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Focus question 2: Who do Australia's political parties represent?

Teaching and learning activities

Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  
Activity 1: Australia's political parties ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: 'Left' and 'right' ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Cartoons and speeches  
Activity 4: The middle ground ESL Activity 4

Assessment task

Parliament at Work Create a poster or booklet that gives information about the formation and development of political parties in Australia. The activities you undertake within this section all contribute to developing your booklet or poster. Your poster or booklet should deal with the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party of Australia, two other parties mentioned in Briefing 2a and the influences of ideas about free enterprise and socialism.

As you work through the activities of this section, collect information in your workbook. Within each of the five headings, decide on subheadings under which to present the information you collect and analyse. Finally, assemble your information as a poster or booklet.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

  • creating a clear picture of what each major party has stood for over time
  • showing a clear understanding of the difference between the ideas of socialism and free enterprise
  • showing how ideas of free enterprise and socialism have influenced political parties in Australia over time.

Activity 1: Australia's political parties

Stories of Democracy Parliament at Work

1a Read Briefing 2a and refer to 'Parties Control Parliament' within the Stories of Democracy CD ROM.

1b Prepare statements of about 50 words about each of the major parties.

1c Attach to each statement some relevant quotes from your reading for Activity 1a, to help provide a picture of what each party stands for.

Briefing 2a

Australia's political parties

In Australia, the growth of a strong Labor Party representing workers and trade unions was matched by the development of opposing parties such as the National Party and the Liberal Party. Since the middle of the twentieth century Australia has had either a Labor government or a Liberal-National coalition government. In Australia about 80 per cent of the population votes for either the Labor Party, the Liberal Party or the National Party.

Although other parties have never held government, they have sometimes held the 'balance of power'. If neither the governing nor the opposition party has a majority of members in the Senate, the votes of small parties and independents decide what legislation will pass. In these circumstances, the small parties or independents have 'the balance of power'.

The Australian Labor Party
The Australian Labor Party

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian Labour Party.

After the defeat of the unions in the shearers' and other strikes, union leaders decided that the labour movement needed a voice in the parliaments of the colonies. Unionists then formed Labor parties. Ever since then, trade unions have been the chief supporters of the Australian Labor Party.

The Labor Party developed as an organisation to represent workers in times when they were badly paid and badly treated by their bosses. Today its chief supporters are still the unions and its strongest electorates cover towns and suburbs in which less wealthy people live.

The Labor Party wants greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity through government provision of resources, services and other activities. Labor believes that because private businesses produce injustices and inequalities, they need to be controlled for the benefit of workers and the common good.

I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but everywhere we may give a helping hand.

Chifley, Ben 'Light on the Hill' speech, 12/6/1949. Reproduced with permission of the Australian Labor Party.

The Liberal Party of Australia
The Liberal Party of Australia

Reproduced with permission of the Liberal Party of Australia.

The present Liberal Party of Australia, founded by Robert Menzies in 1944, grew out of several earlier political parties. In 1949 Robert Menzies led a coalition of the Liberal Party and the Country Party (now called the National Party) to victory over the Chifley Government. Since then the two parties have always been a coalition in government, and usually also a coalition when in opposition.

Robert Menzies founded the Liberal Party to represent what he called 'the forgotten people' - the office workers, shopkeepers and small business owners who supported themselves and their families with what they earned and who did not look to governments for handouts. The Liberal Party also attracts the support of wealthy people and people who work in big businesses.

Liberals believe in private business and individuals looking after themselves. They want more freedom, less government control, and encouragement of wealth making so that everyone can enjoy a good standard of living

... economic growth is central to achieving the ambitions of all sections of society, and is best achieved through competitive private enterprise. To achieve economic growth in an increasingly competitive world, we need to become much more productive and efficient; government intervention and spending should be reduced and people allowed to exercise greater choice in all areas of their lives.

Federal Secretariat of the Liberal Party of Australia 1986.

The National Party of Australia
The National Party of Australia

Reproduced with permission of the National Party of Australia.

The National Party of Australia came into existence as the Country Party in January 1920. It changed its name to the National Party in 1982. It is essentially a rural party with its beginnings in local farmers' associations. The National Party is particularly interested in protecting the interests of country and regional people and upholding traditional values. The National Party has the largest membership of any Australian party.

