Australian politics, society & culture

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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Singo & Gina

The Worker's Party

By Malcolm Knox 
November 2012November 2012Medium length read
 

When the Australian mining industry has an open-door immigration policy while holding hands with Tony ‘Stop the Boats’ Abbott, and when Barnaby Joyce, confidant of Gina Rinehart, is campaigning against foreign investment, you know something complicated is going on within the political right. As we countenance a future Coalition government, are we looking at Abbott’s socially conservative DLP version of the right, Joyce’s version of populist agrarian socialism, or the free-enterprise right of the mining lobby?

The genealogy of some of these contradictions can be found in the past of Rinehart’s self-styled spokesman, that most protean of Australian public figures, John Singleton. Buried amid Singleton’s metamorphoses as radio and television star, adman bouncing between the anti-Whitlam right, the Hawke and Unsworth Labor governments and back to the present-day Coalition, boss of Alan Jones and mini-media mogul, is the mad moment when Singo was a politician in his own right.

In the mid 1970s, Singleton was the chairman of the Australian Workers Party, which stood candidates in state and federal elections. It did not represent workers so much as redefine them: Workers Party workers were entrepreneurs, big or small, whose binding desire was to get government regulation off their back. The self-employed contractor was its idea of the true ‘worker’. The party knew better what it stood against. As Singleton wrote: “The Workers Party stands for less government, less tax, less inflation and more freedom.” It wanted to sell off Medibank and the ABC. It opposed the Whitlam government and the Fraser-led coalition as two versions of socialism. Among its members was Greg Lindsay, founder of the conservative Centre for Independent Studies. In 1975, Singleton wrote that “the socialist government has turned Australia from the greatest country in the world to a country ridden with class hatred. Australia is being ruined by socialists.” Six months after Fraser’s election, Singleton wrote: “Surely the time has just about come when we … realise that the answer lies in either or both parties getting the hell out of the way and letting things happen. In the meantime … there is little to differentiate between the two parties.”

In 1977, Singleton published his political manifesto, Rip Van Australia, co-authored by mechanical engineer Bob Howard. The book championed unregulated competition and savaged the welfare state. Its foreword was written by Lang Hancock, whose libertarian ideas had brought him close to the 32-years-younger Singleton. Hancock wrote: “It is refreshing indeed to read a book by young Australians on the obvious merits of free enterprise, especially as the authors have set an example and are therefore able to say, ‘Do as we do, not do as we say.’” Hancock hoped that “this book finds its way to the classroom of every school and the library of every centre of so-called learning in this great country of ours; a country which could be the richest on earth if the true principles of a free enterprise market economy were allowed to operate as John Singleton and Bob Howard advocate.”

Through Hancock, Singleton met Gina, the magnate’s daughter and acolyte. The ideological overlap continued when Hancock published his own manifesto in 1979. Its title and contents were heavily influenced by the Howard–Singleton book. Wake Up Australia promoted the same hands-off economic message with an iron-ore flavour. Hancock planned to sell his message with an aerial tour of the Pilbara for opinion-makers; when he fell ill, Gina took over as guide.

Although Singleton later would make advertisements for the Labor Party, due to his friendships with Bob Hawke and Barrie Unsworth, his ideas stuck firm to the libertarian message. More overtly ideological, Rinehart would strengthen her father’s political line.

What makes this particularly interesting is that Tony Abbott comes from the authoritarian Santamaria right, the ideological foe of the libertarian ‘business right’. On just about every social policy, from immigration to abortion to drugs to homosexuality, the libertarian position is diametrically opposite Abbott’s. Singleton, Hancock and the Workers Party may not have wanted to promote abortion or prostitution, but their principled opposition to government regulation of the ‘private’ sphere meant they disagreed with any legislative controls. Society was a free market for everyone, or it was not free.

Most interesting of all, the Workers Party wanted to fling open Australia’s borders. Its manifesto read: “Any government that controls immigration is guilty of discrimination. Black, white, yellow or red people … skilled or unskilled … If they can find a place to stay and a place to work then they are doing no wrong and cannot be morally stopped from coming here.” So much for stopping the boats. An echo of this can be found in Rinehart and Clive Palmer’s comments on asylum seekers, that anybody so desperate to risk their lives to come to Australia would probably make a conscientious, undemanding worker. Particularly a non-union mining worker.

Nothing could be further from Abbott’s political heritage of social control and explicit state prohibition. Economically, too, he has found a safer haven in the National Party’s version of state socialism than in the wilder frontiers of pure laissez-faire.

Both major political parties are too large not to contain contradictory impulses. The Liberal Party likes to distinguish itself as a ‘broad church’, a political movement better able to tolerate difference. But as the coalition broadens its appeal to include both the social conservatives of the DLP right and the libertarian purists of the business right, when does a broad church become a schism waiting to happen?

One commentator in 1975 compared the Workers Party favourably with the Santamaria right, which, he said, was “both conservative and authoritarian”. The DLP and its offshoots, he wrote, were

 

very concerned with social discipline. They see the family as the basic unit of society and consequently reject notions of women’s liberation that challenge the wife and mother role of women. They also, for the same reason, oppose premarital sex, pornography, drugs or indeed anything that threatens their bourgeois conception of the society of patriarchal families.

 

This version of the extreme right, he felt, had less of a future than the Workers Party, which was “a force to be reckoned with”. This writer had the same plague-on-both-your-houses view of the major parties as Singleton. He continued:

 

The WP is also run by businessmen. With all due respect to the party hacks elsewhere, it is an advantage to have businessmen and professional managers running your party. It is an advantage to have your TV and other ads produced by John Singleton.

 

The writer was Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull’s prognosis for the Workers Party was overly optimistic. Its NSW Senate candidate in 1975, Sinclair Hill – the polo player who taught Kerry and James Packer – won 30,000 votes, or about 1.2%, some 400,000 short of a quota. The Workers Party’s electoral high point was polling 13% of the vote in a West Australian state seat. After that it renamed itself the Progress Party, won 17% of the vote in a West Australian state seat and 20% in one Northern Territory seat, lost Singleton’s interest and faded into obscurity, its pure libertarianism too eccentric for Australians to handle.

About the author Malcolm Knox
Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.