Story of our Country: Labor’s Vision for Australia

by Adrian Pabst

  • Connor Court, September 2019
  • ISBN: 9781925826593
  • RRP $32.95

Reviewed by Keith Harvey

This book is unusual and has entered into Australian political literature in an unusual way. Despite the implication in the title, Adrian Pabst is not an Australian but an active member of the British Labor Party where he is associated with a tendency known as “Blue Labor”.

The book’s primary title can be explained readily enough, since it is part of a quote from Paul Keating who once said: “We at least in the Labor Party know that we are part of a big story, which is also the story of our country”. The sub-title is also a little puzzling, since what is in the book is not in any sense the ALP’s current vision or policy, but the author’s view of what that vision ought to be.

This work is a product of Adrian Pabst’s stint as a Visiting Fellow at the PM Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Invitations to the launch in Melbourne came from the John Curtin Research Centre – a moderate ALP think tank.

To this reviewer’s knowledge, this book has been launched two or three times, on each occasion by a prominent ALP figure. At the first launch in Melbourne, Senator Kim Carr, a veteran Socialist Left faction MP said that the book was written from the perspective of the “Catholic Right” of the ALP. He noted that not so long ago he would most likely not have been asked to launch such a book and would most likely not have agreed to do so. [i]

But, Carr said, times had changed and the ALP house now “has many rooms”. This caused your reviewer to reflect on the fact that Senator Carr’s Socialist left faction was adamantly opposed to allowing your reviewer, and many others, into the ALP in 1984/5, when the Victorian Branches of four key unions (the Clerks’ Union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association [SDA], the Ironworkers’ Union and the Society of Carpenters and Joiners [ASCandJ]) sought re-admission to the ALP, effectively ending the ALP split of 1955. There were not so many rooms then.

Mark Butler also from Labor’s left launched the book in Parliament House, making similar comments to those of Kim Carr:

Now, some might find it strange that I’ve been asked – and agreed – to launch this book as a longstanding member of the Labor Left, about which it’s fair to say Adrian is a little unkind; …”. [ii]

Butler described the ALP as a “broad church” – noting that Pabst did not like the term (which has more often been applied to the Liberal Party than the ALP). ALP National President Wayne Swan – not from the left – also spoke at a launch of the book in Sydney and in doing so recommended that all present read Kim Carr’s speech in Melbourne. [iii] An unusual alignment of the planets.

Missing from this line up of speakers seems to be anybody who might possibly be identified as part of a “Catholic Right” in the ALP. It is clear from the book’s acknowledgements that Pabst spoke to a wide range of political personalities in the process of his research and writing – including some who might be thought to be in the ‘Catholic Right’ of the party. But it is not at all clear on whose behalf in Australia this vision is being presented and who might support it in any concrete manner.

The book has three main chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion. The main chapters consider how the ALP is positioned in a philosophical sense and in its policy appeal to voters. Pabst argues that the party is neglecting its working-class base in favour of “progressive” issues, such as climate change, which he argues are of more interest to middle class voters.

In Chapter 2, Pabst records the role that persons of religious faith – both Protestant and Catholic – played in the formation of the ALP and the broader labor movement in Australia. This has been a long neglected and largely forgotten part of Labor history. At times, both the Churches and the ALP seem to want to forget their presence at the birth.

Pabst notes the role of Protestants in the formation of both the Union movement and through it the ALP (but could have done much more on this subject). It was not Irish Catholics who were the prime movers of the labor movement. It was principally evangelical Christians and, in particular, Methodists who worked closely with working class communities and who realised that to improve the social conditions of workers and their families those workers needed to unionise and then seek representation in Parliament.

Early ALP parliamentary parties – and particularly in South Australia and NSW – were dominated by Methodists and other evangelical Christians. W G Spence – founder of the Shearers Union and the Australian Workers Union (AWU), was a Presbyterian lay preacher (although Pabst in one place incorrectly describes him as a Methodist and later correctly as a Presbyterian, using two different sources). This close connection with evangelical Christianity was lost during the first great split in the ALP during the First World War over the issue of Conscription. Unions and the ALP opposed conscription and many ALP MPs left the party both at a Federal and State level when Bill Hughes’ Labor government sought to introduce conscription for overseas service in 1916.

Catholics then came to play a much more significant role in the ALP – until the 1950s split in the Party also led to a significant exodus of Catholics from the ranks of the party and as voters, particularly in Victoria and Queensland. From this point on, many Catholics viewed the ALP with suspicion and the ALP left in particular seemed to want to do everything possible to make the ALP an inhospitable place for Catholics.

