Nobody could remember the last time that a Labor prime minister had moved a motion amid a sea of delegates in the middle of the conference floor.
- By Troy Bramston
When NSW Labor Party President Terry Sheahan said, ‘I call delegate Keating to the microphone,’ the 800 or so delegates who filled the Sydney Town Hall erupted in wild cheers and thunderous applause. ‘The biggest problem that we face in the post-cold war world,’ Paul Keating said in 1995, ‘is a cessation of testing of nuclear weapons.’ The Sydney Town Hall was transfixed as Keating, standing among the delegates, his vote counting just as much as their vote, urged them to support his resolution condemning the French government for resuming nuclear testing in the South Pacific. He had already given an address from the conference stage.
After mixing with delegates and serving cups of tea in Johno’s Kitchen, he returned to the conference to move his historic motion. In moving his motion, Keating skewered the French, noted the party’s long history on peace and disarmament issues and put the case for an end to nuclear weapons in the modern world. It was a manifestation of Keating as statesmanbrawler: reaching for high principles and taking a moral stand while employing the language of a political street fighter and passionate proselytiser.
The NSW Labor Party conference has often been the setting for great Labor speeches. Keating’s speeches, from the stage and the conference floor in 1995, were great moments of political oratory and theatre that reflected Labor at its best: with an enlarged view of the future, with courage to match its convictions, bold and authoritative, with a dash of flair and powerful prose.
Delegates assemble at conferences principally for three reasons: factional debate fireworks over policy and party organisation, networking and camaraderie, and to hear the state and federal party leaders address the conference. Although there were plenty of fireworks and impassioned speeches during the electricity privatisation debate in 2008, this showed the Party at its worst, not its best. The twin venues of most importance to the NSW Labor Party are the Trades Hall and the Sydney Town Hall – the location for most of the Party’s conferences over the past century.
Graham Freudenberg labelled the Sydney Town Hall as Labor’s ‘secular cathedral’. The Trades Hall also enjoys a place in Labor’s storied history. Other great buildings in Labor’s history, such as Temperance Hall and the Worker Building, are now gone or disused. Aside from Party conferences, traditionally the stage and setting for great Labor speeches are the campaign launch where the policy speech is delivered – now a shadow of what it once was – and in the nation’s parliaments. The last great policy speech was probably Paul Keating’s 1993 Bankstown campaign launch and the last great parliamentary speech was undoubtedly Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.
But it is the great gathering of party members at the NSW conference which has provided some of the greatest moments of oratory that the party has witnessed. Conscription was the issue that galvanised Party members at the June 1943 NSW Labor Conference. Prime Minister John Curtin was advocating limited overseas conscription for the defence of Australia. Curtin had opposed conscription during the First World War. Now with the nation at war and facing the threat of invasion, he believed conscription was vital to Australia’s survival. But conscription remained a very divisive issue for the party.
The cancerous forces in the party aligned to former NSW Premier Jack Lang were bracing for a showdown. The newspapers had been forecasting a hostile reception for Curtin. The Argus said Lang was ‘on the warpath again’. ‘The future of the Labor Party itself,’ The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised, was at stake. The Canberra Times said that there was doubt that Curtin would even attend the conference. But Curtin was never one to run from a fight. He would be there. But conscription was not the only weighty matter for the conference to deal with: Warringah FEC had placed a motion on the agenda permitting the breeding of rabbits in home backyards to help alleviate the meat supply. As the 300 delegates milled about waiting for the prime minister to arrive at the Trades Hall in Sydney, the Lang forces were scheming to defeat Curtin and undermine his wartime government. It was estimated that around one-third of these delegates were loyal to Lang; the remainder were loyal to Curtin, who was aligned with Premier Bill McKell and the NSW Party machine. Curtin had spent the previous few days in Sydney attending meetings of the War Cabinet and War Advisory Council and met with the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, at Admiralty House. It was a cold winter. After Curtin spoke to the conference, he would succumb to a virus and be bed-ridden for days. This fiery performance may have contributed to Curtin’s ill-health, because by all contemporary accounts, it was a marathon effort delivered with such vigorous force that Curtin’s already weak constitution would have been severely strained.
