Thursday, January 19, 2006

Back to the 1920s in New South Wales

The NSW Liberals are back declaring that the NSW ALP is politically indebted to ethnic criminal gangs. This is of course supported by Paul Sheehan, Should we be grateful that NSW Liberalism gives us reason to be enthusiastic about the possible re-election of the Iemma government? Here the NSW Liberals return to their historical roots. In the 1920s the Nationalists took anti-Catholic politics to a new low. Labor was accused of being under the control of priests and publicans and this was linked to corruption and branch stacking. There was outrage when Labor supporters pulled down the British flag at the Protestant Federation election rally on Empire Day 1925. Did Catholic bashing work electorally? In 1922 Labor crashed to a severe defeat after two years of uninspiring government, bitter factional warfare in the party and a massive campaign by protestant organisations against Labor. There were 'Protestant Labor' candidates elected in 1922 and 1925. Catholic-bashing helped in 1922 but Labor would have lost anyway. However the 1922-25 Nationalist government overplayed the sectarian card to the point of obsession. It focused on the papal document Ne Temere which was interpreted as claiming that Catholics regarded Protestant marriages as not being true marriages. Legislation to outlaw promulgation of the decree was introduced in 1923 by politician and murder T. J. Ley. However it meet opposition from some Anglicans and the Legislative Council and was not passed. By 1925 it seems voters were turned off by the government's focus on sectarianism to the exclusion of anything else, Labor had reunited behind Jack Lang and won a narrow victory. Although Lang in government alienated the middle-class and many rural voters his class appeal won back many blue-collar Protestants. After 1925 the Nationalists dropped overt sectarian appeals, Thomas Bavin Premier 1927-30 was an old Deakinite and an Anglican who earned the ire of Protestants by talking to Catholic leaders. Lang in government 1930-32 inspired class panic rather than Protestant panic.

The lesson is that if Labor is not setting the agenda on economic issues cultural politics can fill the gap to Labor's disadvantage as in 1922 but that voters will be alienated by conservatives who only talk about culture as in 1925. Rather than speculating on whether John Howard's father was a New Guard member for which there is no evidence we should remember his family roots in interwar Dulwich Hill; a centre of suburban Masonry and anti-Catholicism.


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