Canberra: A Labor town or an effective branch of the party?

Canberra: A Labor town or an effective branch of the party?

The ACT branch keeps winning because it resists union power and pursues enlightened social policies.

The Australian Labor Party is not a terribly alluring outfit these days. Any core cohesive beliefs are difficult to identify while its membership base badly needs resuscitating and is still under the thumb of factional hacks. This unattractiveness makes it harder for the ALP to produce stable, reforming governments anywhere in the continent.

Amid the encircling gloom, however, the autonomous ACT branch of the ALP is something of a beacon. It is genuinely successful: it wins elections and has positive policy outcomes.

Paint the town red: Chief Minister Katy Gallagher wins her first election as party leader in 2012.

Paint the town red: Chief Minister Katy Gallagher wins her first election as party leader in 2012.Credit:Graham Tidy

Among the nine current heads of government at the federal, state and territory level, Labor's ACT Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, is the second-longest serving, behind Western Australia's Colin Barnett. Her party has been in office since 2001, making it the current longest-serving governing party at the federal, state or territory level.


Gallagher's personal style is so severely understated that it is easy to overlook the winning nature of the Labor brand in the ACT. This is where Chris Monnox's timely chronicle of local Laborism, ACT Labor 1929-2009: A short history, comes in. It examines the historic reasons for Labor's recent success in the city.

Jon Stanhope was chief minister for almost 10 years and is one of Australia's most successful Labor leaders.

Jon Stanhope was chief minister for almost 10 years and is one of Australia's most successful Labor leaders.Credit:Graham Tidy

Monnox's brisk, 96-page book is derived from an honours thesis. Because it is an undergraduate work, it cannot claim to be comprehensive but, nevertheless, it is a lucid and persuasive account of the ALP's ability to adapt and thrive amid ever-changing circumstances in ACT politics.

Monnox is careful to note that Canberra, contrary to mythology about how public servants vote, is not necessarily ''a Labor town''. Federal and (since 1989) ACT Labor governments and politicians have shown a capacity to match their Liberal opponents in alienating Canberra voters. In territory elections in 1974, 1989 and 1998, the Labor vote dipped below 30 per cent.

The potential softness of the ALP's vote in the ACT was exploited by Kate Carnell at the height of her career as chief minister. At other times since the 1980s, the Canberra Liberals, either because of internal divisions or because of the wider party's occasional fondness for hard-right ideology, could be counted on to prop up support for ACT Labor.

Monnox's key point, however, is that ACT Labor has a sound record of relying on more than mere negative support. It has traditional wells of positive sentiment to draw on, too. He identifies a number of reasons for ACT Labor's tendency to come out on top in territory elections. One is an enduring openness to community concerns and input. Municipal issues have never been fenced off in a separate jurisdiction in the ACT and recognition of the importance of grassroots concerns has been a default position for ACT Labor since the days of Jim Fraser in the 1950s.

Former Labor leader Wayne Berry's "wonted pugnaciousness" proved ineffective.

Former Labor leader Wayne Berry's "wonted pugnaciousness" proved ineffective.Credit:Kym Smith

This community focus was revitalised in 1998, when a form of the Hare-Clark voting system was adopted for territory elections. Individual candidates need to command recognition in their local area to do well under Hare-Clark and, judging by results, ACT Labor has succeeded in attracting or cultivating such candidates.

Another great source of enduring identity and fighting morale is ACT Labor's ability, since the late 1960s, to be in the forefront of the leading progressive movements of the day, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, a commitment to feminism and affirmative action, hostility to uranium mining and nuclear weapons and, increasingly these days, support for marriage equality.


In 1971, ACT Labor, already known for its reforming bent, gained autonomy from the right-wing state Labor machine in Sydney, which had previously overseen its affairs. A sense of liberation prevailed. In the form of a branch council, the newly autonomous ACT branch gave institutional expression to the right of every member to, as Monnox notes, ''effectively and directly participate in the affairs of the party''. There were initially too few affiliated unions in the ACT branch to counteract the free input into policy and preselection matters emanating from individual party members.

Importantly, ACT Labor's community focus and its relentless progressive bent must mesh together smoothly for lasting success to be possible. When these two strands do come together, ACT Labor is a formidable force indeed. It embodies the concerns of comfortable, tertiary-educated and community-minded middle-class citizens who are used to setting the tone in Canberra.

Monnox neatly documents how the injection of anything with a downmarket or proletarian air about it poses a distinct threat to the homely version of bourgeois hegemony that characterises ACT Labor. The intrusion of traditional, male, working-class elements and values into its cosy world is, he rightly indicates, a ''mismatch''. The result is internal instability.

Monnox highlights the resentment caused among some middle-class Laborites in the ACT when confronted with the growing internal influence of the more militant of the affiliated unions (notably the CFMEU) in the 1990s. A key sticking point was the imposition of a divisive preselection-panel system that favored the affiliated unions at the expense of the local party's customary, far more open candidate-selection process.

Class prejudice worked against erstwhile trade union firebrand Wayne Berry when he led the party from 1997 to 1998. His wonted pugnaciousness dwindled into ineffectiveness.

Under Berry's successors Jon Stanhope and then Gallagher, ACT Labor has rowed back from its working-class turn, symbolised by the abolition of the preselection panels. At the same time, it has reaffirmed its abiding self-image as ''a socially progressive government that takes human rights seriously''.

The resulting temporal success has calmed any qualms that Gallagher and her team may otherwise feel at being in charge of a local political party that insists on retaining the name Labor but in which it is a distinct handicap for any would-be leader, within the party as well as without, to be too obviously working class in origin or orientation. This is a mildly Orwellian situation.

Monnox's focus is on developments since the late 1960s, when progressive middle-class elements took over ACT Labor. His coverage of the first 40 years or so of Labor's existence in the ACT, when a secularised bourgeoisie had yet to dominate, is far less detailed, even though much of interest happened in these early decades.

Some of the resulting omissions are truly regrettable. Monnox does not examine the link between the local ALP membership and the organised agitation that took place in the national capital in the 1930s in support of relief work for people who would otherwise have been unemployed. Nor does he delve much into the emergence, in the late 1940s, of capable Laborites in Canberra such as Fred Quinane or Bill Byrne, who were linked to B. A. Santamaria and his secretive anti-communist movement.

This means a definitive history of the ALP in Canberra since the creation of a local party cell in 1929 has yet to be written. But judging by his crisp and well-researched debut as a committed yet candid Labor writer, Monnox stands out as the obvious person to write such a work.

For immediate purposes, though, Monnox unquestionably has something interesting to say on the highly pertinent topic of what the ALP must do to remain a viable force in Australian politics. He has shown how ACT Labor has thrived since 2001 by moderating the power of affiliated unions while being unwavering in its pursuit of an enlightened social agenda. The bulk of the party outside the ACT would do well to emulate this approach if it is at all serious about survival.

Stephen Holt is a freelance writer with an interest in Canberra and political history.

ACT Labor 1929-2009: a short history, by Chris Monnox, Ginninderra Press, 2013. RRP: $22

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