Foreign Correspondent: Australian Advances
Sydney, NSW. It is two years since our libertarian party, the Workers Party, was conceived, and eighteen months since it was born. These two years have been two of the most turbulent years in Australian politics for many decades. As a result, the Workers Party has been able to achieve what could be considered spectacular success when compared to libertarian ventures in other parts of the world.
As I mentioned in a previous column, in 1972 the socialist Labor Party formed its first federal government in 23 years. Although they held a majority in the House of Representatives, however, they did not have a majority in the Senate. The Senate majority holders—the Liberal/National Country Parties—were thus able to block Labor's Bills.
To end this impasse, the Governor-General ordered new elections in mid-1974. Unfortunately, the vote changed nothing. A Labor majority was returned in the House of Representatives, and an opposition majority returned in the Senate.
With the economy steadily going from bad to worse, the Liberal/NCP opposition changed its leader—electing the present Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser—and awaited its moment. In late 1975, it finally moved, threatening to block the crucial Supply Bills for the Labor government's Budget.
Prime Minister Whitlam decided to tough it out. But after several weeks, his own appointee, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, finally resolved the deadlock by sacking the entire Whitlam government, and installing Malcolm Fraser at the head of a caretaker government. At the general election which followed, the Liberal/NC Parties won government with a huge majority.
This election was the first general election contested by the Workers Party. Because of the circumstances, it was held at very short notice, and was highly polarized. Even so, we managed to field 73 candidates, spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and gain around 175,000 primary votes (representing about 100,000 different voters). The best result in an individual election was just over five percent of the votes, or 3000+ voters in a single electorate. Needless to say, we did not actually win any representation. (The figures are approximate because the complexity of the voting system and its administrative bureaucracy make final figures difficult to compute.)
Given the circumstances of the election, we thought the results were satisfactory for a 10½-months-old party. Taken nation-wide, we outperformed all the other minority parties. Some did better in particular states, but not overall. Since the election, they have all virtually shut up shop. We are now the major minority party.
This year we have run limited campaigns in both the Victorian and New South Wales state elections. Victoria is the state in which the Workers Party is weakest, so we only contested four seats, polling between 1.5 and 4 percent. In NSW we also concentrated on a small number of seats (13 out of a possible 99). Of the 13, we only campaigned in nine, the remaining candidates being just names on ballots. We averaged just under 4 percent over the 13, and 5 percent over the nine. The best result was 7 percent, which we achieved in two seats. Overall, this was twice the average result achieved in the federal elections six months previously.
We have also contested one local council election. Neil Russell stood as a candidate for one of the local councils within the city of Brisbane in Queensland—and he won. Because these local council elections are smaller, and are largely ignored by the major parties, I hope the Workers Party will concentrate some effort on them in the near future. If won, they can provide a very effective stepping stone to wins in state and federal elections.
In the immediate future, as there are no general elections imminent, we intend concentrating on issues of principle. We are currently staging a nationwide protest over the compulsory census now being conducted. We have recommended to all our members that they refuse to fill out the forms, and have issued them with a protest letter to attach to their form stating their case, and defying the government to prosecute them. Our South Australian Division has also waged a war with some unions over a party member's decision to sell discount bread in his shop; has taken on the state government over another member who refused to submit to the licensing of his hypnotherapy practice; and has supported other members who own businesses who have decided to defy the Census and Statistics Department's "requests" for information on their businesses. In NSW during the State election we ran a mini-bus service for a few days to demonstrate our ideas for alternative public transport systems.
All these efforts were richly rewarded with new support. Since mid-1975 we have had two levels of membership—$50 and $10. Our total membership is now over 1,600. In addition, we have received good press and media coverage, and as a result are now widely accepted as a serious political entity. Our public image, however, could be improved. There is a substantial difference between what we stand for and what we are commonly thought to stand for. We are mainly seen as an extreme right-wing conservative party, and thus have alienated the young and/or leftish voters, which is a pity.
Early last year, one of our members, John Curvers, suggested in a widely circulated letter that in order for a libertarian party such as ours to be really successful, we should hide our "bible"—the party platform—and sell instead a "catechism"—a three-year plan of simple, popular policies. In New Zealand the Alpha Party was launched with this view in mind.
Curvers' point was that selling the "bible" was counter-productive, as it was too much, too soon for too many people and turned—or frightened—them off. It was pointed out in the letter that the Catholic Church succeeded with the catechism, as did Mao with his little red book. It was suggested that we develop a "catechism" for mass consumption, and from those who liked it there would emerge those who wanted to know more. These could then be slowly introduced to the whole libertarian philosophy.
This idea has great merit. We no longer push our platform as much as we used to, and have put a lot more effort into policy development. I mentioned the importance of these in my previous column.
However, while John Curvers' idea is simple in concept, it is difficult to put in practice. Detailed and successful policies are not easy to develop, particularly for a party not over-endowed with professional academics. For this reason, although there has been general acceptance of the idea, there have not been dramatic changes as a result of it.
We are achieving balanced growth. We have had the stimulus of two major elections in NSW, for instance, and have produced policies to fight them on. These were widely circulated. At the same time we are building up our educational facilities. Duncan Yuille, one of the Governing Directors of the WP, has started up a much-needed book service, and reports a good business from all over Australia. The state divisions of South Australia and Queensland have under-way "Schools for Workers," where members pay to attend lectures on the libertarian philosophy. NSW will soon follow suit. The party in South Australia has also stipulated that any candidate for party or political office must be a graduate of its school, unless granted special exemption (for instance, if Murray Rothbard lived in South Australia and wanted to stand for office, with a bit of luck he would be exempted).
There are moves afoot to set up a Centre for Independent Education (Greg Lindsay's baby) and an Australian chapter of the British organization, the Institute for Economic Affairs. Prof. F.A. Hayek will be coming out here in a couple of months, and Milton Friedman last year had a very successful tour. If we get advance notice of these events, we are in a position to be able to arrange for good national media coverage for them.
The WP organization is slowly and painfully taking on some form. We have the usual problem of funds, and a serious problem of a lack of good leaders. Too much of the work is falling on too few people still. Party activity is a great drain on personal time and finance, and many of our best people are in danger of being burned out. Overall, however, we are seeing good, solid progress in the building of a libertarian movement.