The National Party has never had a majority in the national parliament, although it has in some State parliaments. It first joined a coalition government in 1923 and, except for a couple of years, has remained in coalition ever since, both in government and opposition. In Liberal Party-National Party coalition governments, the leader of the National Party becomes the deputy prime minister and the party has several ministers in the Cabinet.

By working within the coalition, the National Party makes sure that coalition policies are favourable to farmers' interests.

The party has always given due deference to its early beginnings. Today, the party members are not only farmers and graziers but ... residents in either rural towns or provincial cities. Since the formation of a rurally based political party, the other political parties have been forced to pay greater attention to rural needs and policies.

National Party of Australia - Victoria, Organisation & Structure, Preselection Procedures, Role and Significance.

The Australian Democrats
The Australian Democrats

Reproduced with permission of The Australian Democrats.

The Australian Democrats was formed in 1977 by Don Chipp, a former Liberal Party minister. The party's founders aimed to have no ties to particular economic sectors (trade unions or business) in order 'to serve the best interests of all Australians'.

The Democrats want more government control of the economy so they can reduce unemployment, and push for greater protection of the environment, and less foreign ownership of Australian resources.

As a small party, the Democrats have not won seats in the House of Representatives (as at September 1998), but the voting system for the Senate can sometimes give them five or six seats (and the balance of power) in the Senate.

The Australian Greens

The Australian Greens was founded in 1992. Their policies aim to foster a global community of citizens, ecological sustainability and equity within and between generations. Like the Democrats the Greens have not won seats in the House of Representatives but the voting system in the Senate has given them up to two seats in the Senate (as at September 1998).

Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party

Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party was founded in 1997. One Nation wants to restrict immigration until unemployment is reduced, and to give financial support for small business and the rural sector. One Nation opposes what it sees as 'divisive and discriminatory policies, such as those attached to Aboriginal and multicultural affairs'. One Nation has one member in the House of Representatives (as at September 1998).

Other parties and independents

There are many small political parties registered in Australia, and many independent candidates stand for election. Only a few candidates are ever elected; but they can have an influence on electoral results through their preferences. If they happen to be elected, and especially if they hold the balance of power, they can be very influential. Because of the proportional voting system for the Senate, small parties and independent candidates have more chance of gaining a seat and of holding the balance of power in the Senate than in the House of Representatives.

Activity 2: 'Left' and 'right'

2a Read Briefing 2b. Use your work within this activity for the 'Free enterprise and socialism' section of your poster or booklet.

2b Write statements which answer the following:

  • Which parties have been labelled 'free enterprise' and which 'socialist'?
  • Which groups of people do the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National Party traditionally represent? (Draw also on Briefing 2a.)
  • Describe at least one policy supported at any time by both Labor and the non-Labor parties that seems to be influenced by socialist ideas.
  • Describe at least one policy supported in recent times by both Labor and the Liberal-National coalition that seems to be influenced by free-enterprise ideas.

2c In your workbook, draw a line similar to the one below. Using Briefing 2a and Briefing 2b, place the six political parties listed in Briefing 2a at positions that reflect their origins and traditions. Discuss as a class the parties for which this is clear-cut and those for which it is not.

Left Centre Right

2d Use a combination of pictures and words to show some of the ideas and the people that parties of the right and left have stood for in Australian political history.

Briefing 2b

'Left' and 'right'

In the period following the French Revolution, those members of the French Assembly who favoured change sat on the Speaker's left, and those opposing change sat on the Speaker's right.

Parties of the left

Political parties are often identified as parties of the left or right. Like the colour spectrum, the left end of the political spectrum is known as the 'red' end. Left-wing parties around the world have red flags because red is traditionally the colour of revolution. Right-wing parties often have blue.

Typical names of parties of the left around the world are:

Labour Social

Socialists argue that private ownership of business, land and resources leads to exploitation of workers and an unequal society. They want private ownership of business to be replaced by ownership by either government or workers themselves.

In Australia some individual governments assumed ownership of industries or started their own, but Australian industry is generally privately owned and now many industries previously owned by government have been sold.

The major party of the left in Australia is the Australian Labor Party. Socialist ideas in the Australian Labor Party have led to policies favouring:

  • government ownership of, for example, banks, transport and communications industries
  • government provision of housing
  • government control of prices and wages.

Parties of the right

Parties of the right have names like:


Many who own businesses and land promote the idea that citizens should look after themselves. They oppose socialism, arguing that it gives the government too much power, denies liberty to citizens and is inefficient.

