From a historical perspective, Labor does division and hatred well. It would be foolish to speculate about the outcome of the stand-off between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. However, at the moment, Labor looks as divided as when it experienced its greatest loss in December 1931.
Joseph Lyons, who had left the ALP in February 1931, led the newly formed United Australia Party to victory. Labor, led by the incumbent prime minister Jim Scullin, won just 27 per cent of the primary vote and 19 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives. The break-away Lang Labor Party (which owed allegiance to Jack Lang in NSW) won 5 per cent of seats.
Certainly Scullin, who came to office in October 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression, had some bad luck. But much of Labor’s misfortune was of its own making. The ALP endured a three way split. Scullin led the mainstream ALP, Jack Beasley led the breakaway Lang Labor and Lyons and his followers formed another group which later joined the UAP.
Warren Denning wrote in his 1937 book Caucus Crisis: The Rise and Fall of the Scullin Government that “in the Federal sphere Labor did not possess a fundamental unity of viewpoint and policy sufficient to enable it to continue efficiently in office”.
There were some bitter personal divisions within the Scullin government. Yet, for the most part, Labor divided over the proper response to the economic crisis. That is the principal difference between Labor today, which if the polls are correct, will face a defeat akin to that of Labor at the time of Scullin, Lang and Lyons.
All parties have their internal divisions. This is true of Labor, the Liberal Party, the Nationals and the Greens. It’s just that the ALP’s internal disagreements seem more bitter and more protracted than those found within the Coalition.
Following Lyons’ death in office in 1939, Robert Menzies had a difficult time in government before stepping down in favour of Arthur Fadden in August 1941. Fadden’s minority government fell soon after and John Curtin became prime minister in October 1941.
Lyons and Menzies had trouble handling their colleagues. Yet their problems cannot be compared to those endured by Curtin. Despite being prime minister when Australia was under dire threat from Japan, Curtin had to endure the bitter carping and disloyalty of his colleagues Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell, who were opposed to conscription for any military operation beyond Australia’s coastline.
Following Curtin’s death in office in 1945, Chifley led a successful social democratic government until, in 1947, he foolishly threw the switch to socialism and attempted to nationalise the private trading banks. After that Menzies, who founded the Liberal Party in 1944, always seemed destined to defeat Chifley. However, Chifley’s fate was not made any easier when the hater Lang entered the 1949 campaign accusing him of financial impropriety.
Chifley died in 1951 and was succeeded by Bert Evatt as Labor leader. Evatt’s hatred knew no bounds. His attack on the Victorian branch of the ALP in late 1954 instigated the Labor split of the following year which kept the ALP out of office until Gough Whitlam’s victory in December 1972. Evatt had been succeeded by Calwell, another hater, who led his party to three defeats.
Like Scullin, Whitlam had some bad luck due to the international economic downturn. But again, Labor was its own worst enemy with the likes of Lionel Murphy, Jim Cairns, Rex Connor, Clyde Cameron and Whitlam himself leading the dysfunction. What distinguished the Whitlam government from contemporary Labor is that the Whitlam government began to get its affairs back into order in late 1974 and early 1975 due primarily to the appointment of Bill Hayden and Jim McClelland to senior economic positions.
The ALP’s current travails are illustrated by the actions of former Labor leader Mark Latham, a self-confessed hater. In 2010, as a one-off 60 Minutes reporter, Latham effectively stalked Gillard. He rudely confronted the Prime Minister at the Royal Queensland Show in Brisbane and (falsely) accused her of attempting to have him dismissed by Channel 9. Latham went on to urge Australian electors to vote informal since he maintained that Gillard Labor was no better than the Coalition led by Tony Abbott.
Recently Latham broke a commitment not to appear on Q&A. He used the occasion to describe Rudd as “evil”. If Rudd happens to replace Gillard, you get the impression that Latham would do to Rudd in 2013 what he did to Gillard in 2010.
Despite some predictions, it is likely that the ALP will recover its political fortune sometime in the future. The sooner Labor tones down its ethos of hatred, the sooner this is likely to come about.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute