Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.

While communism was the issue that caused the 1954 Labor split (the other two being over conscription in 1916 and economics in 1931), there were major underlying forces which were driving it, some of which are still relevant today. First and perhaps most importantly was Evatt himself, or rather what he represented : the increasingly middle class origin of Labor MP’s and the parties shift from a workers union party to a social democratic/liberal one. Likewise the ALP despite being the party of the left, had always maintained a strong conservative streak that was threatening to shift in the post war progressive era. And finally, again represented by Evatt, the ALP was beginning to turn to the wider world for its foreign policy “free of the pangs of tradition or kinship” and become internationalist and proudly australian rather than British-Australian, a trend fiercely resisted and like the other shifts seen as a turn away from the allied fight against communism. Had the ALP gone under and the DLP taken its place, our two major party leaders, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott would probably today be united within its ranks.

Tony Abbott is perhaps the closest a DLP sympathiser has ever come to the Lodge. Abbott openly admits having grown up at the knee of B.A Santamaria, describing him after his death as “a philosophical star by which you could always steer”. Abbott is certainly a smart man, but his ideology is a defence of his identity rather than a reasoned path for social improvement. In this he is a true conservative, who holds his values of Family, Faith, Individual development and Personal responsibility and later tries to find reasons to justify them (though always to others, never needing to for himself). He is in many ways more defined by who he opposes (those who would upset this order) than by what he supports (as compared to his later mentor John Howard). Abbott is of course a man of strong catholic faith, who spent his adolescence boxing with the idea of becoming a priest, though his natural desires for a social and active life denied him this path. The DLP wasn’t the political arm of the Catholic Church as some portray, but it was certainly Catholic in its conservative attitudes towards women, social mobility, communitarianism and economics. Tony Abbott represents all these values, albeit with a modern update. He has an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of modern promiscuous women (though this is often overplayed), and related is his concern about the rapid change in social fortunes of various groups. He isn’t hostile so much as concerned that the changes (from suburban working class to inner city millionare and back in 2 generations) is neither good for the individuals or the wider society. He may attack the unions as a damaging economic force, but he is a social joiner, in his various community groups, surf life saving society, rural firefighters, and so on. For reasons of political allegiance (like the DLP & the problem of communists) finds himself forced to oppose trade unions, but he has an inherent sympathy for voluntary associations directed towards specific community problems as even his Liberal Party colleagues willingly acknowledge.

Despite the fact that Tony Abbott worked for John Hewson (with whom he had a major falling out) and later was mentored by John Howard, Tony Abbott has never been a convert to the economic liberalism of the party he leads. In a 1995 in chapter for a book on Australian relations with Asia, Tony Abbott made his stand against much of the Hawke/Keating governments economic reforms:

“His [Keating’s] Asian crusade is simply the second phase of a long battle – hithero fought around Australia’s economic structures to extirpate the legacy of Menzies. The first phase meant changing Australias economic structures and breaking down the old business establishment….Asia played little part in his drive to ‘reform’ economic institutions – after all, most Asian governments pursue pragmatic interventionist economic policies similar to those of pre-Keating Australia” (Abbott in Sheridan Living with Dragons 1995:200).

That is, the economic change of the 1980s was simply class and ideological warfare and while Abbott doesn’t come from money, he is aghast at the thought of the loss of the old conservative business class. By the time he came to write his 2009 book Battlelines, he had clearly accepted much of the wisdom of the Howard era of economics, but you could see he was still trying to define ways for him to support the policies he did against the words he could no longer use. Welfare is a dirty word, but instead a family wage is something to endorse, when helping the poor disincentives and moral traps appear with government provided social services while the idea of means-testing benefits for the middle class is something to scorn. It’s not a intellectually coherent mix, but it’s enough for him to get by. He speaks the language of a free market liberal while trying to sneak more conservative social-support economics in the back door. That Abbott never addresses this contradiction is perhaps the biggest intellectual weakness of his book, but given he was at the time of writing clearly angling himself towards the Liberal Parties leadership it’s not surprising he didn’t reveal his real distance from the parties mainstream.

Tony Abbott joined the Liberal Party because he wanted a structure to allow him to enter public life and he couldn’t abide by the ALP’s progressivism (interestingly Costello reveals a similar motive of hating the left as the reason he joined the party rather than a positive endorsement of the Liberal Parties policies). Abbott is too smart to give away the game (the Servant of Two Masters problem I remarked on a little while ago) but while the media will see it as pandering, Abbott will be honest (and honestly convincing) as he goes about ensuring grandma and the disabled that he wants to see them helped along by government, all the while arguing in his speeches (aimed at the business class/media) for reform, deregulation, and individual responsibility.

However Tony Abbott isn’t the only figure on the public stage today who represents a modern DLP sentiment. The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could also be said to fit within its confines. While he shifted from Catholicism to Anglicanism early in life, he retains that slightly too earnest invocation of faith which isolated a lot of people from the DLP during its time, and has strangely not yet rebounded on Rudd. On economics he took to the attacks on neo-liberalism with glee, not because he is a socialist (as the intellectual pygmy Julie Bishop charges) but because he sees a vision of government as a social support structure, which policies such as work choices fundamentally threatened to change. This is not government intervention for its own sake or because the markets don’t work, but rather government as the shield on which each can rely whilst engaging the chaos of market economics and the wider world. The more we embrace market competition (which Rudd does) paradoxically the more we need a strong government.

Perhaps uniquely amongst sucessful ALP leaders, Rudd has never been able to command the support of a majority of his own party. Instead he has climbed to the top because of the support of the Left’s Julia Gillard. Yet Rudd is not only not of the left, he is often deeply hostile to it. He see’s himself as a part of that long ALP tradition of having to dominate the left wing in order to look respectable to the mainstream public, so even the idea of debating issues such as Gay Marriage, changing drug laws and so on is rejected outright. Rudd has a rural working class background that is somewhat at odds with the urban middle class nature of the ALP today. The only area he has truely split from the DLP approach is that he is internationalist in outlook (support for regional institutions, the UN) but here his support is seen as part of an “enlarging vision” to take Chifley’s Light on the hill beyond the borders of the Australian shore and to the wider world, as he argues in his 2006 The Monthly article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

So does this mean anything? Is it significant that the two major party leaders lead parties they don’t comfortably fit into?. They both appeal to the same stream of Australian political thought that is conservative, religious, and supports government intervention whilst being deeply hostile to left/progressive/liberalism. The DLP version was a more extreme minority strain of this thought, but such a pattern isn’t too different from the “Australian Settlement” that made up the first 80 years of Australia’s federal policy. Many had declared that trend over with the post-cold war ‘end of history’, (and the almost equally as vicious internal party fights between the wets & drys in the liberal party), but Abbott and Rudd seem to prove otherwise.

The DLP died out in 1978, but a successor organisation is still around, and as I found out when in Adelaide recently, this new DLP is running candidates for the upcoming state election. They won’t win, probably wont even be noticed (certainly the name DLP no longer means anything to the majority of the population, save those born prior to 1940) but it is a sign of an ongoing australian way of looking at the world. Conservative, though finding a home in both the ALP & the Liberal Party, Religious, but respectful of the church/state divide, supportive of an interventionist government, yet never socialist or free marketeer, and finally deeply patriotic, originally as an insular nationalist form, but Rudd seems to be taking it in a social worker/regional leader style form to the wider world.

This may just be a death throes, with tony and kevin the last of their line. What the other traditions of australian political thought, especially the liberal arms on the right and left will make of it is hard to see, but neither will be happy being offset having thought that they had firmly taken over their parties in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But it is worth recording, for whatever it is, both good and ill, it is identifiably Australian.

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  1. The DLP has stood in every Federal Election since its inception.
    They had an MLC, Peter Kavanagh elected in 2006 in Victoria and will be contesting federal seats in most mainland States in the upcoming Federal Election.
    The party is continueing to grow around the country and should start to gain federal representation again in the not too distant future. Possibly in 2010.
    The DLP is registered in the States or Victoria and South Australia with NSW and Queensland and Western Australia also holding strong support and a growing membership base.
    For information on the DLP visit