|Description||The Australian Labor Party is Australia's only national political party, with branches in every State and Territory.
It is also Australia's oldest political Party, having celebrated its centenary in 1991. The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party celebrated its centenary on 8 May, 2001.
The ALP is made up of a diverse group of people with common goals who work together to represent a range of interests and outlooks.
Some general information about the Australian Labor Party, its origins and history, membership, organisational structure, values and beliefs has been assembled on this website. If you require more information we can recommend the following books:
McMullin, Ross; The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991 (Oxford University Press, 1991)
Faulkner & Macintyre (eds); True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (Allen & Unwin, 2001)
A Genuine Labor Party
The Australian Labor Party is one of a small group of political parties which are genuine labour parties: where the trade unions are affiliated directly to the party. This distinguishes a labour party from social democratic parties, although many have common ideals and philosophies, and from other broadly-based progressive parties like America's Democratic Party.
In labour parties, the trade unions do not merely support the party. They form part of its structure by being affiliated with it.
The only other parties which are strictly comparable with the Australian Labor Party are the New Zealand and British Labour parties which affiliate trade unions at a national level. Australian unions affiliate at a State level but the broad party structure is the same.
The Scandinavian Labour parties of Sweden and Norway have some similarity, with local branches of unions affiliated with local branches of the party. Labour parties exist also in Canada, Ireland and Israel. Labour parties are rare but where they exist they have been enduring and influential.The Australian Labor Party, which celebrated its centenary in 1991 is Australia's oldest political party.
It is about 30 years older than the Country Party and more than 50 years older than the Liberal Party.
Origins of Labor in Parliament
Labor became a Federal Party when the former colonies of Australia federated in 1901.
Separate labour parties had been established in the colonies during the formative decade of the 1890s.
These parties were sponsored by the trade union movement, to help get sympathetic politicians elected to colonial parliaments. In Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, there were no strong and coherent labour parties until after federation.
However, by 1900 strong labour parties had emerged in Queensland and New South Wales, quickly taking up a prominent role in Parliamentary politics.
Australia's first labour government took office in Queensland in 1899. It lasted seven days. Although these early labour parties were strongly influenced by the trade unions, they were never confined to union membership and interests. Their earliest programs and platforms show that they sought the support of farmers, small businessmen and non-union employees including clerical and other white-collar workers.
From the start the Labour Party was essentially a pragmatic and non-doctrinaire party, representing a broad range of social and economic interests. It was broad in appeal and moderate in aim, although this did not stop its opponents from attacking it as extremist.
The Australian Labor Party entered federal politics at the first Commonwealth elections of 1901, when 16 Labor members were elected to the House of Representatives and eight to the Senate. They met before the first sitting of Parliament on 8 May 1901 and agreed to form a Federal Labor Party. J.C. (Chris) Watson, a Sydney printer and a former member of the NSW Parliament, was elected the first Leader of the Party.
Labor and Labour
During the early years of the ALP, the Party was referred to by various titles differing from colony to colony. It was at the 1908 Interstate (federal) Conference that the name "Australian Labour Party" was adopted. In its shortened form the Party was frequently referred to as both 'Labor' and 'Labour', however the former spelling was adopted from 1912 onwards, due to the influence of the American labor movement.
First Labor Government
During the first decade of the Commonwealth when the national Parliament was divided on the tariff issue between Free Traders, Protectionists and the Labor Party, the ALP gradually increased its numbers and influence. Initially the Labor Party was weaker in numbers but more coherent and tightly organised than the amorphous free trade and protection factions. The support of the Labor Party was often decisive in getting important measures through the Parliament.
Australia's first Labor Government took office in May 1904, with Watson as the first Labor Prime Minister. It was a minority Government and lasted just over three months.
In the following years, the Labor Party mostly supported the Liberal protectionist policies of Alfred Deakin. In October 1907 Watson was succeeded as Leader by Andrew Fisher, a miner from Gympie in Queensland. Fisher formed the second Labor Government in October 1908, a minority Government, which, with Deakin's support, lasted until June 1909. At the elections of April 1910, Labor won a majority in both Houses and for the first time was able to embark on a program of reform and innovation.
It founded a Commonwealth Bank, introduced a maternity allowance, established a Navy, brought more employees within the scope of Federal Industrial Law, took over the issuing of bank notes, and introduced a per capita system of payments to the States.
The Government was defeated in May 1913, but won a subsequent double dissolution election in September 1914. Fisher was again elected Prime Minister as Australia entered World War 1. The Fisher Government was committed to the war and to the strong patriotic sentiments which it aroused.
In October 1915, Fisher resigned to become Australian High Commissioner in London, and W.M. Hughes who had been prominent in Labor politics for more than 20 years became Prime Minister.
Division and Frustration in Office
The ALP was the world's first successful Labor Party by an overwhelming margin; by 1915 it had formed three governments in the Federal Parliament and had governed in all States, although only very briefly in Victoria. During the Great War Labor became in effect a victim of its rapid progress. Whereas Labor's equivalents in other nations involved in the conflict merely had to react to their respective governments' administration of the war, Labor in Australia had the onerous undertaking of directing their country's involvement in a conflagration far beyond anyone's expectation or experience. The resulting pressures created acute difficulties for the Party.
