THE AUSTRALIAN Labor Party is Australia’s oldest political party, with a proud history of grassroots activism that continues to this day. Author Chris Bowen does a wonderful job of exploring the lives of six ordinary members of the party who made extraordinary contributions to that history.
In a refreshing change from the jingoism and gushing reverence that’s often a feature of politically inspired biography, Bowen tells their stories in a matter-of-fact tone, but clearly with great respect for their work and commitment. In doing so, he provides us with a snapshot of the periods in which they lived and worked. We also enjoy a good look at the people they worked with and the political and cultural environments they inhabited. It’s a fascinating tour through the vast changes that have occurred in Australian politics.
Bowen starts us off with the story of Gregor McGregor, the Scottish Republican who entered Federal Parliament completely blind after a career in unionism and South Australian politics and became Deputy Leader. He went on to be part of the tumult around Federation and the dreadful times of the Great War when then Prime Minister William Hughes split the party over the issue of conscription.
He follows it up with the inspirational story of suffragist Lillian Locke, another passionate trade unionist. Her commitment to the party saw her cut ties with her suffragist colleagues, including the hugely influential feminist Vida Goldstein. She did all that while enduring a very difficult family life and married to a husband who was also deeply enmeshed in political affairs — a really remarkable woman.
The other lives discussed are equally as interesting with the common thread of ordinary people who found themselves thrust into positions in which their personal judgement was called upon and they stood proud to deliver it.
Frank Tudor, the tradesman hatter, moved the formation of the Commonwealth Bank and led the party through the dark days after Hughes split Labor. Gertrude Melville, among her many other achievements, was responsible for casting a light into the dark spaces of police corruption and brutality. Her efforts went unrewarded, but the Wood Royal Commission showed how important they were.
John Dedman was the staunch, steady voice chosen by Prime Minister of the day John Curtin when he was faced with leading a nation at war. Ken Wriedt served through the upheaval of the Whitlam Dismissal and worked quietly to try to ensure the political fallout was contained while navigating the huge egos that dominated Canberra.
The one constant, from the period leading up to Federation through to the present day, is that Labor and its “true believers” were always there, while other parties have come and gone. The changes to parliamentary and voting models; the arguments over conscription and suffrage; the splits in the party when personal ambition and divided loyalties overcame solidarity and the fight to investigate corruption and brutality in the NSW police that went nowhere — they’re all here.
Bowen has picked six people who couldn’t be more different in themselves, but who all showed the same passionate commitment to fairness and progressive politics that still drives Labor people today.
Given the desperate state that our country finds itself in today after several decades of politics dominated by the divisive, destructive, irrational “economic rationalism” of former Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard and the small ultra-wealthy cohort that own Australia’s conservative parties and their agendas, this book is a refreshing tonic for this Labor person — it’s also a bloody good read.
‘Labor People: The Stories of Six True Believers’ is available from Booktopia for $24.25 (paperback) RRP.
This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.
Craig Minns is an accidental truckie, frequently bored, a unionist and an armchair philosopher.
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