Pabst is particularly keen to emphasise the role of Catholic Social teaching in influencing the policy of the Labor Party. This reviewer shares Pabst’s interest in Catholic social teaching and its application to issue of work and society, but I feel that he has greatly overstated the case that Catholic Social teaching has influenced both ALP and public policy in this country.

One of Pabst’s main sources for a claim that Catholic teaching influenced both the framework of industrial laws and institutions in Australia and wages policy seems to be a 2010 lecture given by former ALP Prime Minister Bob Hawke – the Inaugural Bishop Manning lecture.

Bishop Kevin Manning was a critic of the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation and I can only presume that Hawke was telling his largely Catholic audience what he thought that they might want to hear, namely that H B Higgins,  both as a promoter of a Federal conciliation and arbitration power in the Australian Constitution and as the author the 1907 Harvester ‘living wage’ decision, was implementing the principles of Catholic Social Teaching laid down in Rerum Novarum the first great social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

Hawke certainly makes a claim of this sort in the Manning lecture but it is the only place in which I find that he said this. Even his lecture does not really support his own claim of causation. Hawke says

My friends, in re-reading as I have just done Higgins’ reasoning I had the immediate feeling that I was looking at a rephrasing and fleshing out of Leo’s Rerum Novarum. [iv]

So, this conclusion was based on Hawke’s “feeling” about the judgement. It is true that there are similar words used in Rerum Novarum and the Harvester decision (the word “frugal” being the key one) which might support this position. Michael Kirby has made a similar argument, but Fr Frank Brennan has expressed scepticism. I note that this view of Hawke is not found in his Oxford University thesis on wage fixation in Australia nor in his Memoirs. It is likely that Higgins was expressing a reasonably common view at the time – even Adam Smith had said as far back as 1789:

A man must live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family,..[v]

Pope Leo’s view was important but not unique to him or necessarily an original idea. It appears to me that Hawke was seeking to please his audience – and also to highlight what he claimed was also his own contribution as ACTU Advocate role in ‘preserving’ the original principles of the 1907 Harvester judgment by fixing wages in line with prices and productivity.

I mention this detail only as a word of caution. Pabst’s book seems to accept as truth a number of statements like this as established fact as they appear to support his vision and desire to see a central position for Catholic teaching in ALP and Australian public policy. If only it were so clear. Further research by the author may have revealed the limitations of some of his claims.

Pabst is very keen to claim a role for Catholic Social teaching in ALP policy but appears to be almost totally unaware of the impact of Catholic Social Action on the ALP before, during and after the great Labor split of the 1950s. Many have argued that this event transferred many Catholic votes to the Liberal/National Party coalition and may explains why there are so many prominent Catholics in prominent positions in the Coalition government.

Much of the commentary about this book by the various ALP identities who launched it was a reflection on the reasons why the ALP lost the 2019 election. This is understandable in the circumstances. Pabst certainly has some thoughts on this subject although it may be the case that when he was researching and writing the book he, along with many others, were expecting a Shorten Labor victory. I have the sense that some of this book may have been re-written since May this year.

Nevertheless, Carr, Butler and Swan all reflected on the outcome of the election and the failure of the ALP to attract a vote among many sections of its traditional base. Pabst suggests that the ALP is now most closely aligned with a middle class, progressive secular and metropolitan electorate and less well connected with outer suburban, rural, regional and socially conservative (including religious) communities.

In the book’s final major chapter, Pabst presents a number of policy issues that he sees as important to a Labor revival. He criticises the Victorian Labor Andrews government’s legalisation of euthanasia (quoting Keating and Senator Pat Dodson), argues for more “family friendly” policies, including a family wage (highly unlikely to gain any support) and promotes vocational and technical education. This is the weakest section of the book as the ideas expressed do not appear to be highly developed or represent much of a call to arms.

Pabst calls on the ALP to adopt a type of “radical conservativism” that promotes the real economic and social needs of Australia’s working and middle classes while not being seen as the enemy of those voters with more conservative family and moral values. This position has more merit. It is a major challenge for the Party, which was perceived, for example, to be playing both sides of the street on the proposed Adani coal mine issue. However, it is possible that the outcome of the election was determined more on the personality of the leaders and the taxation policies of the parties than on the other issues that Pabst has identified.

In any case, a middle way is hard to find in an increasingly complex yet polarised society in which both individual choices are to be respected and decent social and economic outcomes sought. Pabst attempts to find such a way, but this debate – if indeed he succeeds in provoking one – has a long way to run yet.

Adrian Pabst, Story of Our Country – Labor’s vision for Australia, The Kapunda Press [Connor Court Publishing] 2019, $32.95





[iv]  The inaugural Bishop Manning Lecture Bob Hawke 1929- 7/10/10

[v] J Rob Bray The Australian Minimum Wage and the Needs of a Family, A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University, July 2018, p 52