By Tanya Plibersek

09 May 2024










I’d like to thank the Chifley Research Centre for asking me to launch this book in Sydney today and make some remarks.

And I want to acknowledge the authors Frank Bongiorno and Nick Dyrenfurth who is unfortunately unwell and could not join us here this evening.

The first copy of A Little History of the Australian Labor Party I bought was from Gleebooks in 2011. It was written for the 120th anniversary of the ALP.

In his forward to that edition John Faulkner wrote:

“The story of the Australian Labor Party is inseparable from the history of Australia – the political, the social, the economic and the cultural story of our nation.

…a story that has changed and evolved over twelve decades, but one in which hopes and aspirations, as well as flaws and struggles, echo and repeat.”

…shows the consistency of both Labor’s values and Labor’s struggles to renew itself, to keep sight of our guiding stars as we chart a course through new waters.”

…each generation rediscovers the fact that the Labor party is a broad church and contains a range of views. Each generation fights for reform and then in time resists the changes proposed by those who come after. And each generation faces grim predictions that they will be the death of Labor, only in time to make those same gloomy remarks about the young upstarts who follow them.”


This new edition, released more than 130 years after the formation of the ALP, also reflects the changes in the party as it adapts alongside the economic and social changes in our country, and the consistent aims which drive us:

Which Wayne Swan in the foreword to this edition defines as:

“achieving full employment with decent wages and secure, safe working conditions underpinned by strong social safety net with good public services.”

While the whole book has been updated, it’s really the new section, the last 50 pages or so, which are an attempt to make sense of the last decade and a bit since losing the 2013 election, our most recent stint in Opposition, and the re-election of Labor with the Albanese government.

This is probably the section that most readers will draw most from because it helps us reflect on what went wrong and the mistakes we can’t afford to make again.

Wayne cautions in the foreword that we need to “take on the extreme Right and extreme Left who are toxifying our politics”.


He says:

“to defeat the radical Right, we must rejuvenate the Centre Left. We must recruit and retain significant numbers of new members, particularly in outer suburban and regional areas where the people who need our help mostly live.”

Wayne calls for what he calls “pragmatic idealism” and a recognition of the “power of narrative” as opposed to our too frequent failing of falling into a “technocratic discussion” which has “never been particularly good campaigning but is now completely ineffective against the disinformation machines run by the Right against social democratic parties.”


I found this book as a whole a very useful, practical reminder that the rumours of Labor’s death have been frequent – but we should never be complacent.


The long stints in Opposition gave our opponents the power to drive up inequality and division in a way that reverberates through generations.


And the book is a useful reminder that the so-called conflict between the party’s middle class, progressive white-collar membership and blue-collar roots are overstated.


And that’s what I wanted to take a moment to talk about tonight.


A Little History of the Labor Party both asks and partly answers the question: How is it that the party of white Australia - that paid so little attention to the rights of women, and was in many respects was hostile to them, clinging to the male breadwinner fiction for so long - is the party that a feminist child of post-war refugees identifies with?


How did that become my party?


And how do we ensure that Labor stays the party that represents mainstream, majority Australia?


The book details the transformation begun by middle class educated leaders like Evatt, and continued by figures like Don Dunstan that really begins the shift from just fighting for a living wage to living well:

“Elegant and well spoken, and paying attention to the environment, urban planning, consumer protection, education, the arts, equal opportunity and Aboriginal affairs, Dunstan, as much as Whitlam, epitomised the party’s changing image and policy orientation.”


Reading the whole history of our party is a really neat reminder that these things aren’t in conflict.


This sense of progress always reminds me of the John Adams quote:

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”


My point is, our party needs to continue to focus laser like on the everyday issues of pay and conditions at work, and the social safety net.


But we have the bandwidth to do more.


And we need to stand with working people, but that means acknowledging that the blue-collar male workers who established the party are now actually a minority of workers – and a minority of unionists. The typical unionist today is a middle-aged woman – usually working in an area like education or health.


Peter Dutton is telling people he wants to make the Liberal party the party of working Australians.


Of course he was a Cabinet Minister in a government that said that low wages are “a deliberate design feature of our economic architecture.


He was part of a government that resided over lowest wages growth ever recorded in Australian history. 


And the lowest share of national wealth going to wages since this was first measured in 1959.


Presided over increasing economic insecurity and wealth inequality – wanted to give 50 per cent of stage 3 tax cuts to people on over $180,000 per annum.


As well as trying to unravel Medicare and attacking the most vulnerable with catastrophic policies like Robodebt.


Peter Dutton is chasing working class seats in outer suburbs because he has given up of traditional Liberal seats like Wentworth, North Sydney and Warringah – where the majority of Liberal party members and donors live. But seats they have lost to the Teals.


What is interesting about the Liberal’s capitulation in the Teal seats is the fundamental misunderstanding it shows of the Liberal “base”.


According to Liberal insiders Peter Dutton believes the Teals succeeded because Liberal MPs in those seats were too progressive and this paved the way for their own replacement. (Of course, this doesn’t explain Tony Abbott losing to Zali Steggall!)


What we can expect in the next campaign is that Peter Dutton will rely on the classic right wing populist play book: division, fear and scapegoating. His most reported policy intervention this year was to call for a boycott of Woolworths because they decided not to stock Australia Day tat.


And as Wayne Swan warns us, our campaign in response will have to be strong:

“We must harden up our policy positions and the narrative around them as delivering to working Australians. We have to speak louder and more often in everyday language about our commitment to protect and enhance the living standards and lifestyles of working and middle class Australians… we win big when we assure the majority of Australians that we are always for them.”


Ultimately a book like this makes us ask: how do you get the balance between the history and tradition we are so proud of, and being a force for progress on social and economic issues that reflects the world we live in today?


And this book helps us answer that question too.


We deliver better wages and conditions at work - as our government is doing.

We strengthen our social safety net - as we are doing.

We run a stronger, fairer economy - as we are doing.

We repair the damage and division of the Liberal years - as we are doing.

And we reanimate our belief we have a responsibility to one another; the strong should look after the weak.

That each should contribute according to their means – not every man for himself.

We do it through pragmatic idealism and enlarging our party; by reading, talking, thinking, by debating, inviting people in, and telling our nation’s story; of what we have to be proud of and how we can do even better.