Despite the opposition from Lang forces, during the course of Curtin’s hour-long speech, the delegates became supporters of Curtin’s cause. His speech was interrupted at least three times with standing ovations. Curtin reviewed the progress of the war and argued the need to expand Australia’s engagement in the Pacific ‘for our own security’. He carefully put the case for conscripting soldiers for limited overseas service in the Australian region. But what won the delegates over was Curtin’s passionate articulation of the core elements of Labor philosophy. He spoke of Labor’s aims: ‘to keep the country free for a free people’, ‘so that there might be a better social order’, ‘so that there might be opportunities for treating the common man fairer and squarer and more hopefully than was the case’. These things, he said, were ‘the compass of the labour movement.’ Above all, Labor stood for ‘for humanity against material gain’, Curtin said. Curtin was a dynamic orator. He would raise and lower his voice. He would punch the air with his hands and sweep them from side to side as he pivoted to look at one section of the audience or another. He would button and unbutton his jacket. One journalist, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, having watched Curtin in full flight at the conference said, ‘His voice rasped in emphasis, sobbed in emotion. He shouted. He whispered. He spoke of the greatness of the Labor Party’s past, the grandeur of its future. Hard-bitten delegates fell into a trance – and when he stopped they cheered.’
Curtin’s speech was a great success. The Sydney Morning Herald said it was ‘Curtin’s finest speaking effort as prime minister.’ At the August 1943 elections, for the first time in Labor’s history, the Herald would recommend a vote for a Labor government. The weather in Sydney again provided a typically cold setting for a winter conference. The temperature never got above 17 degrees Celsius. On Goulburn Street in Sydney, the historic Trades and Labour Council building was abuzz, as delegates gathered for the annual conference of the NSW Labor Party.
Mostly they were men, dressed in suits, and battle-hardened by many Labor conferences. Ben Chifley – who had been Labor’s leader and Australia’s Prime Minister since the death of John Curtin in 1945 – had flown in from Canberra that morning to address the assembled delegates. Labor had steered the nation carefully through the war and had implemented a far-reaching program of post-war reconstruction. It was a time of relative prosperity, but the delegates, like the electorate, were growing tired of the government. Continued rationing, miners threatening to strike, calls to lower taxation, the proposed nationalisation of the banks, were just some of thorny issues on their minds.
Nevertheless, when Chifley entered the auditorium, the 500 or so delegates rose to their feet and clapped and cheered enthusiastically. The auditorium was packed to capacity. Party officials sat at tables on the stage. Others stood and milled around at the front. After Chifley was introduced, he spoke optimistically about Australia’s growth and proudly of his government’s achievements. He addressed his critics. But what mesmerised the delegates was Chifley’s closing remarks, when he spoke of ‘the light on the hill’. ‘I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier,’ Chifley said, ‘but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective—the light on the hill—which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.’ Curiously, the media and the Party didn’t seize on the importance of Chifley’s closing remarks as a description of Labor’s philosophy and purpose until well after the speech was delivered. The immediate media reporting focused on his attack on the miners’ union. Indeed, Chifley had used that phrase many times before. But it was something about those words, their selection and arrangement, which echoes like a great bell to this day. ‘The light on the hill’ is probably not an original phrase invented by Chifley. The origins of the phrase are found in the Bible. It is written in Matthew 5:14, ‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.’ L. F. Crisp said that the phrase reflected Chifley’s view that the Labor Party ‘served what were ultimately moral values and purposes.’ It provides both inspiration and direction. For the party’s true believers, the words are sacrosanct. It represents the very ideal of Labor and the nature of the movement being a cause: never completed, ongoing, for which the Party’s followers strive to uphold and to seek. \
The Sydney Opera House is a great Labor achievement and it would not have been built without the tenacity and vision of Premier Joe Cahill. More importantly, it would not have been built if Joe Cahill had not delivered a great Labor speech to the party’s 1957 conference. During the 1950s, many leading Sydney figures had called for a new concert hall for Sydney. Cahill became a convert and an advocate. But he faced strong opposition in the party’s caucus and among many party members. Although Cahill had stated the government’s intention to build it, it was still possible that the project would be cancelled at any time if it became politically necessary or expedient to do so. In the lead up to Labor’s 1957 conference, party members began calling for ‘homes before the Opera House’. Although caucus had tentatively supported the project in May 1957, by 24-17 votes, some were agitating for another debate in June. Cahill decided that the party conference should have the final say. A conference resolution opposing the project would almost certainly have spelt its demise. When Cahill arrived at the Sydney Town Hall to give his address on the Saturday evening, the conference had already been a rowdy affair. Delegates had railed from the floor and the conference stage over elections to the state executive, pre-selections for the Senate and Town Hall, and allegations of branch stacking.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the fiery conference had given Cahill a ‘beating’, despite his ‘victory’ in seeing the party officers ticket prevail in state executive elections. The pragmatic course of action would have been to sink the project. But this underestimated the vision and tenacity of Joe Cahill. So when Cahill addressed the conference he focused part of his case on the cost of the project. Cahill said the project ‘would make not even a perceptible ripple on our financial ocean.’ He argued that Labor could ‘ignore the arts and the sciences and, as a consequence, have more money to spend on more plebeian things.’ But ‘that is not the Labor way of doing things,’ Cahill told the delegates, ‘It is not a way that ensures national progress.’ He made the case for ‘a great culture centre devoted to the musical arts, drama, ballet and associated entertainment’. Conference overwhelmingly supported a motion put forward by the Women’s Central Organising Committee to launch an appeal for funds to pay for ‘homes as well as Opera Houses’, the Daily Telegraph reported. Cahill’s speech had won over his party and Sydney would have its new opera house.