Parties of the right are supported by owners of land, industry and business who aim, in the words of Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies, to represent the middle class of 'salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on.'

'Free enterprise' parties, such as the Liberal and National parties, have:

  • supported private rather than public or government ownership
  • warned against people depending on the government to provide for them
  • (since the 1980s) supported the setting of wages negotiated at the workplace level.

In Australian politics, it is sometimes hard to pick the difference between left and right parties because both sides have to win votes from people who change their vote from one party to another from one election to the next.

How do the ideas translate into action?

The answer to the question of how different the parties of the left and the right are depends on the evidence you select. If you go by what the parties say about each other, they sound very different. If you look at what they have actually done when they were in government, the differences are not so clear-cut.

The 'socialism versus free enterprise' argument used to be brought up for electoral purposes. The Liberal and National parties used socialism to frighten people into thinking Labor would take away what they owned and reduce their freedom. Labor accused the free-enterprise parties of making the rich richer and reducing working people to poverty.

We don't want the Labor Party in office because we don't believe in socialism. Our party, composed of independent, thinking country people is for free enterprise against socialism. So is the Liberal Party. That is why, in basic terms, the Country Party and the Liberal Party are natural allies.

McEwen, John, leader of the Country Party (now the National Party), 1963.

In reality, both sides have practised a mixture of socialism and free enterprise. Socialist ideas have influenced the following policies which have been supported at various times by parties of the right and left:

  • protection of working conditions and control of wages
  • government ownership of railways, airlines, post and telecommunications
  • introduced, expanded or maintained welfare services such as the age pension, unemployment benefits and family support payments such as child endowment.

Free enterprise ideas have led to the following policies being supported by parties of the left and right in recent times:

  • sale of government services and industries to private enterprise
  • support for small businesses
  • reducing Australia-wide setting of working conditions and wages in favour of negotiating these at the workplace level.

All the main parties have often supported the same positions on important issues, for example:

  • White Australia - a whites-only immigration policy supported by major parties until 1966. Since the 1970s, applicants for migration have no longer been assessed on their race.
  • exclusion of Aborigines from political rights until the 1950s or 1960s depending on the State or Territory
  • encouragement of immigration from the end of World War II until the present
  • government use of taxes to provide pensions, health care and education
  • defence matters.

Activity 3: Cartoons and speeches

3a Examine the cartoons, text and speeches in Briefing 2c. In your workbook, answer the questions below.

Cartoon 1

The socialist 'bogey' was used by the non-Labor coalition parties to frighten people into believing that Labor was a threat to private property, free enterprise and democracy.

  • Does the depiction of the 'bogey' as a monster that might appear in a child's story book, indicate that the cartoonist thinks that socialism is a real threat?
  • What point is the cartoonist making?

Cartoon 2

  • How is capitalism (free enterprise) portrayed? Is he rich or poor? How do you know?
  • He is trying to lead the country towards prosperity. How is he trying to get there?
  • What is about to happen? What does this mean for the country?
  • What does the depiction of capitalism riding backwards suggest?
  • What is the message of the cartoon?

Cartoon 3

  • How is the millionaire portrayed?
  • What is he standing on?
  • What is the cartoon saying about the distribution of wealth and power in the world?

Cartoon 4

  • Why is Menzies portrayed as a knight?
  • Which of Menzies' promises represent free enterprise?
  • Which of the things that he wants to stop or reverse could be considered 'socialist'?

Cartoon 5

  • What does the full petrol tank suggest?
  • What does the new Australian-made Holden suggest about Australian prosperity and industry?
  • What does the cartoonist suggest is more attractive to the voter about the Liberal Party?

Cartoon 6

  • What are some of the problems Chifley is burdened with?
  • Which of these is linked to socialism? Explain.
  • What methods does the cartoonist use to suggest that Chifley is doomed?

Robert Menzies' 1949 policy speech

  • What elements of the Chifley Labor Government policies to which Robert Menzies refers could be considered to be influenced by socialism?
  • What do you think Menzies means by 'governments are the servants of the people'? Why do you think he sets this in opposition to socialism.

Ben Chifley's 1949 policy speech

  • Which aspects of Ben Chifley's Labor policy could be said to show the influence of socialist ideals?
  • Which aspects seem intended to reassure people who are concerned about free-enterprise values?

