Changes of government typically result in a flood of new members into the House of Representatives, especially, of course, on the winner’s side. After winning the election in 2007, 32 ALP members sat, and spoke, in the House of Representatives, for the first time, 39 per cent of Labor’s representation in the lower house. The last time Labor had been returned to office, in 1983, 27 new ALP members (36 per cent of Labor’s lower house contingent) entered the House for the first time. Comparing these two cohorts of new members can provide some interesting insights into the evolution of Australia’s longest-living political party. (The full draft study – Download Rudd’s class of 2007)

In 1998, ANU historian Paul Pickering published a comparison of the intakes of new members from the Liberal National Party coalition after its two big election wins in 1975 and 1996, including a detailed examination of the first speeches of incoming government MPs. Pickering argued that these first speeches were valuable because they showed us how these members chose to reveal themselves to the world. How they chose to reveal themselves provided, in turn, valuable insights into the changing face and composition of the Liberal and National parties. These new members represented the seats won with the help of the “Howard battlers”, outer suburban bluecollar workers who deserted the ALP, much like the Reagan Democrat phenomenon in the USA a decade and a half earlier. The new LNP members were far more likely to have attended government-run schools then their predecessors and they were loud champions of small business and family values. They were loyal to their own champion, John Howard, to the last.

The central argument of this paper is that the new ALP MPs of 2007 are the beneficiaries and bearers of the Whitlam legacy. In their first speeches there is the occasional, and mostly desultory, acknowledgement of the importance of good economic management, but what really motivates the new MPs in terms of ideology and policy is a continuing passion for the agenda that Whitlam largely created for the national parliament: health, education, community-building and social justice. There is virtually no signs of a passion for a further instalment of the economic reforms that were the dominant feature of the Hawke / Keating years.

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Nor is there any talk of socialism or democratic socialism. In 1983, Gerry Hand, a leader of the left, future Cabinet minister and new member for the safe ALP seat of Melbourne, used his first speech to tell the Parliament that capitalism was an “immoral” and “corrupt” system. Several new MPs also opined that Australians had voted for “socialism”, ““democratic socialism” or “socialist solutions” at the 1983 election. Similar pronouncements in 2007 are simply unimaginable.

Instead, the first speeches of the class of 2007 are populated with ideas that strongly resonate with Whitlam’s concept of “positive equality”. These new MPs talk about their hopes for greater social justice in the sense of a ‘fair go’ and of government helping to remove barriers and create opportunities for individuals and communities. The ideology of the class of 2007 is middle class and aspirational, but it also appeals to the values and ideas that are seen as traditionally, and especially, Australian; that is, aspiration within an egalitarian ethos and policy framework.

The rhetoric in the 2007 first speeches is also strongly small ‘c’ conservative. Labor is the party of traditional Australian values (the ‘fair go’, mateship and family life) and, above all, social cohesion. The 1983 intake was often savage about the events of 1975 and the divisive role of Malcolm Fraser in Whitlam’s dismissal and the policies pursued during Fraser’s term in office. The 2007 intake has been just as savage on the perceived divisiveness of the Howard Government, and even more eloquent in seeking to position the ALP as the true protector and preserver of genuine Australian values.

A second concern of this paper is the issue of the diversity, or lack of it, of ALP MPs. In recent years, there has been growing comment and criticism about the declining diversity in the social backgrounds of Australian MPs, including those from the ALP. Arguments about lack of diversity have two main components. First, the MPs are seen as being overwhelmingly from middle class backgrounds because of their education levels and choice of occupation; and, second, it has been noted that MPs are increasingly being drawn from a newly emergent professional political class, with a growing number of ALP MPs having worked as political advisers, union officials and party officials before entering parliament. This study confirms, in general terms, the efficacy of those criticisms, but suggests that we need to look more closely at their biographies and life experiences than just fairly crude indicators like education and political experience.

This study also points to a continuing dearth of genuine business experience in the ranks of the class of 2007, and, perhaps surprisingly, a lack of significant experience in Australia’s large not-for-profit sector. Even after the ALP’s economic reforms during the Hawke and Keating Governments, and with the absence of any sense of class conflict in the party’s contemporary policies and rhetoric, Labor still seems neither to have sought nor attracted more than a handful of new MPs with any meaningful business experience and none that could claim to have had a significant career in business before entering Parliament. Similarly, even given the apparent ideological affinity with much of the not-for-profit sector, Labor does not seem to have been successful in attracting candidates with high profile involvement in this growing sector of the economy and civil society.

Finally, this paper is also concerned with what these first speeches can reveal about the relationship between the ALP and unions. A distinctive feature of these speeches in 2007 is the lavish praise and expressions of gratitude they contain for the campaign efforts of the trade union movement, and for many individual unions and unionists. This praise and gratitude is often supplemented with rhetorical efforts to position trade unions, like the ALP, as community-based organisations defending the rights of ordinary workers and protecting key Australian values like the “fair go”. The praise and gratitude is not surprising given the large investment in marginal seat campaigning made by unions in the 2007 campaign, but it is a marked departure from the first speeches of ALP members in 1983 when there was little attention paid to unions, even though the formal ALP-ACTU accord was an important part of the ALP’s election strategy and of the Hawke Government (1983 – 1991).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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