Nov 8, 2014

Speech: Denis Murphy and the power of communities


Fellow True Believers,

It was US President Barack Obama who, in 2008, said people should not sit around waiting for other people to deliver change.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,’’ Obama said.

“We are the change we seek.’’

This week the nation gathered to honour the father of modern Australia, Gough Whitlam.

A man who changed Labor, and then changed the nation.

His extraordinary send off at Sydney Town Hall was a tribute not just to him, but to our movement which seeks to advance opportunity, equality, social justice regardless of gender, race or background.

Tonight, we gather to remember another man whose courage in fighting for change in the Australian Labor Party is the reason why many good judges name him one of the fathers of modern Labor in Queensland.

Denis Murphy was an academic, a teacher, a leader, a thinker, and sadly only briefly a Member of Parliament.

But above all, Denis Murphy was a visionary.

In the 1970s and 1980s Denis applied his intellect and work ethic to make the Queensland Branch of the Labor Party more professional, more dynamic, more representative and more electable.

As a historian and author, Denis scoured Labor’s history in this state to look for lessons to apply to the task of reform.

His efforts positioned the Australian Labor Party to put an end to the corruption and discord of the Bjelke-Petersen era.

Although his name is not nearly as widely known south of the Tweed, Denis was one of Queensland Labor’s greatest leaders.

We must remember our heroes, particularly those cut down too early in their careers.

But there’s another reason we should remember Denis.

His example reminds us that the great Australian Labor Party works best when it wrests power from the hands of power elites and positions itself squarely within the community mainstream.

That’s as important a lesson today as it was at the height of the Bjelke-Petersen era.


Denis Joseph Patrick Murphy was born in 1936.

I haven’t been able to confirm this, but with a name like that I reckon he came from an Irish Catholic background.

His birthplace was Nambour and he was the youngest of nine children.

His father was a railway worker.


There must be something in the water there other than pineapple juice, because it was also the birthplace of my friends Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan.

Denis studied at Nudgee College and after school qualified as a physical education teacher, teaching at Redcliffe State High School between 1961 and 1965.

He was a sportsman who played A Grade cricket for Toombul.

Before long, books called him again.

Working night jobs including as a furniture removalist and a railway clerk, Denis completed a Bachelor of Arts and later a PhD at the University of Queensland.

By 1966 he was working full-time as a lecturer at the same university.

He continued that important work for the rest of his professional life.

In that capacity, Denis influenced the intellectual development of thousands of Queensland’s best young minds.

His courses in Australian history were extremely popular.

I’ve no doubt that his former students are now themselves prominent Queenslanders in teaching, academia, the law, journalism and a range of other disciplines.

Denis published widely, with his work on former Queensland Premier TJ Ryan still lauded as the best biography of any Queensland state politician.

He joined the Labor Party in 1964.

His study of Queensland Labor gave him insight into how the party had worked over the decades, from its glory days between 1915 and 1957 to its decades out of power.


These insights led Denis to the reform of Queensland Labor in the 1970s and 1980s.

Let’s cast our mind back to the 1970s in Queensland.

It was run by a right-wing populist.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a reactionary who wanted to run an ignorant state.

Bjelke-Petersen derided education and refused to introduce a prep year for Queensland schools, meaning Queenslanders were a year behind children in southern states when they finished school.

It was a corrupt state.

Police were on the take. Conservative politicians collected donations in brown paper bags.

It was a police state.

Protests were met with truncheons, as Denis experienced first-hand with a night in the clink for daring to protest against the Vietnam War.

It was a morally bankrupt state.

A South African rugby union team chosen on racial grounds was welcome while anti-apartheid protestors were jailed.

But despite the Queensland Government being a moral and ethical basket case, Labor couldn’t win an election.

Something was wrong.

It had to be more than a gerrymander that was keeping Labour out of power.

That’s where Denis came in.

He could imagine a better future.

And he had the capacity to help create one.


In the late 1970s, the Labor Party was ruled by a small group of union leaders.

There’s nothing wrong with union leaders.

Unions are the soul of the Labor Party.

But the problem was that grassroots party members had no say.

The Queensland Central Executive, as it was called, was a closed shop.

At a reform meeting on March 5, 1978, at the Bardon RSL, a young activist named Peter Beattie declared:

We are not anti-union. We are simply asking for a more responsive and efficient QCE.

We are ordinary members of the Labor Party and we are sick and tired of an unresponsive, dictatorial inner executive.

Denis was not present at that meeting, but later threw in his lot with the fledgling reform group.

He became the calming force over the young and sometimes headstrong Beattie, providing the experience and intellectual grunt to balance his young friend’s brash energy and ambition.

Denis understood that unless Labor opened itself to its rank-and-file members, it would struggle to be relevant to the broader community.

