Abridged history of Labor tantrums

Okay, let's put it into perspective.

What has been going on in the Labor Party is not Apocalypse Now. It is not the end of the world and it is not the end of the party. It is just a stoush over the leadership; a particularly vicious and nasty one, but just a stoush nonetheless.

Superficially the conflict may seem profound, but deep down it's really shallow. It's all about personalities, not about ideology. In policy terms Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd are in complete harmony about everything that matters; there may be differences of emphasis and the odd tiff about the speed and method of implementation, but there is furious agreement about the substance.

Both are genuine social democrats in the mainstream Labor tradition, seriously interested in reform and eschewing the extremes of left and right. Their battles are not the kind to bring on feuds, splits, revolts and rebellion. Indeed, when you look back at the ALP's long and tumultuous history they amount to little more than an unusually unpleasant domestic spat.

The party was born to trouble; the child of the great industrial confrontations of the 1890s, and seems to have spent much of the next 120 years lurching, as its enemies like to put it, from crisis to crisis. It had a place in the Commonwealth Parliament from Federation in 1901 and had an uneasy try at minority government under Chris Watson as early as 1904. It didn't last, but in 1908 Andrew Fisher led it back to a more stable regime and became Prime Minister with the support of Alfred Deakin.

But in 1909 Deakin decided that Labor was the real threat, and took his protectionists across the floor to merge with Joseph Cook's anti-socialist free traders. There were screams of betrayal, of war to the knife, to the stiletto; so vitriolic was Labor's fury that the ensuing chaos caused the speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, to drop dead on the spot. Fisher regained government in his own right in 1910, making Labor the nation's first majority government.

But it was too good to last; on Fisher's retirement Billy Hughes took over and promptly caused its first great split over the question of conscription. This was an issue that went to the heart and soul of the party, a rift that could not be healed. Eventually Hughes led his followers out of the party room to merge with the Nationalist opposition.

The young John Curtin tearfully accused Hughes of trying to smash the Labor Party. Hughes replied prophetically: "I couldn't do that. No one can smash the Labor Party."

And he was right, but it was 13 years before they returned to the Treasury benches under the hapless Jimmy Scullin, who was faced with not only the Great Depression, but two separate splits: one from the left-wing followers of the radical New South Wales Premier Jack Lang (led by "Stabber Jack" Beasley) and one from allies of Joe Lyons who, miffed at having been denied the Treasury portfolio, deserted to the Nationalists to become the first leader of the United Australia Party.

The UAP creamed Labor at the election that followed: the party's best and brightest, including Curtin and Ben Chifley, lost their seats and the party was once more declared finished. But again it clawed its way back and in 1941 Curtin became Prime Minister to take Australia almost through the war, until Chifley took over the task of post-war reconstruction.

It ended in 1949, with Labor confident of an early comeback. Bert Evatt nearly brought it off in 1954, but then came the second great split between the predominantly Roman Catholic right and the radical, occasionally pro-communist left. This took on the dimensions of a holy war, but this time those who deserted the party did not join the enemy but formed their own Democratic Labor Party, which kept the ALP from office for 15 more years.

And it underwent further internal skirmishes until Gough Whitlam emerged as leader to take it to victory in 1972, a victory which many believed could never come to a party they had written off as damaged beyond repair. But then, after three frenetic years, the Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked the government, de-legitimising not only Whitlam, but also the entire party in the eyes of many voters. After two catastrophic election defeats Labor was, once again, declared dead and buried.

And once again it came back to 13 years of triumphant government under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating before giving way to another lengthy conservative regime under John Howard from which, it was said yet again, it could never recover - until Kevin Rudd …

And now, once again, it is all doom and gloom. Some hysterical commentators have claimed that the present kerfuffle is comparable to the great upheavals of the past, but obviously they have never read the history. The Gillard/ Rudd saga is, of course, immensely damaging to Labor and will almost certainly cost it government, but it is no more likely to destroy Labor than the ongoing vendetta between Andrew Peacock and John Howard was to destroy the Liberals back in the 1980s.

And, when you boil it down, for the same reasons: it is a massive ruckus over nothing much that matters, a simple clash of hurt feelings and wounded egos, a bonfire, to coin a phrase, of political vanities. This does not mean that the emotional commitment of the contestants, or of their supporters, is any the less passionate or sincere; as we know, it is often the most trivial slights that induce the most enduring resentments. But it does mean that yes, the party can and will get over it - eventually.

The talent and commitment is there: Chris Bowen and Tanya Plibersek, to name but two of the most interesting of the new guard, will not pick up their bongos and go home just because the oldies are bluing in the kitchen. And while they may not know a lot about Billy Hughes, or like what they do know, they would certainly agree with his thoughts of 1915: No one can smash the Labor Party. If no-one has managed so far, it's certainly not about to happen over the present tantrums.

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