Australian Labor Party

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The Australian Labor Party or ALP is Australia's oldest political party. It is so-named because of its origins in and close links to the trade union movement. While standard practice in Australian English is to spell the word labour with an "-our" ending, in reference to the name of the party it is spelt with an "-or" ending.



The Australian Labor Party is a democratic and federal party, which consists of both individual members and affiliated trade unions, who between them decide the party's policies, elect its governing bodies and choose its candidates for public office. The great majority of trade unions in Australia are affiliated to the party, and their affiliation fees, based on the size of their memberships, makes up a large part of the party's income. The party consists of six state and two territory branches, each of which consists of local branches which any Australian citizen or permanent resident can join, plus affiliated trade unions. Individual members pay a membership fee, which is graduated according to income. Members are expected to attend at least one meeting of their local branch each year. In practice only a dedicated minority regularly attend meetings. Many members only become active during election campaigns. The party has about 50,000 individual members, although this figure tends to fluctuate along with the party's electoral fortunes.

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Hon Kim Beazley, Leader of the Australian Labor Party 1996-2001 and since 2005

The members and unions elect delegates to state and territory conferences (usually held annually, although more frequent conferences are often held). These conferences decide policy, and elect state or territory executives, a state or territory president (an honorary position usually held for a one-year term), and a state or territory secretary (a full-time professional position). The larger branches also have full-time assistant secretaries and organisers. In the past the ratio of conference delegates coming from the branches and affiliated unions has varied from state to state, however under recent national reforms at least 50% of delegates at all state and territory conferences must be elected by branches.

The party holds a National Conference every two years, which consists of delegates representing the state and territory branches (many coming from affiliated trade unions, although there is no formal requirement for unions to be represented a the National Conference). The National Conference approves the party's Platform and policies, elects the National Executive, and appoints office-bearers such as the National Secretary, who also serves as national campaign director during elections. The current National Secretary is Tim Gartrell. The national Leader of the Labor Party is elected by the Labor members of the national Parliament (the Caucus), not by the conference. Until recently the national conference elected the party's National President, a largely honorary position, but since 2003 the position rotates between three people directly elected by the party's individual members. The current National President is Barry Jones, a veteran party figure who was a minister in the Hawke government. The two Vice-Presidents are Carmen Lawrence, a former Premier of Western Australia and minister in the Keating government, and Warren Mundine.

The Labor Party contests national, state and territory elections. In some states it also contests local government elections: in others it does not, preferring to allow its members to run as non-endorsed candidates. The process of choosing Labor candidates is called pre-selection. Candidates are pre-selected by different methods in the various states and territories. In some they are chosen by ballots of all party members, in others by panels or committees elected by the state conference, in still others by a combination of these two. Labor candidates are required to sign a pledge that if elected they will always vote in Parliament in accordance with decisions made by a vote of the Caucus. They are also sometimes required to donate a portion of their salary to the party, although this practice has declined with the introduction of public funding for political parties.

The Labor Party has always had a left wing and a right wing, but since the 1970s it has been organised into formal factions, to which many party members belong and often pay an additional membership fee. The two largest factions are Labor Unity (on the right) and the National Left. Labor Unity generally supports free-market policies and the U.S. Alliance. The National Left, although it seldom openly espouses socialism, favours more state intervention in the economy and is generally opposed to the U.S. Alliance. The factions are themselves divided into sub-factions, and there is a constantly changing pattern of factional and sub-factional alliances around particular policy issues or around particular pre-selection disputes. Frequently these alliances and disputes reflect power struggles between or within trade unions.

The trade unions are also factionally aligned. The largest unions supporting the right are the Australian Workers Union (AWU), the National Union of Workers (NUW), the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA). Important unions supporting the left include the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU), the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Australian Services Union (ASU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). But these affiliations are seldom unconditional or permanent. The AWU and the NUW, for example, are bitter rivals and the NUW sometimes aligns itself with the left to further its conflict with the AWU. On some issues, such as opposition to the Howard government's industrial relations policy, all the unions are in agreement and work as a block within the party.

Pre-selections are usually conducted along factional lines, although sometimes a non-factional candidate will be given preferential treatment (this happened with Cheryl Kernot in 1998 and again with Peter Garrett in 2004). Deals between the factions to divide up the safe seats between them are also common. Pre-selections, particularly for safe Labor seats, are often bitterly contested, and have not infrequently involved practices such as branch stacking (signing up large numbers of nominal party members to vote in pre-selection ballots), impersonation, multiple voting and even fraudulent electoral enrolment. Trade unions were in the past accused of giving inflated membership figures to increase their influence over pre-selections, but party rules changes have stamped out this practice. Pre-selection results are frequently challenged, and the National Executive is sometimes called on to arbitrate these disputes.


Hon Bob Hawke, Labor's longest serving Prime Minister
Hon Bob Hawke, Labor's longest serving Prime Minister

No exact date can be given for the founding of the Australian Labor Party, originating as it did from the various colonial labour movements. Labour Leagues and similar electoral organisations existed in New South Wales and Queensland from about 1890. Party mythology says the first Labour branch was founded at a meeting of striking pastoral workers under a tree (the "Tree of Knowledge") in Barcaldine in 1891. The Balmain, New South Wales branch of the party also claims to be the oldest in Australia. The party as a serious electoral force dates from 1893 in Queensland, 1894 in New South Wales, and later in the other colonies. In 1899 Anderson Dawson formed a minority Labour government in Queensland, the first in the world, which lasted one week.