Together, he and Beattie travelled relentlessly to sell their message of the need for party reform.

Denis even obtained a pilot’s licence so he could travel right across the state.

After two federal interventions, Labor appointed an interim committee including Denis as president, Beattie, the great Tom Burns and Federal MP Manfred Cross.

Reforms including affirmative action followed, along with a new pre-selection procedure providing for branch pre-selection reviewed by a 40 person electoral college.

The battle was often nasty.

With his new authority as Queensland Labor President, Denis and others set about recruiting candidates.

He drafted a talented young lawyer named Wayne Goss, Rhodes Scholar David Hamill, former cricketer Tom Veivers, Wendy Edmond, Anne Warner and Keith de Lacy.

With the sudden arrival of community-based candidates of broad electoral appeal, branch members across the state felt liberated.

They became more active.

More engaged.

Over time, the new parliamentary recruits formed the nucleus of the revitalised Labor team.

Labor was on the right path at last.

It returned to office in 1989, after decades in the political wilderness.

Sadly though, despite being seen by many as a future Labor Premier, Denis did not survive to see the fruits of his labours.

After being elected to the state seat of Staffordin 1983, Dennis died in 1984, aged 47.

Tragically, he did not have the opportunity to deliver his maiden speech.

When Bill Hayden heard of his passing, he said the nation had lost “potentially one of the greatest Labor leaders of this country.’’


Despite his loss, the legacy of Denis Murphy remains.

Even today, it calls out to us about the need for community engagement and openness.

The proof is in the pudding.

After being out of office for 32 years before reform, Labor has ruled for a total of 21 years after reform.

The importance of Labor winning multiple terms in office cannot be overstated.

Labor is a party of activism. We deliver change.

That means entrenched interests will always fight back.

We need to aspire to multiple terms so we can entrench our reforms before the Tories return and try to undo our good work.

Denis showed us how to do it.

The formula is pretty simple: We must be a community based party.

Our internal processes must reflect our values.

Just as we value democratic participation, mutual respect, innovative ideas and equality in society, our structures should reflect this.

We must engage our branch membership as a precondition of engaging the broader community.

People join the Labor Party because they care about their local community and their nation.

They want the generations to come to enjoy a better quality of life than they had.

Better education, improved healthcare, a safer community, fairer workplaces and an enhanced natural and built environment.

Labor’s vision is a compelling one.

Standing for the many, not the few, should make Labor the natural political party of government in a country that prides itself on the concept of the fair go.

Even the great Australian greeting of “how you going?” reflects a caring beyond oneself, that is replicated every time Australians respond to natural disasters, in the cities or in the bush.

The way Labor treats our membership must also be guided by this egalitarian spirit.

Kevin Rudd’s historic move to provide for a party wide ballot for the Federal Leader was the most significant reform in a generation.

It signalled trust and respect from Labor’s leadership to our own members.

It was an honour to participate in the historic 1st members ballot.

Its success gave Labor momentum.

Importantly, not only did ALP Members respond with enthusiasm, the broader public did too.

Remarkably, a Morgan Poll in October showed Labor outpolling the Abbott Government while the Leadership Ballot was still being conducted, and we have been in the strongest position of any 1st term Opposition ever since.

The ballot also set a powerful democratic precedent.

The expansion of direct participation in the processes of our Party should be the central theme of reform proposals.

If rank and file members are competent to have a direct say in electing our Federal Leader, there is no reason why this principle should not be extended to other positions.

The introduction of a rank and file component of 50% for Queensland Senate preselection and the enhancement of the rank and file component for Lower House candidates to up to 70% are significant reforms here in Queensland.

Empowering the membership will lead to a larger membership and strengthen our capacity to campaign.

It will also loosen factional control.

That requires people who have exercised factional power, myself included, to give up some of that influence.

By definition you can’t increase the influence of the many, without reducing influence of the few.

Many opponents of direct participation say, without irony, that this will mean uncertain outcomes.

To them I say that is the point.

Predetermined outcomes discourage genuine participation and means that patronage can be more important than capacity.

To that end factional caucusing for positions within Parliamentary parties should stop.

The malign power of Eddie Obeid in the former NSW Labor Government was based upon having the numbers in a sub-faction, that became a majority in a faction, that became a majority within a caucus.

Restoring faith in our processes means that the Babushka Doll model of political power exhibited in the former NSW Labor Government must give way to transparency.

The role of union affiliates in our Party structures is also critical.

A consequence of union amalgamations in recent decades has been fewer affiliated unions and a concentration of power in the hands of fewer union secretaries.

I’m less concerned by the proportion of influence exercised by unions in party structures than I am about the engagement with rank and file members.

If the link with union members, rather than just union secretaries, is harnessed, our affiliation with unions allow for the input of hundreds of thousands of working Australians.