Labor's success at winning office meant that its Governments could be judged on their record and, despite some achievements, inevitably sections of the movement were disappointed. In particular, important elements of the union leadership in the powerful States of Victoria and New South Wales were disappointed at what Labor governments had achieved. Labor governments often took office at times of economic difficulty. As employers in industries such as State railways and other State utilities, State Labor governments did not completely satisfy the unions.
Bread and butter irritants became mixed with broader social and political differences among elements of the labour movement and these pressures culminated in the great struggles over conscription in 1916 and 1917. Conscription was supported by a majority of leading Labor politicians and opposed by nearly all union leaders. The union officials and other elements within the Party used their control over the Party organisation to eject pro-conscriptionist politicians from the Party.
In the process the Federal Labor Government was destroyed. Hughes and 23 ALP Parliamentarians left the Party and joined with the Opposition to form a Nationalist Government.
A weakened Labor Party struggled through the next 10 years trying to re-establish the political supremacy it had lost in the conscriptionist split. It was led by Frank Tudor who replaced Hughes, and then by Matthew Charlton. Both were solid trade unionists who could not match the popular appeal of the Nationalist Party Leaders, Hughes and Bruce. The Federal Party did not recover until 1929 when the National-Country Party coalition was defeated after it tried to impose punitive industrial legislation. The ALP won the election of October 1929, and its Leader, J.H. Scullin, became Prime Minister.
The Scullin Government was soon engulfed in the world-wide depression. It proved incapable of evolving the economic and social policies needed to maintain living standards and social services, although it was badly hampered because it did not control the Senate. The Scullin Government was defeated in the Parliament in November 1931 and lost the subsequent election.
J.A. Lyons, a Minister in the Scullin Government, left the Party with a group of dissidents opposed to the Government's economic policy. They joined with the Opposition to form the United Australia Party with Lyons as Prime Minister. Discontent which had simmered between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement broke out into open factional warfare during the 1930s.
A number of Labor politicians at both Federal and State levels were expelled, and splinter parties were formed.
The Curtin and Chifley Governments
Factional disputes within the Party were not quelled until late in the decade. Scullin was succeeded as federal leader in 1935 by John Curtin who gradually re-built the Federal Party and restored its electoral appeal and effectiveness. Curtin became war-time Prime Minister in October 1941. He gave resolute and inspiring leadership to the Australian people during the war and a group of experienced and capable Ministers provided the administrative backup needed for a successful war effort. The Curtin Government also devoted considerable attention to drawing up a blueprint for post-war reconstruction of Australia.
Curtin died in July 1945 and was succeeded by J.B. Chifley who implemented the ALP's plans for post-war reconstruction.
The Chifley Government achieved some notable reforms, but was hampered by constitutional impediments. Electoral reaction against war-time austerity and post-war rationing and controls was an important factor in the defeat of the Chifley Government in December 1949.
Chifley died in June 1951 and Dr H.V. Evatt was elected Leader.
Labor narrowly lost the Federal election of 1954 after the Coalition Government used the Petrov Royal Commission and anti-communist scare-tactics as a cynical diversion.
During the 1940s and early 1950s strong pressures had built up within the labour movement over the activities of Communists in the trade unions. The Communist Party was then a united and coherent political unit and a number of its members reached prominent positions in trade unions. This created problems for the ALP because it meant that part of its affiliated membership was under the leadership and influence of another political party. Counter movements were formed within and without the ALP to fight communism. The most important was an organisation known as "The Movement" led by B.A. Santamaria and strongly influenced by Catholic social doctrines.
In 1945 the ALP had set up Industrial Groups in some States to oppose Communists in union elections. "The Movement", which operated as a secret organisation, dominated many of the Industrial Groups and built up increasing influence within the Party itself. In a protracted struggle between 1954 and 1957, supporters of "The Movement" and the Industrial Groups were forced out of the ALP, which tacitly gave up any claim to intervene directly in union affairs.
In the following years, the Communist Party split into three competing factions. No longer was there any large, powerful and united group of union leaders outside the ranks of the ALP.
The great purge of "The Movement" and the Industrial Groups left the ALP in an extremely weakened position. The Party lost three elections under Evatt, who resigned in 1960. Under a new Leader, Arthur Calwell, Labor almost won the 1961 election, when the electorate swung strongly against the Menzies Government after a stringent credit squeeze. The Party's political fortunes declined in the following years, plunging to a disastrous defeat in the 1966 election, which was dominated by the participation of Australian troops in the Vietnam War and Labor's opposition to the war.
The Whitlam Years
Under a new Leader, E.G. (Gough) Whitlam, the Party rapidly recovered in the closing years of the 1960s. Whitlam embarked on an ambitious program of policy reform, linking it with important changes in the Party machinery. Labor narrowly lost the 1969 election, but won comfortably in 1972.
Between 1972 and 1975 the Labor Government attempted a wide-ranging program of reform extending over every area of public policy. It made many significant advances but its efforts were frustrated by an Opposition majority in the Senate. This sparked a double dissolution election in May 1974 which Labor won with a reduced majority, although it failed narrowly to win a majority in the Sen