The political fortunes of the Australian Left have reached a low pass. In the national elections late in 1966, the Australian Labour Patty sustained its greatest electoral defeat of all time, recording the lowest percentage of the total vote since 1906. More galling for the left wing inside and outside the alp was the fact that Labour chose to fight, and went down, on the most radical issue it had raised in a generation or more—a pledge to end conscription for the war in Vietnam and to bring home all Australian troops engaged there at the earliest possible moment. Not surprisingly, this shattering defeat has been widely interpreted as a rejection of left wing influences in the party that have been under fire from many directions, and one of the first actions of the new parliamentary leader of the party, Gough Whitlam, following the elections, was to indicate a reversal of the alp’s Vietnam policy and a virtual endorsement of the Government’s stand. Yet opinion poll data indicated that the majority of the electorate endorsed Labour’s opposition to conscription for Vietnam, if not its opposition to the war itself; significantly, among university students, where anti-Vietnam sentiment has been most vehement, a strong majority opposed conscription but equally strongly supported the return of the government. This suggests that the reasons for the alp’s decline must be sought elsewhere, and in particular that under present conditions a radical foreign policy posture is no substitute for a radical domestic programme. In this respect, Labour’s crisis mirrors the crisis of the Left as a whole.

One way of pointing up the problems that afflict the Australian Left is to pose questions of this kind:

Why does the industrial working class display such passivity in the face of challenges like Vietnam or the erosion of many of its traditional organizations under the impact of technological changes?

Why has the right wing in the trade union movement made such significant gains in recent years in strengthening its positions in the higher union bodies?

Why has the Communist Party, the only political party left of the alp, fallen to its lowest point in membership and influence?