Laurie Carmichael

“There was no-one like Laurie.” Last Thursday morning that refrain bounced off the concrete walls of the Nursing Federation union’s headquarters auditorium in Melbourne, as a few hundred people gathered to farewell Laurie Carmichael. Laurie Carmichael! Some readers will say. Was he still alive? Yes, to the age of 93, and fully compos pretty much to the end.

That old Broadway hit “The impossible dream” played at one point in the proceedings. Laurie like Mahler; this tune has the complexity of “Shaddap You Face”. Nevertheless, the story of a questing night, out of time works; Laurie’s name comes out of the past like the personnel of a medieval chronicle, of ancient battles in blurred crusades. The official record has him as the perpetual state or assistant secretary of the Metal Workers Union, but try and remember any general secretary from the time.

Ironically, we raised Laurie’s memory on high at an event with the sort of milkmans’ picnic level of intensity that used to drive him wild about the Australian union movement. Perhaps the heartfelt half-arsedness was in service of reminding us how singular he was.

From the 1950s onwards, Laurie Carmichael was driven by one big idea, manifested in many ways: that Australian labour could not simply bargain for “more” – as the US labour leader Samuel Gompers put it when asked what the working class wanted – but had to transform the conditions of life and society to create better jobs, better conditions, better lives.

So Bill Kelty, Sally McManus, Doug Cameron, son Laurie Jnr, and fleetingly, Billy Bob Shorten, gave the roll-call of his achievements: a radical from his teens, joining the Eureka Communist Youth League – initially because it gave him access to classical music, his lifelong passion – and then part of the militant push within Australian trade unionism in the ’50s.

From the ’60s onwards Carmichael was fighting the profound conservatism that ran through much of Australian labourism: the idea, more Methodist than Marxist, that workers should aspire to modest class-bound lives, be suspicious of higher education or any disruption of the “proper” boss-worker order of things. There was, in that sense, very few like Laurie. He grasped also that the Australian system, from Harvester onwards, had sequestered workers in demarcated trades, concretised and particular, a state form of class decomposition. His major achievements – never done alone, though you wouldn’t have thought that from the eulogies – were the push to campaign for cross-sector bargaining, for leave and conditions, then the ACTU-Labor Accord, then Australia Reconstructed and the “social wage”.

In the role he played in bringing these together, cementing a strategy that not only ensured Labor’s 1983 victory, but stability of government, and a series of succeeding structural changes – superannuation among them – Laurie Carmichael could lay claim to being the most influential Australian of the last half-century or so. For quite simply, the texture, the character of millions, of most, Australian working lives, in comparison to their Anglosphere counterparts, is distinctive due to such things.

For better and worse, but for the moment consider that the baseline 38-hour week, the integration of training and work, the widened scope of what is considered to be the purview of industrial relations – widespread unfair dismissal provisions, expanded ideas of leave – etc, and much more simply do not exist in the UK and the US in the way they do here. “He changed us, he changed the movement, then he changed the country,” said Bill Kelty, in an eloquent flourish, before his speech went into unpaid overtime.

In thus eulogising him, the Laboristas present had to deal with an inconvenient fact: Laurie was never one of them. He was a Communist from the mid-1940s and he never ceased being one; he was still a member when the CPA dissolved in 1991. His creative transformation of the Australian labour movement could only have been done from a Communist perspective. Whatever the radicalism of the Australian movement around the time of the 1907 Harvester judgment – which had Europe debating “the Australian system” until World War I started – it had long since run down by 1950s. Communism – with its dual conception of workers as both an oppressed class, and those who could bring full humanity to bear – was necessary to the expanded conception of what working life could be now. Whether those bold leaps were, for the country and its people, a bulwark against the worst, or a disaster which ushered in neoliberalism is something I’ll consider at a later date.

For the moment it’s worth remarking the paradox: the life of “no one like Laurie”, a committed Marxist, tends to reinforce the Great Man/Woman theory of history, that a single, or a few figures, can change whole movements, classes, nations. It’s no coincidence, as we folks say, that he joined the Communist Youth League for the music, for the grand romantic symphonies and operas he couldn’t get enough of. For these musical works, the thousand-strong symphonies and chorals, are utopias of form, a way of imagining how things could be otherwise, scrubbed of religion, rooted in the human capacity to soar. From such heavens descend dreams of possibility; the great question of the era is how far they fall.