About Social Action Australia

Social action in sociological terms is defined as human action which modifies other human behaviour. Although social action is a sociological concept, in Australia it has had a political context. In the 1930s, the socio-economic ill-effects of the Great Depression were so severe that the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) emerged as a serious threat to democracy. To help combat this threat, the 1937 Victorian State Conference of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) passed a motion authorising the establishment of ALP Industrial Groups. These union rank and file groups were charged with the task of countering communist infiltration of trade unions and, by extension, of the ALP. The ALP Industrial Groups spread to other states of Australia.

The formation of ALP Industrial Groups constituted a form of social action in that they sought to influence industrial outcomes by countering the communist threat. Needing an ideology, the ALP Industrial Groups utilized social Catholic teachings which emphasized the intrinsic value of every individual and the belief that, in keeping with their human dignity, everyone is entitled to be sufficiently recompensed for their labour. Due to the ramifications of the 1915/1916 split within the ALP over conscription this party had become a ‘catholic’ party and it was not surprising that the ALP Industrial Groups were predominately comprised of Catholics. Catholic lay people were also often mobilized with the backing of their local parishes to fight against communist activity within trade unions.

Between the mid 1940s and early 1950s, the courage and tenacity of the ALP Industrial Groups (‘the Groupers’) was such that most of the unions which had been either under communist threat or control had passed into ALP hands. Grouper activity and successes were achieved in unions which represented boilermakers, steel workers, railway workers, clerks and shop assistants. The ALP Industrial Groups were established and run by rank and file members within their union branches. While the purpose of the ALP Industrial Groups was to counter the communist threat, a practical consequence of their impact was that they helped orientate union activity toward improving working conditions for union members and toward influencing the ALP toward social democratic policies.

Unfortunately, due to a series of catastrophic misjudgements by the ALP federal leader HV Evatt, and anti-Catholic sectarianism within Australian society, the Groupers were purged from the ALP following the illegal 1955 Federal ALP Hobart Conference. This purge became known as ‘the Split’ and it not only divided the ALP but deeply polarized Australian society. The ill-effects of the Split were adverse and extensive. Thousands of loyal and decent ALP party members were either expelled from the party or departed as a matter of principle out of support for the Groupers.

As a result of the Split, the CPA made up for lost ground in the union movement. The communist success in retaking the Australian Railways Union (ARU) in 1955 from the Groupers was a vivid example of the tragedy of the Split. The CPA shrewdly linked up with anti-Grouper elements within the ALP to form unity tickets in union elections and this arrangement set the scene for constituting a formalised left-wing faction within the ALP which, since 1970, has been known as the Socialist Left (the ‘SL’).

Probably the most important consequence of the Split was the formation in 1957 of the Grouper backed Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The DLP’s viability as a political party was due to the commitment of party members and the courage and skill of its leading members such as Frank Mc Manus, Condon Byrne and Bob Joshua. This new party represented the best of ALP tradition in terms of promoting the public good. The socio-economic successes associated with the Menzies coalition federal government in the 1950s and 1960s arguably could not have been achieved without the support of the DLP. The stand out achievement and principal legacy of the DLP was that its influence resulted in the provision of state aid to non-government schools.

Conversely, the negative ramification of the DLP’s influence was that it undermined the long term effectiveness of the ALP. The ALP was consigned to opposition on a federal level of government until December 1972. In states such as Queensland and Western Australia, political operatives from the non-Labor side of politics shrewdly recruited DLP operatives into their political machines as the DLP vote declined in those states. The formidable National Party machine which Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Sir Bob Sparkes assembled in Queensland could not have been achieved had Mike Ahern (Senior) not brought DLP operatives into the then Country Party.

DLP influence began to wane with the election of the Whitlam ALP federal government in December 1972. The election of this government was positive in that it bolstered Australian democracy by allowing for an overdue change in government. There were honourable and courageous ministers in the Whitlam government such as Kim Beazley (Senior) and Lance Barnard, who had previously been sympathetic to the Groupers but had elected to stay in the ALP at the time of the Split. Unfortunately these ministers were a minority.

The Whitlam government (1972 to 1975) had its positive attributes and legacies but it was ultimately one of the worst governments in Australian history. This was due to this government’s centralist tendencies, economic mismanagement, ill-conceived social engineering and foreign policies. Shamefully Australia under Whitlam was the only western nation to grant de jure recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States!

The courage which Gough Whitlam had previously shown in his career as a Grouper supporter in the 1950s and as an opponent of communist influence in the unions, his support for ALP/DLP unification in the 1960s and his intervention against the left-wing dominated Victorian branch of the ALP in 1970, was not replicated during his tenure as prime minister. Whitlam’s failure to rein in the left wing elements within his government led to abuses of parliamentary and constitutional processes. This culminated in the Governor-General Sir John Kerr, a one time Grouper, courageously and correctly dismissing the government when it could not guarantee Senate supply. This action facilitated an early election which allowed the Australian people to decide their nation’s destiny.

The DLP was a victim of the polarization wrought by the Whitlam government and this party lost all its Senate seats in the early federal election of 1974. Grouper unions, such as the Federated Clerks Union (FCU) and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), as a consequence lacked a sense of political placement due to the demise of the DLP as a parliamentary force during the time of the Fraser coalition government (1975 to 1983).

