Book review: ACT Labor 1929-2009 – A Short History


Stephen Holt

Review of ACT Labour 1929-2009 – A Short History
Chris Monnox, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide 2013

The Australian Labor Party is not a terribly alluring outfit these days. Any core cohesive beliefs are difficult to identify while its membership base badly needs resuscitating and is still under the thumb of factional hacks. This unattractiveness makes it harder for the ALP to produce stable reforming governments anywhere in the continent.

Amid the encircling gloom however the autonomous ACT branch of the ALP is something of a beacon. It is genuinely successful in terms of positive electoral and policy outcomes.

Among the nine heads of government at the federal, state and territory level Labor’s ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher is currently second only to Colin Barnett in terms of length of incumbency. Her party has been in office in the ACT since 2001 making it the current longest serving governing party at the federal, state or territory level.

Gallagher’s personal style is so severely understated that it is all too easy to overlook the winning nature of the Labor brand at the ACT territory level.

This is where Chris Monnox’s timely chronicle of local Laborism in his ACT Labor 1929-2009 A Short History (Ginninderra Press) comes in. He examines the historic reasons for Labor’s recent record of success in the ACT. His willingness to present his findings to the wider world is a welcome initiative.

Monnox’s brisk 96 page publication is derived from an honours thesis. Because it is an undergraduate work it cannot claim to be comprehensive but nevertheless it does provide a lucid and persuasive account of the ALP’s ability to adapt and thrive in ever changing circumstances in ACT politics.

Monnox is careful to note that Canberra, contrary to mythology about how public servants vote, is not necessarily “a Labor town”. Federal and (since 1989) territory Labor governments and politicians have shown a capacity to match their Liberal opponents in alienating Canberra voters. In territory elections in 1974, 1989 and 1998 the Labor vote dipped below 30 per cent.

The potential softness of the Labor vote in the ACT was exploited by Kate Carnell at the height of her career as our Chief Minister. At other times since the 1980s the Canberra Liberals, either because of local internal divisions or because of the wider party’s occasional fondness for hard right ideology, can be counted on to prop up support for ACT Labor.

Monnox’s key point however is that ACT Labor has a sound track record in relying on more than just mere negative support. It has traditional wells of positive sentiment to draw on as well.

Monnox identifies a number of reasons for ACT Labor’s tendency to come out on top in territorial elections. One such reason is an enduring openness to community concerns and input. Municipal issues have never been fenced off in a separate jurisdiction in the ACT and recognition of the importance of grassroots concerns has been a default position for ACT Labor since the legendary days of Jim Fraser in the 1950s.

This community focus was revitalised in 1998 when a form of the Hare-Clark voting system was adopted for territory elections. Individual candidates need to command recognition in their local area to do well under Hare-Clark and judging by results ACT Labor has succeeded in attracting or cultivating such candidates.

A second great source of enduring identity and fighting morale is ACT Labor’s renowned ability since the late 1960s to be in the forefront of the leading progressive movements of the day, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, a commitment to feminism and affirmative action, hostility to uranium mining and nuclear weapons and, increasingly these days, support for marriage equality.

In 1971 ACT Labor, already renowned for its reforming bent, gained autonomy from the right-wing state Labor machine in Sydney which had previously overseen its affairs. A sense of liberation prevailed. In the form of a Branch Council the newly autonomous ACT branch gave institutional expression to the right of each and every member to, as Monnox notes, “effectively and directly participate in the affairs of the party”.

There were initially too few affiliated unions in the ACT branch to counteract the free input into policy and preselection matters emanating from individual party members.

Importantly, ACT Labor’s community focus and its relentless progressive bent need to mesh together smoothly for lasting success to be possible.

When these two strands do come together ACT Labor is a formidable force indeed. It embodies the concerns of comfortable tertiary educated and community-minded middle class citizens who are used to setting the tone in Canberra.

Monnox neatly documents how the injection of anything with a downmarket or proletarian air about it poses a distinct threat to the homely version of bourgeois hegemony that characterizes ACT Labor. The intrusion of traditional male working class elements and values into its cosy world is, he rightly indicates, a “mismatch”. The result is internal instability.

Monnox highlights the resentment caused among some middle class Laborites in the ACT when confronted with the growing internal influence of the more militant of the affiliated unions (notably the CFMEU) in the 1990s. A key sticking point was the imposition of a divisive preselection panel system which favored the affiliated unions at the expense of the local party’s customary far more open candidate selection process.

Class prejudice worked against erstwhile trade union firebrand Wayne Berry when he led the party from 1997 to 1998. His wonted pugnaciousness dwindled into ineffectiveness.

Under Berry’s successors Jon Stanhope and Katy Gallagher ACT Labor has rowed back from its working class turn symbolised by the abolition of the preselection panels. At the same time it has reaffirmed its abiding self-image as “a socially progressive government that takes human rights seriously”.

The resulting temporal success has calmed any qualms that Gallagher and her team might otherwise feel at being in charge of a local political party which insists on retaining the name Labor but in which it is a distinct handicap for any would-be leader, within the party as well as without, to be too obviously working class in origin or orientation. This is a mildly Orwellian situation.

Monnox’s focus in his analysis is on developments since the late 1960s when progressive middle class elements took over ACT Labor. His coverage of the first forty years or so of Labor’s existence in the ACT when a secularised bourgeoisie had yet to dominate is far less detailed even though much of interest happened in these early decades.

Some of the resulting omissions are truly regrettable. Monnox does not examine the link between the local ALP membership and the organised agitation that took place in the national capital in the 1930s in support of relief work for people who would otherwise have been unemployed. Nor does he delve much into the emergence, in the late 1940s, of capable Laborites in Canberra such as Fred Quinane or Bill Byrne who were linked to B A Santamaria and his secretive anti-communist political movement.

This means that a definitive history of the ALP in Canberra since the creation of a local party cell in 1929 has still to be written. But judging by his crisp and well researched debut as a committed yet candid Labor writer Chris Monnox stands out as the obvious person to write such a work.

For immediate purposes though Monnox unquestionably has come up with something interesting to say on the highly pertinent topic of what the ALP has to do to remain a viable force in Australian politics into the future. He has shown how ACT Labor has thrived since 2001 by moderating the power of the affiliated unions while being unwavering in the pursuit of an enlightened social agenda. The bulk of the party outside the ACT would do well to emulate this approach if it is at all serious about survival.

Stephen Holt ( is a Canberra writer.


Editor’s note:

Chris Monnox is a member of our Canberra Branch Committee. You can order a copy of his book with the order form below. And it’s good to see Ginninderra Press is still trading and supporting independent Canberra publishing.

ACT Labor 1929-2009- A Short History Order Form