All of the above negative features of the Australian labour movement were clearly evident in the years following the strikes that broke out during the deep recession of the early 1890s. The trade union movement, which had doubled in size in the late 1880s as a result of an influx of semi-skilled and unskilled workers into its ranks, generally entered the strike struggle with some confidence of victory. This was especially so in New South Wales, where the maritime strike was directed by a powerful Trades and Labor Council. Yet the workers received a rude shock when the colonial government used the army and special constables to protect scab labour.
The defeat of all the major strikes of this period — the 1890 NSW maritime strike, the 1891 and 1894 Queensland shearers’ strikes, and the 1892 Broken Hill miners’ strike — led large numbers of workers to conclude that industrial action alone was insufficient to defend their interests. These conclusions led to growing working-class electoral support for the Labor Party, the formation of which had already been initiated by the craft-union dominated trades and labour councils in the eastern colonies.
While socialists and militant unionists played an active part in the early development of the Labor Party, it quickly became dominated by an alliance of right-wing union officials and the party’s parliamentary representatives. The latter were made up overwhelmingly of labour’s petty-bourgeois attorneys (lawyers, journalists) and hangers-on (small businessmen). This takeover was assisted by the widespread liberal-democratic illusion that parliament could be used to defend workers’ interests. Even the socialist minority in the ALP did not go beyond a parliamentarist conception of politics.
From the beginning, the ALP parliamentarians saw themselves as mediators of the conflict between labour and capital, using legislative reform to harmonise class interests. Laborist ideology emerged as an amalgam of nationalism, liberalism, and a view of socialism as state intervention in the capitalist economy. The ALP’s parliamentary reformism posed no threat to capitalist rule. On the contrary, it actually assisted the capitalist class as a whole by partially integrating the unions into the capitalist state through support for the establishment of compulsory arbitration courts.
In addition, the Labor Party’s relative independence of any particular section of the capitalist class made it an ideal vehicle for reforms that were in the interests of capitalism as a whole. This was illustrated by the role of the ALP in the consolidation of the federal state. The first long-term Labor government came to office in 1910, at a time when the other capitalist parties, which were more directly tied to sectional interests within the capitalist class, were stumbling over the task of forging a single nation-state out of the six former British colonies that had federated in 1901. Almost a decade after federation, it was left to the Fisher Labor government to push through a series of measures crucial to the consolidation of a unified capitalist nation-state in Australia (establishment of a single national currency, a national army and navy, one national postal system, the transcontinental railway, selection of a site for the national capital).
The ALP’s commitment to the defence of the interests of capital as a whole (the so-called national interest), and its political hegemony over the organised workers’ movement, have led the dominant sections of the capitalist class to entrust it with government during Australian capitalism’s most serious economic and military crises this century.
While formally the party of the trade unions, in reality the ALP is a political machine controlled by an alliance of the trade-union bureaucracy and the Labor parliamentarians. The union bureaucracy regards political action in the same way it does industrial action — purely as a means of bargaining for concessions from the capitalist class. It shares with the Labor parliamentarians a fundamental allegiance to capitalist democracy.
The ALP regards the institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state, particularly parliament, as the main arena of political activity. The ALP seeks to convince workers that their needs can be met through the parliamentary system and other institutions of the capitalist state, such as the industrial courts, rather than through their own organisation and collective action.
In government, the ALP acts within the limits imposed by the institutions of the capitalist state — its parliamentary system, courts, army, police and civil bureaucracy. ALP governments defend capitalist property relations and seek to create the most favourable conditions for the accumulation of capitalist profits. They are in no sense workers’ governments. On the contrary, they are capitalist governments. This fact is merely a reflection of the capitalist character of the ALP itself.