The election of the Hawke ALP government (1983 to 1991) set the scene for the re-admission of the four Grouper unions to the ALP in 1984. Determined to avoid the wages explosion which had occurred under the Whitlam government the Hawke government, and the successor government of Paul Keating (1991 to 1996) negotiated a series of agreements with the Australian union movement which were known as ‘the Accord’. Under the Accord, the federal ALP governments granted ‘social wage’ concessions such as Medicare in return for wage restraint on the part of the union movement.

The FCU and the SDA fulfilled a conspicuous role during the Accord era in securing social concessions and in this regard orientating deregulatory economically reformist ALP federal governments toward social democratic policy outcomes. These two unions also stood out from the mainstream of the Australian union movement in the 1980s through their staunch support for the anti-communist free Polish union movement, Solidarity (Solidarnosc).

Unfortunately, the FCU fell victim to a concerted takeover from the SL. In 1982, the SL won control of the Queensland branch of the FCU. This feat was repeated in the Victorian FCU branch elections in 1988 and, in 1991, the SL gained control of the FCU at a federal level. This last development brought an end to the illustrious career of the long term FCU President, John Maynes, whose courage had been crucial in sustaining the Groupers following the Split.

The adverse ramifications of the loss of the FCU for the Australian union movement were severe. A defining component of a Grouper approach to unionism is that unions exist on a craft basis. Indeed the ALP Industrial Groups had been specifically established on a craft basis. The fall of the FCU to the SL supported a shift in Australian unionism from 1988 onwards in which unions moved from being organised on a craft basis to one where unions are amalgamated along industry lines.

The union amalgamation policy could not have been implemented without the change in direction in the FCU because it had been such an important craft-based white collar trade union. The once proud FCU now exists in a remnant form as the clerical section of the Australian Services Union.

The logic behind the union amalgamation policy was a Marxist one which held that unions should be organised on class lines and that larger industry based unions would bolster union power by consolidating union resources. This approach reflected an underlying contempt for the notion that Australian unions should utilize the institutional supports of the Australian industrial relations system because such utilization supposedly stifled union industrial strength and working class activism.

The ramifications of the loss of the FCU have also contributed to the decline in Australian union membership density by helping facilitate union amalgamation. Australian union membership density stood at 45% of the Australian workforce in 1990 but by 2003 this figure had fallen to 23%! The union amalgamation policy was an integral part of this de-unionising decline because rank and file allegiance did not transfer from the previous craft-based unions to newly amalgamated industry unions. The one compensating development for Australian unions arising from the amalgamation policy was union involvement in industry superannuation funds.

The ultimate determinant of future Australian union effectiveness is definitely union membership growth and rank and file support for workplace based union organising. In this regard, a focus on the Grouper- inspired principle of rank and file engagement by unions would assist in union renewal. Having survived the monumental challenge posed by the stridently anti-union Howard led federal coalition government (1996 to 2007), the future viability of Australian unionism, while no longer under continuing immediate government threat, is not necessarily assured until union organisations engage with their rank and file base.

Social democracy is not a prescriptive ideology. Its implementation is dependant upon governments pursing humane policies which respect human dignity. It is with this goal in mind that Social Action Australia will provide commentary on public policy in the following spheres:

  • Trade Unions - Industrial Relations
  • Bio-Ethical Issues
  • Women’s Issues
  • Federal-State Relations
  • The Environment
  • Education Policy
  • Economic Policy
  • ALP Matters and Contemporary Political Developments

A social democratic perspective is warranted because substantial elements within the ALP have received their initial ideological formation from the CPA! Left-wing acquiescence for the re-entry of the Grouper unions into the ALP in 1984 resulted in the Victorian branch of the CPA being allowed to enter the ALP en masse and consequently to form an inner party organisation called ‘Socialist Forum’. This organisation was led by the former communist Victorian leader, Bernie Taft, who had adhered to the strategy formulated by the influential Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramasci. Gramasci’s strategy envisaged that power transformation could be facilitated through communists gaining control of the levers of power: i.e. Marxist infiltration of trade unions, educational facilities, cultural associations and political parties.

The 1987 ALP Victorian Senate candidacy of John Halfpenny was a manifestation of Gramascian strategy par excellence. Halfpenny had been a stalwart of the CPA and even maintained a publicly pro-Soviet stance after he joined the ALP. Had Halfpenny been elected to the Senate from the number three position on the ALP Senate ticket, the CPA backed forces within the ALP would have been bolstered to an extent which could have changed the face of Australian politics. Thankfully, due to the Senate preferences of the continuing DLP, led by the courageous John Mulholland, Halfpenny’s election to the Senate was thwarted.

With regard to Australian history the key historical event from which Social Action Australia derives its legitimacy is the motion which was passed at the 1937 Victorian ALP State Conference authorising the establishment of ALP Industrial Groups. While a considerable amount of time has elapsed since that motion was passed, and contexts have accordingly changed, the underlying need for social action to be undertaken to promote social democracy still remains.