After Federation, the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (informally known as the Caucus) first met on the 8 May 1901 at Parliament House, Melbourne, the meeting place of the first Federal Parliament. This is now taken as the founding date of the federal Labor Party, but it was some years before there was any significant structure or organisation at a national level. (The formal name Australian Labor Party was adopted in 1908.)

The ALP during its early years was distinguished by its rapid growth and success at a national level, first forming a minority national government under Chris Watson in April 1904, and forming its first majority government under Andrew Fisher in 1910. The state branches were also successful, except in Victoria, where the strength of Deakinite liberalism inhibited the party's growth. The first majority Labor state governments were formed in New South Wales and South Australia in 1910, in Western Australia in 1911 and in Queensland in 1915. Such success eluded equivalent social democratic and labour parties in other countries for many years.

One of the party's early innovations was the establishment of a federal arbitration system for the resolution of industrial disputes, which formed the basis of the industrial relations system for many decades.

The party was historically committed to socialist economic policies, but this term was never clearly defined, and no Labor government ever attempted to implement "socialism" in any serious sense. Labor supported national wage fixing and a strong welfare system, it did not nationalise private enterprise. The single exception to this was Ben Chifley's attempt to nationalise the private banks in the 1940s, but this was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia. The commitment to nationalisation was dropped by Gough Whitlam.

In the 1970s and beyond, the party, through the efforts of Gough Whitlam and his supporters within the party, gave up its theoretical commitment to socialism and became a social democratic party. (Some references to democratic socialism still remain in the party's constitution, but they are generally regarded as a relic). Indeed, during the 1980s the party was responsible for the introduction of many economic policies such as privatisation of government enterprises (such as the Commonwealth Bank, which was itself established by an earlier Labor government), and deregulation of many previously tightly-controlled industries, which are normally the province of conservative governments.

From its formation until the 1950s Labor and its affiliated unions were the strongest defenders of the White Australia Policy, which banned all non-European migration to Australia. This policy was partly motivated by 19th-century theories about "racial purity" (shared by most Australians at this time), and partly by fears of economic competition from low-wage labour. In practice the party opposed all migration, on the grounds that immigrants competed with Australian workers and drove down wages, until after World War II, when the Chifley government launched a major immigration program. The party's opposition to non-European immigration did not change until after the retirement of Arthur Calwell as leader in 1967. Subsequently Labor has become an advocate of multiculturalism, although some of its trade union base continue to oppose high immigration levels.

The Labor Party has suffered three major splits:

  • In 1915 over the issue of conscription, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes supported the introduction of conscription, while the majority of the party opposed it. After failing to persuade the Australian voters to support a referendum approving of conscription which bitterly divided the country in the process, Hughes and his followers were expelled from the Labor Party. He formed the Nationalist Party of Australia in alliance with the conservatives and remained Prime Minister until 1923.
  • In 1931 over economic issues revolving around how to handle the depression. The ALP was split between those who believed in radical policies such as NSW Premier Jack Lang, who wanted to repudiate Australia's debt to British bondholders, proto-Keynesians such as federal Treasurer Ted Theodore, and believers in orthodox finance such as Prime Minister James Scullin and a senior minister in his government, Joseph Lyons. In 1931 Lyons left the party and joined the conservatives, becoming Prime Minister in 1932.
  • The 1954 split on communism. During the 1950s the issue of communism and support for communist causes or governments caused great internal conflict in the Labor party and the trade union movement in general. During the 1950's, staunchly anti-Communist Roman Catholic members (Catholics being an important traditional support base) became suspicious of Communist infiltration of unions and formed Industrial Groups to gain control of them, fostering intense internal conflict. After Labor's loss of the 1954 election, federal leader Dr H V Evatt blamed the subversive activities of the "Groupers" for the defeat. They were expelled from the ALP and formed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) whose intellectual leader was B.A. Santamaria. The DLP was heavily influenced by Catholic social teachings and had the support of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. The DLP helped the Liberal Party of Australia remain in power for almost two decades but was successfully undermined by the Whitlam Labor Government during the 1970s and ceased to exist as a parliamentary party after the 1974 election.

The Labor Party thus served as a development ground for several conservative leaders. Conservative Prime Ministers Joseph Cook, Billy Hughes and Joseph Lyons were all ex-members of the Labor Party, with both Hughes and Lyons holding very senior positions in the party (Prime Minister and Premier respectively). Non-Labor premiers such as William Holman and Ned Hogan also began their careers in the Labor Party.

Through its membership of the Socialist International, the ALP is affiliated with other democratic socialist, social democratic and labour parties in many countries.

ALP federal leaders

Current ALP State Premiers / Territory Chief Ministers

Past ALP State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers

New South Wales



Western Australia

South Australia


Australian Capital Territory

Other past Labor politicians

For current ALP federal politicians, see:

See also

External links

Template:Australian political partieses:Partido Laborista (Australia)


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