Before this year’s NSW Labor Conference in Sydney, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union held a meeting in which its officials talked to union members about the issues that were to be put to the conference.

That meant that the views put by that union on the floor of that conference were directly informed by people out there in workplaces.

Working people represent the heart of Labor’s support base and our Party aspires to represent their interests.

We should seek greater input from them.

In many cases, rank and file unionists are better placed to guide us into the political mainstream than full time union officials or political professionals.

This is not to criticise union leaders or political professionals.

I’ve been a political professional for more than two decades.

But as we can see from events in NSW, concentration of power in too few hands, means those who exercise it tend to make decisions based on complex networks of deals about candidacies and party positions, rather than on the merits of the issues at hand.

We should embrace a direct election component of National Conference Delegates.

This is a structural means to achieve the end result of engaging the membership in debate about our Platform, which should represent our plan for action in government.

We should also ensure that there are serious policy debates at National Conference rather than over-managing outcomes.

No serious political party is homogenous in its views and we shouldn’t be concerned as long as disagreements are about ideas and debate is conducted with respect.


Community engagement is the key.

The older I become the more impressed I am with the human desire to be part of a vibrant community.

People love their communities.

They like to care for their neighbours.

They see their local community as an embodiment of their way of life, their values and their desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

I fear that many people, including political parties, have lost sight of the power of communities to drive change.

Here’s an example that rugby league mad Queenslanders will understand.

Last month my team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs ended a 43-year drought by winning the premiership.

It was a great game.

But the victory was sweeter because it represented the vindication of a community that refused to be pushed around by corporate interests which, in 1999, attempted to throw us out of the competition.

When 100,000 South Sydney fans marched on the Sydney Town Hall in 2000 they were expressing their faith in their community.

And when we won the premiership, the sense of community success was everywhere.

In 2014, Labor needs to connect with this sense of community.

As much as we focus on the possibilities of the Internet for political campaigning, we must never forget that the human-to-human relationships within communities are far more powerful.

When Labor harnesses the equivalent to the spirit of the Rabbitohs in defence of universal health care, or equity of access to education, we are unbeatable.

I’m not saying that community engagement via Labor Party branches will turn everybody in the world into a social democrat.

But I am saying that any political party that wants to engage people can do it best from within the community mainstream.

That’s why Bill Shorten’s campaign to lift party membership is not inward looking, it’s about our broader success.

It means making Labor activists visible in their communities, not just talking about politics, but by supporting communities and their broader activities.

Our aim must be for Australians to see the Labor Party as something more than a vehicle for protecting industrial rights, as important as that is.

We must position Labor as a community based organisation that understands mainstream aspirations across the board and can deliver policies outcomes that improve people’s lives.

Here’s another example of what I am talking about.

NSW Premier Mike Baird is selling off 300 public housing units at Millers Point, in Sydney.

When Mr Baird sees Millers Point he sees dollar signs.

When I look at Millers Point I see a community with social connections that goes back generations.

Strong communities are not disconnected enclaves of wealth and disadvantage. They are vibrant and diverse. Their people come from a mix of backgrounds.

The Tories know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Out in the real community, most people live their lives according to their values.

Not every decision that people make is related to their bank balance.

People are interested in more than that and will open their minds to political parties that deliver strong economic policy but driven by social values.

Communities are the repositories of vast power.

The political party that can plug into that power will find the community a willing partner.

The political party that wins acceptance for its policies based on engaging with communities will be seen to be as an integral part of the community – a protector of its values.

So I am with Barack Obama.

We are the change we are looking for.

Whether we are Members of Parliament, trade unionists, factional hardheads, unionists or rank and filers, it’s time to create a more dynamic and vibrant political party.


Denis Murphy understood the need for such connections.

He worked hard to establish community links that enabled Labor to take power in Queensland and deliver on our mission of equality of opportunity and fairness for all.

Which brings me back to Gough Whitlam and the celebration of his life this week.

Before Denis, Gough was prepared to take on entrenched interests and modernised Labor so it not only deserved election, but almost demanded it with the declaration “It’s Time”.

At one point, he was nearly expelled for his troubles, probably saved by the Dawson by-election here in Queensland.

Had Gough lacked that courage and conviction, Australia would be a very different nation today.

Gough changed Labor and changed our nation.

Despite leaving parliamentary politics decades ago, Gough was an active participant in the Labor Party until his passing.

He cast his vote in the leadership ballot last year.

My friend John Faulkner reminded us in his eulogy of the importance Gough placed on our Party as the driver of progressive change in Australia.

Of the importance of connection with community.

Of the importance of policy development.

Above all, of the importance of courage and conviction.

This speech was delivered on the Sunshine Coast on 8 November 2014.