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Centenary Caucus meeting: address, State Parliament House, Melbourne, 7 May 2001



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Kim Beazley - Centenary Caucus Meeting http://www.alp.org.au//media/0501/kbspcc070501.html Wednesday, 09 May 2001

Centenary Caucus Meeting Kim Beazley - Leader of the Opposition

Address - State Parliament House, Melbourne - 7 May 2001

Check Against Delivery

My fellow Caucus members

This year we celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of a nation brought into being through a vote, and this week the one hundredth anniversary of our Parliamentary Party created in the same peaceful fashion.

For one hundred years, the ALP has sought democratic solutions to the great issues and crises of the twentieth century - massive economic upheaval, world wars, racial and religious tensions - that in other countries have prompted the rise of dictators, or a military overthrow.

Similarly, the ALP has sought to resolve internal disagreements through its democratic processes. Caucus has sometimes seen great divisions, self-inflicted wounds and on three occasions devastating splits, yet it has always weathered the storms and grown stronger.

The history of Caucus is a passionate, at times rowdy, and occasionally treacherous tale. But our democratic processes have also been the source of the Party's greatest strength in adversity. This Caucus has produced this country's most impressive Prime Ministers in John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Exactly one hundred years ago tomorrow, 22 Labor MPs - all men - gathered here in this grandiose Parliament House, built from the profits of gold strikes. They got together for the first time in a stuffy bluestone basement downstairs on a blustery Autumn day, just like this one, and formed the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

There were not enough of them to form the Opposition - the first Parliament was more of a fight between the Free Traders and the Protectionists, with Labor dealing with both sides to try to advance its own agenda.

The first Caucus was an idealistic group, dedicated to improving the lot of workers and their families. They were devoted to parliamentary democracy. They were loyal to the Labor cause.

They were pioneers.

Their stated aim was to 'make and unmake social conditions' and their early achievements, one hundred years later, have grown no less remarkable with the passage of time.

Labor is the only party older than the Federal Parliament - and unlike any other of the political parties it has been in continuous existence for the life of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Australia's version of Labor politics led the world. We were the first workers' party in form a national government - under Chris Watson in 1904. We were the first workers' party to form a majority national government in 1910 under Andrew Fisher.

Labor is the only party to have sat in both Federal Houses since federation, and the only party to have been represented in all State and Territory Parliaments since that time.

We celebrate today the consistency and purpose that has moulded the Labor Party into Australia's strongest, most enduring political party.

The great story of Labor begins with nineteenth century workers -- from the dockyards to the shearing sheds -- realising that industrial strength alone would not gain them social and economic justice without political power.

What they wanted was not the socialist revolution of Marx and Lenin, but social equity achieved through the ballot box - a cooperative process, sometimes a slow and frustrating business.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin sneered at us, in 1913, stating that the Australian Labor Party was bourgeois and 'altogether peaceable'. Well, we consider it one of our greatest strengths that we have sought the betterment of living standards, for all Australians, by democratic means. By persuasion, discussion, and compromise.

Because of our commitment to parliamentary democracy, Caucus has always reflected our broader society. That means Caucus has reflected the fears, the prejudices, the human inadequacies in the face of a century of unimaginable economic, social and political change.

Despite our origins, and despite our enduring relationship with the trade union movement, Labor is not a narrow, class based party. We have sought representation in both the city and the bush, among working men and women whatever their background or position. Our governments have been strongest when we have been at our broadest in representation.

As Labor's leader at the time of our Centenary I can say with certainty that at no time in the past 100 years has Caucus been as united as we are today. That is due to the hard work and the resolve of every member of our current Caucus.

This unity is born of the knowledge that if we are to fulfil our obligations to those who elect us and support us we must win elections. Looking back on the history of the Party, we can see that Federal Labor has, at best, only a patchy record in this regard.

Labor's achievements in government sometimes obscure the fact that Labor has been out of office for a little over two thirds of the past century, a record we must, and will improve.

We have learnt that the politics of division are deadly. The schisms and splits of our first fifty or sixty

years have taught us some hard lessons, and have forced the Party to become more tolerant and accepting of the different views, often strongly held, that inevitably characterise our membership.

The Caucus can make the greatest progress in the realisation of Labor's goals by winning and holding office - that is our aim, and something the modern Labor party accepts and understands.

However, unlike our opponents, we will never govern as though we are running a large corporation. For the Labor Party, government is about quality outcomes, about real people with their real everyday needs -not the cheapest options, or the latest accounting theory.

It is about promoting opportunity, not exploiting division. Sharing the benefits of economic success, not hoarding it for wealthy elites.

If the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is to celebrate its bicentenary when we are all long gone, it will be because of its capacity to adapt to, and manage, change.

Over its long life Labor has learnt to reject the politics of exclusion. Overturning the White Australia Policy, implementing affirmative action policies to increase the participation of women in the Party and the Parliament, and beginning the process of reconciliation with indigenous Australians, Labor has moved away from positions born of the fears and prejudices of an earlier age.

On women in particular we have a very proud record. Following some remarkable wins at recent election, we will soon have 124 women in Parliaments around the country - more than twice as many as any other political party. And, we have well and truly reached our target of getting women preselected in at least 35 percent of seats needed to win government at the next Federal election.

On race issues we have also made the long journey from our initial determination to keep out foreign workers. Gough Whitlam put the final nail in the coffin of the White Australia Policy in the 1970s - he was certainly the first government leader in this country to proclaim to the world that we would be an open, tolerant nation. I am proud that my father put Aboriginal land rights on our political agenda way back in 1951, and the ALP has been to the forefront of move to achieve just solutions on Aboriginal issues ever since.

We believe that we must lead on core questions about the nature of our society, and to improve the future for our children. But we must also listen to the people. Good governments steer a steady course between leadership and consultation.

And consultation must be more than a buzzword - it must be a fundamental operating principle. Remaining engaged with the concerns of the broader Australian community is not just good politics - it will mean good policy.

It is here that Caucus becomes a crucial force. Without a continuous process of feedback from backbench government members close to their communities, national government grows isolated. And this is where the Labor Caucus plays such a valuable role - a role unmatched in any other political party.

The Caucus has this responsibility - never to allow the leadership to get so out of touch or so concerned with its own internal processes that it forgets its traditions - its core values.

As we begin on our week of exploring our past I want to remind you all again of those words of Ben Chifley as Prime Minister of Australia on 12 June 1949.

We older members of the Labor Party have these words etched into us, but there is a new generation of party members, and a new generation of Australians that needs to be reminded, constantly, of who we really are, and what we stand for.

Ben Chifley said:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here, but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

●

It has never been said better, and it has never been said enough.

It means that we must be on the side of people who are struggling; on the side of people who rely on a decent education and health system. People who feel the balance of society is tilted against them.

They seek from us a light on the hill that is never extinguished.

And preserving that light has been the challenge of every generation of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

That's what being a member of the Labor Caucus is all about.

That's why we are all true believers.

If we can carry that message effectively to the people in this country -- who always look to us in a crisis -- our life as a political party will be as long, and as fulfilling, as the life of this Commonwealth.

Thank you. Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.

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