The historic role of Al Grassby


The Labor Party and racism

Bob Gould

The flamboyant Labor politician Al Grassby died a couple of weeks ago on the same day as the reactionary populist former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and Grassby’s death was a bit overshadowed by Bjelke-Petersen’s.

It’s important to commemorate the life of Al Grassby because his role in the areas of migration and race reflected much that was progressive and healthy in the broad Labor tradition.

It’s not accidental, as the old Stalinists used to say, that pundits of the right, such as the Sydney Telegraph‘s Piers Ackerman, used the occasion of Grassby’s death to pour scorn on him as the main source of their bete noir, multiculturalism.

Many reactionary pundits have dredged up some old-fashioned Anglophone hysteria in a dog-whistle attempt to associate the Spanish-Irish-descended Grassby with alleged Mafia activity in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area of rural NSW, which he represented in the federal parliament.

Grassby functioned as a minister in the Whitlam Labor Government for a relatively short time, but that short period was decisive for settling accounts with the reactionary vein on matters of race and migration that ran through previous Labor politics. This vein of racism was replaced by what has now become known as multiculturalism, a term that Grassby more or less invented, and a policy that he was central to initiating.

The two figures who were decisive to Labor’s change of stance on migration were Arthur Calwell in an earlier period, who despite his residual anti-Asian racism widened the sources for mass migration to include non-English-speaking countries, and Grassby who brought the irreversible process of overturning the White Australia Policy close to completion in the Labor Party.

Grassby was a very effective Labor politician and after his defeat in his rural electorate as a result of a vicious dog-whistle campaign that tried to associate him with the alleged Mafia, he went on to function in a lot of public organisations, at both state and federal level, appointed by Labor governments. All his activity was marked by an indefatigable commitment to anti-racism and the energetic and vigorous expansion of the theory and practice of multiculturalism.

I’ve written at length on these questions previously, (The ALP, the Labour Movement and Racism, Mass Migration has been Good for Australia and It Should Continue and Multiculturalism and Australian National Identity).

The ruling class knows its enemies pretty well, and knows what weapons are available to it in seeking to divide the labour movement and keep it at bay.

There’s a certain tension in the ruling class between those who derive direct benefits from migration and the broader concern of keeping racial and other divisions alive in the working class as a political tool for the ruling class.

The period since the election of the Howard Government in 1996 provides something of a case study in these tensions. Sections of the ruling class want mass migration from almost anywhere, particularly skilled migration, but that hasn’t stopped the Coalition Government whipping up hysteria about refugees, with the full support of the most reactionary sections of the media.

Hysteria about refugees was directly responsible the re-election of the Howard Government in the Tampa election of 2001, despite great difficulties facing the conservatives on other questions.

Grassby’s courageous expansion of the notion and practice of multicultural was very important. The essentially conservative book by Mark Lopez, The Origins of Multiculturalism (Melbourne University Press, 2000), recognises the critical importance of Grassby in developing multiculturalism, and that book is now the bible of the forces on the right that oppose mass migration and multiculturalism. Lopez’s index contains a very large number of references to Grassby.

A book published more recently from a more leftist standpoint, is likely to become the definitive history of these events: The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, by Gwenda Tavan (Scribe 2005). This book discusses at length the roles of Grassby and Calwell.

The significance of these books is thrown into bold relief by the current media hysteria about a young Shi’ite Muslim student at Auburn high school, in Sydney, who is courageously asserting the right to wear a Muslim tunic for personal religious reasons. The May 17 Sydney Telegraph carries an unpleasant article by the frenetic Ackerman attacking the young woman’s stand.

The DSP and multiculturalism

Several years ago, the youngish DSP activist Iggy Kim was given the task of writing a pamphlet, The Origins of Racism. Poor Iggy Kim is used from to time by the DSP leadership to do this kind of job, witness his recent articles about North Korea.

The main thesis of this pamphlet is that the Labor Party has been the main source of racism in Australian society, which is nonsense. Kim doesn’t address at all the dramatic changes that have taken place in the labour movement concerning racism.

The only real point of the pamphlet was to “expose” Labor, and one mechanism for this exposure is a broad-ranging attack on “official” multiculturalism, which the DSP argues is a conspiracy of the ruling class designed to confuse workers.

That can be said about almost any reform under capitalism, but it doesn’t get socialists very far, and the DSP only chooses to say such things about reforms when this kind of ultraleft rhetoric can be worked into an attack on Laborism. The general thrust of this argument is political rubbish.

The main task of revolutionary socialists in current conditions is to give vigorous, if critical, support to multicultural theory and practice against the most primitive, atavistic and reactionary forces in society.

It’s now nearly a month since Al Grassby died and the dead-end instrumentalism of the DSP leadership’s approach to multiculturalism in Australian society is underlined by the fact that it hasn’t deigned to offer any balance sheet of Grassby’s political activity, or even note his passing.

PS. It was notable that both Grassby’s wife Elinor and his longtime partner Angela Chan appeared publicly at events celebrating Grassby’s life, one at the funeral and the other at an event in Sydney. Angela Chan is an outspoken advocate of multiculturalism in her own right. At a Sydney Labour History conference in the year 2000 on the labour movement and mass migration, the protagonists on the pro-migration side were Angela Chan and Bob Gould, and the speakers for the other side were the academic Catherine Betts and the Australian populist poet Mark O’Connor.


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