Federal Politics


Past and present are not one

The processes of respecting yesterday while dealing with today should be kept separate issues, writes John Warhurst

The Labor Party has many widely recognised faults, but at least it respects its own long history and has a propensity to be candid about its contemporary problems.

It is a party of writers and readers. Indeed, it has a real passion for writing about itself and for airing its own limitations in public.

From time to time its members, including former MPs and staffers, overdo both of these things. Respect can become a white-washed adulation of the past, and candid discussion can become a substitute for action. Labor stands out from other political parties in this way.

The other major parties are very different. They pay much less respect to their own history, a fact bemoaned from time to time by sympathetic historians.

There has been some recent improvement in this respect within the Nationals in particular, but the overall judgment is still a fair one.

There are many possible reasons for this cultural difference between the parties, including the socio-economic composition of the Labor party and especially the political sympathies of the reading and writing professions.


However, these potential reasons have never seemed to me to be a wholly convincing explanation of the extent of the differences from the Liberals and the Nationals.

There must be more to it.

NSW Labor Senator John Faulkner, who is very much in the news at the moment, is the best example of these tendencies within the contemporary Labor Party. He also stands out within the whole parliament in this respect. He tries to perform the twin roles of historian and conscience.

He may even be remembered more in years to come for these roles than for his successful periods as a minister.

As far as party history is concerned he not only writes his own contributions and edits his own books, but he also takes a special interest in what others are doing in this regard.

He is widely respected for this and was, therefore, a natural choice last week in Canberra to launch For the True Believers: Great Labor Speeches that Shaped History, edited by Troy Bramston, an extensive contributor himself to recent Labor history in NSW and Australia-wide, as well as being a former Rudd speechwriter and a political commentator for The Australian with strong opinions about modern Labor's problems.

This book, dealing with just one side of politics by definition, is a valuable resource for the regular commemorations of memorable speeches that we seem to be in the midst of at the moment. It contains, for instance, both Gough Whitlam's 1972 ''It's Time'' election campaign speech (the 4oth anniversary) and Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern speech on reconciliation (the 20th anniversary).

In terms of contemporary analysis of Labor, and the body politic more generally, Faulkner can be hard-hitting while also rising above the ''who did what to whom'' genre favoured by many participants in the Rudd-Gillard era. He has done that in his recent ''voice in the wilderness'' calls for the abolition of Labor's deeply embedded party factions. Furthermore, he has called for immediate adoption of a much-delayed code of conduct for MPs.

He tries to rise above personality politics to identify key principles and themes. His main concern is the well-being of the Party, of course, and he plays his adversarial politics hard; but he also tries to stand above the fray and seeks better parliamentary politics across the board.

It can be easier to be a historian than a conscience. No doubt Faulkner realises this. The past can be more satisfying to analyse than the present. This is why we must be careful about comparing the two. There is a real danger in measuring the best of the past against the worst of the present. We may not do this explicitly, but sometimes we fall into the trap of doing it subconsciously.

In my view it is a mistake to think that there was ever a golden age of politics, and I sometimes worry that the type of criticisms of modern politics that I and others engage in from time to time may unintentionally give this impression. Modern leaders, even when their speeches are included in books such as the Bramston collection - as are Kevin Rudd (four, including his apology to the stolen generations) and Julia Gillard (two, including her condolences to the victims of the Victorian bushfires) - are considered warts and all.

Their flaws are fresh in our minds. By contrast the faults of past leaders can fade away while their great speeches remain.

This is the case, for instance, with Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating. Each was a relatively short-term prime minister yet their best work in terms of speeches is voluminous. Bramston includes 13 by Keating and nine by Whitlam.

More important than any personal comparisons between Whitlam/Keating and Rudd/Gillard is the fact that the earlier prime ministers presided over parties and parliaments with comparable flaws to those that Faulkner rightly brings to our attention now.

Whitlam, ultimately brought down by the Governor-General, was handicapped most by the weaknesses of his own party and the leading figures it produced as government ministers. Keating, ultimately thrashed by John Howard, had to fight his own internal party battles before he finally became prime minister.

The two enterprises, reminiscences about history and debates about the present, should be kept as separate as possible. John Faulkner wears two quite different hats and he himself recognises the difference. But often they are conflated in public discussion. Let's not get too carried away by the selective grandeur of the past when we reflect on the genuine limitations of the present.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.