponents, though less complete and much less stringent. As respects the Commonwealth, its supreme party authority, called the Aastralian Liberal Union, was made to consist of all organizations recognized by the Executive, and its direction vested in an Annual Conference of six representatives from each State. This Conference appoints a Council of three members from each State, and the Council, which must meet at least once a year, appoints an Executive of six, one from each State. The platform is adopted by the Conference, but business connected with Federal elections is left to the State party authorities, while the formation of a ministry belongs to the party leader summoned by the Governor-General to undertake that duty.
Under this system accordingly no pledge is exacted from a candidate except that of adhesion to the general party platform, and the formulation of the party programme is left to the parliamentary chief. In practice, the member of a legislature who belongs to what is now the “National” party seems to enjoy a much greater latitude in his action than is allowed to the Labour member. More freedom, of course, means less discipline and therefore less fighting efficiency, than belongs to the Labour party. Both the party organizations, although they purport to leave the selection of parliamentary candidates primarily to the localities, exert a greater influence upon the choice than British practice has usually recognized, and both organizations bind the member to the support of the party platform more strictly than did either of the two old British parties forty years ago, or than the practice of American parties does to-day.
Any one can see what advantages the Labour party has derived from the system above described. It had in every local trade union and Council of trade unions, as well as in the Political Labour Leagues, a firm foundation on which to build, for the Unions had their officials, were already accustomed to work together, and had a claim on the allegiance of their members. The adoption of a programme, in settling which every member had, either directly or through his delegates, an equal voice, made the system in form democratic. The platform, setting forth definite aims, gave every member of a Union an interest in their attainment. Canvassing was hardly needed, because the members of the organizations were personally known, and could, with their female relatives, be readily brought up to the poll. While the other parties exerted themselves chiefly when elections were approaching, the Labour organization was always at work, costing little, because special political agents were not required. Thus the party was able to cast its full and undivided vote; and when women were admitted to the suffrage, their vote was cast along with that of the men to a greater extent than was possible in the other parties, in which many of the women, especially those of the richer class, did not trouble themselves to go to the polls.1 The Labour party was moulded into a sort of Spartan or Prussian army, to which perfect union gave strength. It was in practice, if not in theory, an undemocratic system, but, in view of aims that were dear to all, individual freedom was willingly sacrificed to collective victory. Other causes also helped the swift growth of the Labour party. A positive and definite programme is always attractive. This one made a direct appeal to the hand-workers. Shorter hours and better wages need little advocacy, especially when they promise the attainment by legal and pacific means of objects for which men have been fighting by repeated strikes, a warfare in which there had been many defeats with consequent suffering. Clear and coherent in its aims, solidly united in its action, the Labour party stood at first over against two parties which it had forced reluctantly to concede measures they were both known to dislike. Afterwards it was arrayed against a coalition of politicians who had been differing on an issue deemed fundamental, and who were now united only in their anti-Socialism. The two most prominent leaders of this coalition, Mr. Reid and Mr. Deakin, were men of high character, long experience, and eminent capacity, men whom to know personally was to like and to value. But there was slackness among their supporters. A purely defensive attitude is even less inspiriting in politics than in war. The economic arguments on which the Liberal leaders relied went over the heads of the average voter, and had been discredited in principle by the frequent divergence of Australian legislation from sound economic doctrine. Those leaders could, of course, appeal to something stronger than principles — the self-interest of the richer class, who saw themselves threatened by a constantly growing taxation. But most business men thought it less trouble to go on making money than to descend into the political arena. They voted, but they did not throw themselves into the fight as did the Labour men.
In point of education and knowledge the Liberals had an advantage; yet not so great an advantage as Europeans may suppose. Among the Labour chiefs there were a few men who, gifted with natural talents, had educated themselves by reading, and in some cases had entered the legal profession and made a reputation there. There were others who, with little book learning, had forced their way upwards from day labour through the offices of the trade unions, and been trained by assiduous practice to be alert observers, skilled organizers, capable debaters.1 The career of a Unionist organizer and secretary gives a fine schooling to an active and tactful man, turning him out all the better fitted for his work because not encumbered with tastes or attainments which might impair his sympathy with his own class and their sympathy with him. Setting aside a few eccentric persons who owe their rise to boisterous good-humour or to a somewhat wayward energy, the average ability of the Labour Ministries that have held power in the Commonwealth is said to be little, if at all, inferior to that to be found among the Liberals, and possibly not below that of men prominent in the House of Representatives at Washington or in the Parliament of Canada. These Australian leaders understand the questions they have chiefly to deal with as thoroughly, on the practical side, as do their antagonists. They know human nature — which is after all the thing a politician most needs to know — quite as well, and the particular type of human nature to which most Australian voters belong, very much better. The Liberal politicians suffer from that suspicion which the average worker feels towards a member of the richer class. In Great Britain a candidate for Parliament gains with the electors, though less to-day than formerly, by being a man of means and education. In Australia he loses. His social advantages are political drawbacks. He may overcome them by popular manners and a frank honesty of purpose, but drawbacks they remain. This is more noticeable in Australia than in the United States or Canada, because though equality reigns in all three countries alike, there is more of British aloofness among the richer Australians.
The weak point of Australian politicians, with some exceptions among the leaders, is their deficient education, and that narrowness of view which the concentration of attention on a particular set of questions and interests produces. This is natural in people who live far apart from the rest of the civilized world, and in a country which has had only a short history. They miss something which Europeans, possessing no more school education, obtain by a sort of infiltration. Those who visit Europe generally return with their horizons notably widened. Such deficiencies may be expected to disappear with the growth of the country and its more frequent intercourse with Europe and North America.
The Roman Catholic Church has latterly, especially in New South Wales, where there is a large Irish element, and in Queensland given its support to the Labour Party, which largely consists of men of Irish stock, and it has become an ardent advocate of Irish claims to self-government. Thus religion has come, practically for the first time, to be a factor in Australian politics.
I quote them from the book of Mr. W. M. Hughes, The Case for Labor (first published in 1910), p. 66, where the pledge system is explained and advocated. So far as I know, these terms have remained in force, but whether that is so or not the principle they embody continues to rule.
This caucus system has been retained by the present Labour party, which is now the regular Opposition in the Commonwealth, both in the Commonwealth Parliament and in any States in which it happens to be in a minority.
Nearly all of my informants regarded woman suffrage as having materially added to the strength of the Labour party. Women seem to vote less than men. In a recent New South Wales election for the State Assembly the percentage of men voting, where seats were contested. to the total number on the roll was 76, that of the women voting 65.
The present generation of Labour members is, however, described as rather inferior to those whom the early struggles of the Labour party brought to the front, and there would seem to be to-day fewer leaders of the calibre I noted when visiting Australia.