3b For the 'Free enterprise and socialism' section of your poster or booklet draw on Briefings 2b and 2c to:

  • list some policies supported by the Labor Party that could be described as having a socialist influence. Indicate the periods during which these policies were supported and include quotes or pictures to help explain them.
  • list some policies supported by the Liberal-National parties' coalition that could be described as favouring free enterprise. Indicate the periods during which these policies were supported and include quotes or pictures to help explain them.

Briefing 2c

Political cartoons and speeches

Cartoon 1

The socialist bogey man pouncing on young Australia first appeared in the election campaign of 1905 as the Labor Party was growing in strength.

Sid, T, Bulletin, 29/6/1905

Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Cartoon 1

Cartoon 2

Capitalism is another way of describing free enterprise.

This is capitalism's way of finding prosperity - then what?
Labor Call, 31/3/1938, p 6

Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Cartoon 2

Cartoon 3

Some sections of the Labor movement saw this as the effect of the world of those with control of the world's money.

The poor millionaires never get a chance.
Labor Call, 31/3/1938, p 6

Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Cartoon 3

The 1949 election

In 1944, Robert Menzies created a new party, the Liberal Party. Between 1946 and 1949 the Labor Government of Prime Minister Ben Chifley pursued 'socialist' policies such as government ownership of banks, to give the government great power over commerce and industry.

At the election held in 1949 the main contestants were Robert Menzies, leader of the Liberal Party, and Prime Minister Ben Chifley of the Labor Party. Events in the rest of the world favoured Menzies and his Liberal Party. The world had divided into two hostile camps. The Soviet Union, most of Eastern Europe and China, all communist, were on one side. On the other side were the United States and countries aligned with it, where communism was feared. Communism could be linked to socialism and socialism linked to the Labor Party.

The Chifley Government's welfare program and its policy of nationalising the banks was able to be linked to socialism and communism by those who opposed these policies. Menzies and the Liberal Party stood for free enterprise. Frightening voters with the socialist 'bogey' worked for many years and many elections to help defeat Labor. It was not until 1972 that Labor regained power. The following cartoons are from the 1949 election.

Cartoon 4

Preparing for the fray [a fight or battle - in this case an election battle]. Scorfield,
Bulletin, 19/1/1949

Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Cartoon 4

The knight depicted in the cartoon is Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest-serving prime minister. He won the 1949 election, removing Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, from power.

Menzies promised the voters that his government would keep banks privately owned, outlaw the communists, stop the growth in the size of the public service and provide more houses. The defender of free enterprise had arrived.

Cartoon 5

Going my way - on a full petrol tank?
Scorfield, Bulletin, 30/11/1949

Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Cartoon 5

For the election campaign of 1949, Liberal Party leader Robert Menzies is shown attracting the voter into a (new model) FJ Holden, the first car manufactured in Australia, symbolising free enterprise. Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley, with his famous pipe, is in an old bomb symbolising socialism.

Slogans on the bomb driven by Chifley suggest that Labor is inspired by communism, Karl Marx being a nineteenth century German philosopher who wrote about communism - hence the numberplate Marx II. 'Pluck the fowl. Grab the banks' refers to Chifley's policy of government rather than private ownership of the banks.

Cartoon 6

Lasseter Chifley's Last Ride, Scorfield, Bulletin, 7/7/1949

Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Lasseter Chifley's Last Ride

Lasseter was an explorer who perished in the desert after supposedly finding a reef of gold known as Lasseter's reef. From time to time explorers continue to search for this reef. Chifley is shown as heading into the 1949 election, wanting to promise Australia a Golden Age, but he is burdened with problems that make it unlikely that he will survive.

Robert Menzies' 1949 policy speech

Freedom and democracy

[Speaking about the Chifley Labor Government]

Since 1946 we have had the Bank Nationalisation Act, the taking over of more airways, government shipping ... the announcement of nationalised medicine ...

This is our great year of decision. Are we for the Socialist State [in which the individual is at the mercy of the government] or are we for the ancient British faith that governments are the servants of the people, a faith which has given fire and quality and direction to the whole of our history for 600 years?

[On communism]

Communism in Australia is an alien and destructive pest. If elected, we shall outlaw it. The Communist Party will be declared ... unlawful, and dissolved.

