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Labor’s Future Lies In Progressive Leadership, not Progressive Liberalism

Throughout the tumultuous highs and lows of the Australian Labor Party’s 120 year history, there has been one constant; an on-going existential debate about the party’s philosophical purpose.

While in the past this debate has been primarily animated from the Left, by those arguing for a greater role for Marxism, Socialism or Social Democracy at the core of the Party’s platform, in recent times the party’s philosophical underpinnings have been challenged from an unlikely perspective.

In a recent series of engaging and considered articles and speeches, Andrew Leigh, the Federal Member for Fraser, has made the case that Labor should look to liberalism, specifically Deakinite ‘progressive liberalism’, as a source for philosophical ‘renewal’. Leigh argues that Labor should aim to be not only a party of ‘egalitarianism’ but also the party of Deakinite ‘social liberalism’ which he defines as a commitment to the protection of minority rights and the recognition of free markets as the primary engines of prosperity.

While Leigh’s contribution is welcome, Labor should reject this focus on liberalism as the fount of philosophical renewal. Instead, Labor should look to the political tradition that was pioneered by one of Alfred Deakin’s Labor contemporaries, the former Queensland Premier, TJ Ryan.  After initially seeking to enter politics as a Deakinite liberal himself, TJ Ryan’s subsequent electoral success in the Labor Party showed that the way forward for the ALP is a path of consensus-driven, progressive electoralism.

TJ Ryan was born in 1876, the fifth child of an illiterate Irish labourer in rural Victoria. Despite these unfortuitous origins, Ryan worked his way through teaching school and then a law degree, before moving to Queensland to begin a career as a barrister. Ryan’s legal work on shearers’ workers compensation cases had led him to join the Labor Party and in 1909, with the assistance of shearing legend Jackie Howe (name-sake to the iconic blue shearer’s singlet), Ryan had won Labor preselection for the Western Queensland seat of Barcoo.

Once in Parliament, Ryan rose quickly through the Labor ranks and was elected Leader of the Queensland Parliamentary Labor Party in 1912. Just three years later, Ryan won Labor’s first parliamentary majority in its own right and became the Premier of Queensland.  After four more years, and another record election win, the ALP National Conference went so far as to invite him to enter Federal Politics with a view to shoring up the party’s Federal leadership.

Ryan achieved his rapid success by uniting the competing philosophical streams of thought on the left of Australian politics behind a platform that appealed directly to the interests of the majority of voters. It offered something to Deakinite liberals by pursuing electoral reforms including giving women the right to stand for Parliament and economic reforms like breaking up monopolies in major industries like sugar and cane. It appealed to socialists by establishing a wide range of state owned enterprises intended to reduce the cost of living to the working man. But trumping appeals to either liberals and socialists, Ryan insisted that Labor remain focused on its core organisational mission – securing the electoral support necessary to win Government and enact reform. To this end, Ryan campaigned on a platform of populism – focusing on agricultural land reform, reducing the cost of living and tackling unemployment through government workers exchanges. In this way, Ryan established a political tradition that led to nearly 50 years of almost continuous Labor government in Queensland.

Ryan’s commitment to consensus-driven progressive electoralism was best illustrated in his high profile leadership of the Anti-Conscription cause in both the 1916 and 1917 Commonwealth Conscription Referenda. Conscription was a difficult issue for the Australian Left. While much of the party’s industrial base was opposed to conscription on principle as an exploitation of the working man, the issue was championed by the former Labor Leader, Billy Hughes and supported those in the party motivated primarily by nationalism.Ryan amalgamated the policy agendas of the socialists and the liberals, and the political ambitions of the professional members of the Labor Caucus and the working class industrial base of the party, primarily through his style of leadership. While Ryan was brutal towards his political opponents, with his colleagues, he took a conciliatory approach, seeking consensus from his supporters before moving forward.

As a result, the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and every State Labor Party split over the issue of conscription – all except Queensland. In Queensland, Ryan’s conciliatory and consensus driven leadership held the Labor Party together. When Hughes announced the 1916 referendum, Ryan refused to make any comment whatsoever until his caucus had met to consider the issue. When his caucus and party organisation had resolved to fight conscription, Ryan refused to let those who supported conscription be forced out of the party and led the fight in a way that did not alienate the dissenters, mounting a calm and fact based argument focused primarily on the lack of practical need for conscription rather than on more divisive, philosophical principles. This pragmatic stance enabled Ryan to become the most prominent elected opponent of the conscription while losing only one dissenting member of his cabinet over the issue.

As Ryan’s example shows, Labor has been most successful when it has united the competing philosophical perspectives of the Left in the pursuit of an electorally viable mandate for reform.  In this way, Labor’s greatest strength has been its philosophical openness; its willingness to take off the ideological blinkers and use the tools best suited to the circumstances for the achievement of its political objective. This certainly means openness to the use of markets to generate prosperity, but it also means an openness to the use of collective action by communities or the government to push equality of opportunity further across our society. In this context, focusing on Deakinite progressive liberalism as a source of philosophical renewal for the ALP is unnecessarily and unhelpfully narrow and neglects more important philosophical sources. While ‘Markets and multiculturalism’ can certainly play a major role in the modern philosophy of the ALP, they do not and cannot fully encompass Labor’s mission.

View these historical images and more on LaborHistory.org.au

About Tim Watts

Tim Watts

Tim is the Federal Labor Member for Gellibrand. Prior to his election, Tim was a senior Manager at Telstra. He was also a corporate lawyer at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Senior Advisor to former Victorian Premier John Brumby and Deputy Chief of Staff to Senator Stephen Conroy. Tim holds a Masters of Science (Hons)(Politics and Communications) from the London School of Economics, a Masters of Public Policy and Management (Monash) and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons, Bond). He tweets @timwattsmp

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