There is a long tradition among Western communist, Labour and social democratic parties of looking at the electoral successes and failures of sister parties in other nation states.footnote The grass of social change always appears greener elsewhere. Since the 1980s, several countries such as France, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand have had socialist, social democratic or Labour governments for varying periods of time. Greece and Spain also had long-serving governments under González and Papandreou but these socialist parties were mainly preoccupied with the legacy of their former dictatorships and the need to ‘modernize’ and ‘adjust’ conservative and heavily agrarian societies to European Union capitalist markets. It was only in Australia—a country with an advanced capitalist socio-economic profile—that the forces of private capital, as well as the extra-parliamentary Left and social movements, confronted a labour movement government which held continuous office from 1983 until 1996. Rather than being a parochial episode in the history of the labour movement, the recent Australian experience represents not only the demise of traditional labourism, but prefigures a new political model not yet fully seen in European social democratic and labour parties. The Left have always recycled theories and models from other countries—models which have either been unexportable because they were too historically specific, or models which were failures even in their country of origin. Casting around for suitable strategies, it is now the turn of the Australian model to be imported by parties such as British Labour. It is, therefore, extremely important that the Left in other countries have no illusions about the legacy of the Hawke and Keating governments.

One of the reasons why Australia offers an excellent vantage point from which to assess strategic problems confronting the Left in oecd countries, is that the Australian Labor Party (alp) has had to adjust more rapidly than European left parties to the velocity of international pressures since the 1980s. This is because Australia’s political economy and culture is a nodal point traversed by the competitive rivalry of trilateral (us, West European and Asian) capitalism. Confronting a dynamic Asian-Pacific region, Australian political institutions and welfare structures have more in common with those of Western Europe, while its culture and urban development are increasingly American. During an era which embraced Thatcher and Major, Reagan and Clinton, saw the collapse of Eastern European communism, major recessions and the emergence of new competitive Asian ‘Tigers’, the alp was elected five times. As with the Spanish Socialist and New Zealand Labour governments, it would be relatively easy to list all the right-wing pro-market policies implemented by the alp administrations of Bob Hawke (1983–91) and Paul Keating (1992–96). One of the oldest labour movement parties in the world, the alp has had a hegemonic role within the Australian working class for over a hundred years. But like other Labour parties, there has been much dispute over whether the alp has ever been socialist and whether the Hawke and Keating governments could be accused of betraying traditions and socialist objectives they did not uphold in the first place.

In 1986, Stuart Macintyre—who was to succeed Manning Clark as the alp’s unofficial ‘professor of history’ in the 1990s—argued that ‘present day social democracy consists of a coalition of interests whose larger identity has to be constructed around state economic management and the operation of government agencies—and this under conditions of reduced economic growth and restricted national sovereignty. It is small wonder that many social democratic parties have fallen on hard times.’footnote1 By contrast, the defeat of the alp in the March 1996 election brought to an end the longest continuous period in recent decades during which a powerful trade union movement had a central role in the formation of national socio-economic policy. The long-suffering oppositional Left in Britain and Germany, or the completely marginalized Left in the us ,Canada and Japan could only dream of exercising such labour movement power. It is true that in the 1960s and 1970s Western European labour movements had corporatist and unofficial agreements with social democratic or labour governments. But it was only in Australia that a powerful national union movement, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (actu) had an Accord with a Labor government that enabled it to uninterruptedly help shape macro-economic policy during the 1980s and 1990s.footnote2 So the Australian experience does offer insights into the limits of labour movement policy making under contemporary conditions not experienced yet by British Labour and other national left parties.

Moreover, the Australian parliamentary and extra-parliamentary scene represented a microcosm of many of the major debates and theories expressed by international left and social movement tendencies since the 1960s. Whether it be Gramscian Eurocommunism, neo-Keynesian alternative economic strategies, various Trotskyist, Maoist, Althusserian, Habermasian, Swedish-path or feminist, green, post-Fordist and cultural policy advocates, all these jostled one another inside and outside the labour movement as much as they were, in turn, attacked by powerful right-wing currents within the alp.footnote3 Alongside an indigenous black movement and one of the most diverse range of multicultural immigrant organizations in the world,footnote4 a plethora of left tendencies and socio-cultural organizations were attempting to directly shape alp policy or indirectly apply pressure via unions and other social movement structures and electoral processes.

Yet, at the very same time as various left and social movement forces were demanding the implementation of their respective agendas, the alp government was captured by radical as well as pragmatic pro-market policy makers and political leaders. How the large Socialist Left faction within the alp responded to the rightward march of Labor is simultaneously illuminating and depressing. While the British Labour Party floundered in opposition and the extra-parliamentary Left beat itself senseless against the brick wall of Thatcherism, the Australian labour movement ironically underwent an internal crisis from a position of power rather than from one of defeat.

Given the long historical relationship between Australian and British conservative and left political cultures, there is a tendency for those on the Left to make erroneous and simplistic analogies between alp and non-Labor governments on the one hand, and the Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major governments on the other. Thus, some would argue that the British Labour Party governments of Wilson and Callaghan—spanning 1964 to 1979, with the interlude of Heath in the early 1970s—set the model for the major deradicalization of the alp carried out by Hawke and Keating during the 1980s, paving the way for the explicitly Thatcherite agenda of the new Howard government elected in 1996. The problem with these analogies is that, despite undoubted similarities, there are also numerous significant differences between the Australian and British labour movements, political systems and socio-economic conditions. Moreover, the difference between major international and domestic historical developments affecting national policies in the 1960s and 1970s compared with the 1980s and 1990s, makes all such analogies somewhat superficial.

Indeed, one could easily reverse the interpretation of historical events and argue that it was Australia that set the political pace. According to this contraflow of models, British Opposition leaders developed their policies after first learning from their Australian counterparts. For example, Margaret Thatcher, before her 1979 victory, came to sit at the feet of conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser because he was attempting to reverse Whitlam’s (1972–75 alp government’s) expansion of the social welfare state. Tony Blair’s recent pilgrimage to Keating’s Australia was, so the argument goes, merely a replay of Thatcher’s preparation for power. Furthermore, well before Kinnock and Blair set about ‘modernizing’ the Labour Party by jettisoning and redefining its socialist commitments, the alp had long adjusted to new phases of capitalist development and political culture. It was Whitlam in the late 1960s who sanitized labourist references to the alp as ‘the party of the working class’ by renaming workers ‘employees’ to appeal to the large number of politically unattached white-collar workers. In the late 1970s, an internal debate on the ‘socialist objective’ watered down former commitments to nationalization—policy commitments that had long ceased to have any relevance to actual alp election programmes since the early 1960s. Australia was also the training ground where in 1975 Rupert Murdoch first used his power against the Whitlam government, well before Thatcher and Blair learnt the value of courting News Corporation print and electronic media.