Extracts reproduced with permission of the Liberal Party of Australia.
Ben Chifley's 1949 policy speech

[On housing]

The Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement is an assurance that the low-income earner can secure a good home at the rent he can afford because of the assistance rendered to him under the rental rebate system.

[On social services]

When Labor took office in October 1941, the only Commonwealth social service benefits were age and invalid pensions, maternity allowances and child endowment. The Labor Government has greatly liberalised and extended the scope of these benefits and has introduced many new benefits covering fields not previously provided for.

The Government's programme of social security is directed to establishing a maximum degree of well-being and security below which no-one should be permitted to fall and without waiting for anyone first to fall a victim to destitution [extreme poverty] and grievous distress. At the same time barriers against adversity [hard times] are not provided on a scale that eliminates personal incentive or a proper measure of self help.

Extracts reproduced with permission of the Australian Labor Party.

Activity 4: The middle ground

4a Read Briefing 2d.

4b Have the parties remained true to their free enterprise or socialist traditions? Find examples of Labor and Liberal statements that support their traditional ideas and the people they traditionally represent. Enter these in the 'Free enterprise and socialism' section of your poster or booklet under a subheading of 'The continuing tradition'.

4c What statements by Labor and Liberal are similar? Enter these under a subheading of 'attracting the middle-of-the-road (uncommitted) voter'.

4d Use newspapers, television, radio, party websites or advertising to find examples of Labor and Liberal attempts to attract the middle-of-the-road voter who is uncommitted to either the traditional Labor view or the traditional non-Labor view. Enter these examples under the relevant party section of your poster or booklet with a sub-heading 'Attracting the uncommitted voter'.

4e Use newspapers, television, radio, advertisements, party or government websites to collect information about what each party is now saying about an issue on which they have different views. Add these to your poster or booklet under an appropriate subheading. Write a statement explaining whether the views of each party on this issue reflect free enterprise or socialist traditions.

4f In your workbook, once again draw a line similar to the one below. Place the six major political parties at positions on the line that represent their present-day policies and attitudes. Enter this in the 'Free enterprise and socialism' section of your booklet or poster.

Left Center Right

4g Are the positions of the parties any different from the positions you gave them in Activity 2c? Account for any differences.

Briefing 2d

Recent policies and media releases from political parties

Australian Democrats

Democrats give 'gong' to gay activist

The Australian Democrats have honoured Western Australian activist Brian Greig (31) at their National Conference by making him the fifth recipient of the Chris Carter Memorial Award.

The award is presented annually to a member of the lesbian and gay communities, who has 'furthered the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people'.

Senator Andrew Bartlett, spokesperson on Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Bisexual Issues, Australian Democrats media release, 27/1/1998.

National Party

Canada's beef import decision deeply disappointing

The Acting Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, Tim Fischer, expressed today the Government's deep disappointment at Canada's decision not to restore Australia's full beef import quota to the level of 42,000 tonnes, as agreed at the end of the Uruguay Round.

Tim Fischer, The Acting Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, media release, 8/1/1998.

Liberal Party

What does the Liberal Party stand for?

We are the party of initiative and enterprise. We believe in the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples; and we work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives; and maximises individual and private sector initiative.

We believe in government that nurtures and encourages its citizens through incentive, rather than putting limits on people through the punishing disincentives of burdensome taxes and the stifling structures of Labor's corporate state and bureaucratic red tape ...

We believe that, wherever possible, government should not compete with an efficient private sector; and that businesses and individuals - not government - are the true creators of wealth and employment ...

In short, we simply believe in individual freedom and free enterprise ...

Extracts from the home page of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Labor Party Constitution [Extract]

Objectives and principles

To achieve the political and social values of equality, democracy, liberty and social cooperation inherent in this objective, the Australian Labor Party stands for:

  1. Redistribution of political and economic power so that all members of society have the opportunity to participate in the shaping and control of the institutions and relationships which determine their lives.


  1. Democratic control and strategic social ownership of Australian natural resources for the benefit of all Australians.
  2. Maintenance of and support for a competitive non-monopolistic private sector, including small business and farming, controlled and owned by Australians, operating within clear social guidelines and objectives.


  1. Recognition and encouragement of the right of labour to organise for the protection and advancement of its interests.


  1. The restoration and maintenance of full employment.

  1. The abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity.

From the Constitution of the Australian Labor Party: Objectives and principles section - Origins and objectives.

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