Book Review: Labor Pains

By Greg Patmore*

Labor Pains

Michael Hogan (ed.), Labor Pains. Early Conference and Executive Reports of the Labor Party in New South Wales, The Federation Press, 2006, hb. 526 pp, rrp. $A44.95 

The significance of this book has been highlighted by the recent clash between the ALP Annual Conference and the Iemma Government over the issue of electricity privatisation. The Iemma Government has proceeded on this path in opposition to party policy and even against popular opinion in the state. The Iemma Government did not go to the last election with this is as a policy, which is prompted a revolt by unions and rank and file members, which crosses factional lines. Does an elected government, elected in the name of a particular Party, have the right to override that Party?

Michael Hogan's edited book, supported by the Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government in NSW Committee, takes us back to the origins of these questions in the Labor Party in NSW. He fills a major a gap in the information relating to the early history of the Party, by providing us with press reports of the early conferences and executive reports in NSW from 1892 to 1905. It was not until well into the twentieth century that officially printed reports for the Labor Party in NSW were available and even many of these reports have been lost.

The editor has chosen to drawn one printed report, which is most detailed, from secular newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald or the Daily Telegraph or the labour press such as The Australian Workman or The Worker. While generally editorial interventions are kept to a minimum, textual errors have been corrected. There is an important introductory chapter that sets the scene by examining the birth of the Labor Party and there are brief context statements before each conference report.

The conference reports pick up a range of issues and tensions within the early Labor Party. Parliamentarians did not regard themselves as subject to the control of the Conference and there was an early understanding that they could vote on the issue of protection according to their conscience. There were efforts by the trade unions to assert their influence through debates over representation and concerns about branch stacking. Some issues, not as important today, influence these early debates. The party was divided over temperance and there was a general agreement that alcohol addiction can undermine workers improving their lives, but a rejection of any notion of prohibition. According to Hogan the temperance organizations, however, formed a close political alliance with the Liberal Party by the turn of the century and Labor became identified as a ‘the party of brewers and publicans' (p. 7).

The Labor Party shows in these early years the conflict between democracy and tendencies towards centralized and elitist controls. However, between 1901 and 1905, the Party conference showed a ‘healthy internal democracy' with over 200 delegates meeting over seven days and engaging in ‘uninhibited discussion'. Hogan argues that this early internal democracy did not last long as the Labor Party became a contender for Government both at the federal and NSW levels.

This book, which appeared before the 2007 Annual NSW ALP Conference, hopes that one day again there will be voice for members at Annual Conference, which had become stage managed media events. The 2007 Annual Conference did show that members were willing to voice their dissent against a sitting Government despite the presence of media. Other trends at the federal level such as Prime Minister Rudd's rejection of the factional determination of his Ministry and a code of conduct for Ministers also highlight a broad concern with good governance in the Labor Party. Hopefully, these developments will impact on the Labor Party machinery such as Annual Conferences and challenge the worst excesses of factionalism in terms of the voice of rank and file ALP members.

Overall, this book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the early history of the Labor Party. It highlights that many issues that are seen by academics and others only of present concern have been around for a long time

* Greg Patmore
(Associate Professor Greg Patmore teaches in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney).

Published 13 August 2008.

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