However, Cahill would die of a heart attack and never see it completed. Federal Labor’s longest serving leader, Gough Whitlam, probably addressed more party conferences than any other leader. But the most controversial and probably the most significant were a trilogy of speeches delivered to party conferences in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in 1967. The topic was party reform. The target was Victoria, principally, but Whitlam wanted sweeping reforms to the entire party structure. He used Party Secretary Cyril Wyndham’s 1965 report as the springboard for reform. Whitlam wanted greater direction for party leaders over policy, a greater say for members in policy making and more transparency. In Melbourne, Whitlam faced a rabidly hostile reception.
In Sydney and Adelaide, the audience was warmer, though still sceptical about the reformist leader only months in the top job. Whitlam told the Victorians, ‘we construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure. The party was not conceived in failure, brought forth in failure or consecrated in failure. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory.’ The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Whitlam was initially ‘booed’ and ‘jeered’ but the Bulletin praised Whitlam’s ‘guts’ and ‘bold gestures’. Whitlam was the party’s great reformer. He went on to completely renovate the party’s policies and then modernised the nation in government. They shouted ‘no, no, no’, but Neville Wran’s mind was made up. In a moment of great drama and emotion, Wran announced his intention to resign as Premier and Party leader on the stage of the conference, on 7 June 1986 – nearly 26 years ago.
Standing on the conference stage, after delivering a great speech outlining the philosophy and policy achievements of his four governments, Wran told the delegates, ‘I came to the conclusion some time ago that I would not seek to lead the Party at the 1988 election or to seek from the people of New South Wales a mandate for a fifth term as Premier.’ Most of the delegates, including many of Wran’s parliamentary colleagues, were shocked. Some had found out only moments before while others only found out as he was speaking. On the stage, Jill Wran had tears streaming down her face. Many other delegates’ eyes were wet with tears of sentiment and emotion, watching the curtain come down on a stellar political career. Wran was a fixture of state politics in the 1970s and 1980s. He had been Party leader for 13 years and Premier for 10 years. Nobody could replace him and nobody has. But as he said, he wanted to tell the Party’s members, directly, of his decision. The Party’s members, he said, ‘are the people most entitled to know it first.’
After the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975, many inside the party wondered if it had a future. Then, like a bolt of lightning, Neville Wran led Labor back to power in NSW, just six months after Whitlam’s fall. Coming only months after the electoral drubbing of the Whitlam Government, Wran showed Labor how to win and, later, how to govern for the modern era, with a series of innovative reforms and electoral accolades never surpassed. When Bob Carr addressed a diminished number of NSW Labor MPs and a Sydney Town Hall full of demoralised delegates as the party’s new leader after Labor’s 1988 election defeat, he understood the need to outline a new direction but not trash the party’s achievements at the same time.
Accordingly, he paid a warm tribute to former leaders Barrie Unsworth and Neville Wran. For Carr, the challenge was to develop a new agenda for the 1990s and not resort to endless navel-gazing or playing the blame game. Carr noted the Party’s achievements between 1976 and 1988 but recognised that there were areas that the party should focus upon. Carr articulated some of these in a Fabian pamphlet shortly after: economic reform and financial management, environmental sustainability, moderate social reform and effective governance and administration. Carr wasted no time in turning the heat on the Greiner Government and said that Labor would never retreat from the field of political battle, however temporarily set back it may be. It was a rousing speech which lifted the Party’s spirits and was the first step towards Labor’s path back to office in the 1990s. The speeches by Party leaders to conferences over the past 120 years have come in many forms. They can be cathartic after defeat. They can challenge the party on matters of policy and internal party reform. They can be set-piece events that announce new policies, define new directions and deliver withering political attacks. But for many delegates in the audience, they want to be reminded why they are there, why they should keep the faith in Labor’s cause and leave with their hearts full, their minds expanded and their resolve to continue fighting for ‘the things worth fighting for’.