Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Greens' and Abbott's guilt by association


H.V. EvattThe company you keep in politics is crucial. Strong alliances across the political spectrum give you extra leverage on issues; but the concept of guilt by association has a long history in Australian politics. Examples are legion. Generally they concern partnerships, fleeting or otherwise, between the major parties and controversial allies on either the Right or the Left.

There have been several recent examples, including the pattern of alliances involving Greens and Independents supporting the Gillard minority Labor Government. The most controversial ones have concerned Tony Abbott and his allies in the anti-carbon tax demonstrations, and the NSW Greens and their allies in the proposed trade boycott against Israel.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s one staple of Coalition allegations against Labor was that their association with the Communist Party of Australia was too close.

There were many aspects to the charge that Labor was 'soft on communism'; a particular one was the so-called 'unity tickets', with left-wing Labor and Communist candidates combining in union elections to defeat right-wing Labor Industrial Group candidates. Rightly or wrongly Labor suffered from guilt by association during election campaigns. Labor leader, Dr H. V. (Bert) Evatt (pictured), personified this association in the public mind.

On the other side the Coalition suffered from time to time from allegations that particular conservative MPs were too close to right-wing groups such as the anti-semitic League of Rights. At one time considerable publicity was given to the claim that the Country Party was being infiltrated by the League of Rights. It was alleged also that the Liberal Party was too close to right-wing immigrant groups with Fascist connections.

More recently, claims of guilt by association surrounded Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party. In 1996 Hanson, after her anti-Indigenous remarks attracted media publicity, was disendorsed as the Liberal candidate for Oxley by the Liberal central command to avoid such guilt. They wanted as much distance as possible between her and the Liberal Party if mud started flying.

Later the question of preference exchange with One Nation became fraught. Labor promised to 'Put One Nation Last' in order to put the Coalition over a barrel. The Coalition dithered over what strategy to pursue, but eventually fell into line. Hanson's party was ostracised because both sides of politics wanted to avoid the charge of guilt by association.

The two modern examples follow a similar pattern. Abbott became embroiled in controversy over the company he was keeping during the so-called 'people's revolt' demonstrations against the proposed carbon tax. The issues became not just what groups, including the League of Rights, were allegedly present at the demonstration, but also the undoubtedly crude, prominent anti-Gillard signs.

The question of abusive signage and of the rowdy, even violent, behaviour of extreme elements in otherwise mainstream popular demonstrations poses a recurring dilemma for political leaders.

The Greens, especially the NSW Greens, have become embroiled over their participation in the anti-Israel boycott campaign. One part of the issue is about the participation of Greens MPs in demonstrations that also feature controversial figures like Sheik Hilaly.

The dilemmas of mainstream political figures are not helped by those with more extreme views who infiltrate campaigns and demonstrations. Political leaders don't control the agenda of many of these events. They take a risk in keeping such company. Minor groups piggy-back on mainstream events, high-jacking the proceedings.

These are difficult issues. Political leaders not only can be made to seem guilty of unacceptable associations, but can also be actually guilty sometimes of keeping the wrong company. Sharing a public platform does not signal full agreement between all the speakers on other issues. It is one thing to enter a permanent relationship; it is quite another thing to have a temporary association with a particular common purpose in mind. But you may have to draw the line somewhere.

Leaders can choose the company they keep and, therefore, should be careful. But they may be not just innocent of the charge of guilt by association, but brave too, in stepping out in a just cause with new friends beyond tried and true alliances.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times 

Topic tags: Tony Abbott, League of Rights, Coalition, Labor, Communist, Union, Dr H. V. (Bert) Evatt, Pauline Hanson



submit a comment

Existing comments

Professor Warhurst rightly makes a distinction between "enduring" associations or alliances and more transient, opportunist ones (even some which are accidental and unintended).

One which he did not mention -- but which has bedevilled Australian politics in an enduring way -- is the religious association.

Up until the emergence of the DLP (following the ALP split of the 1950s), the diversity of conservative parties was strongly allied with Protestantism and Catholics were (apart from special circumstances) rarely members of them. The ALP (especially after the split over conscription during World War I) was overwhelmingly a Catholic-oriented party (a matter which had as much to do with social class as with religion). This sociological fact was the background, for example, to Gough Whitlam's disgraceful sneer that Lawrie Brereton's change of policy on East Timor (when the ALP External Affairs spokesman) was made because Brereton and the Timoress were both Catholics.

Traditionally, the influence of the clergy -- not always benign -- has been pervasive, clear and contended by both sides of politics.

With Catholics now so prominent in the conservative parties, especially in their leadership, it is the influence of the Catholic clergy (especially the bishops) which becomes politically contentious. So keeping company with churches, whilst an enduring challenge for our politicians has not always been consistent in its manifestation. Nonetheless, it is an important addition to Professor Warhurst's concerns about "company keeping".

John CARMODY | 02 May 2011  

No one better than Vladimir Lenin knew that a plethora of interacting variables made up the body politic. The best way for a minority party to exert influence was a United Front.

Now all political tacticians employ the United Front approach. What they have to have if they are to have long term success is a strategic plan. Strategic planning it seems to me is what all political parties lack as they try to live in a 24/7 media saturated environment.

Religious leaders would be expected to have long term goals but they don't seem to be able to look beyond the next school or hospital building subsidy.

Uncle Pat | 02 May 2011  

I really enjoyed this article - quite insightful.

Moira Byrne Garton | 02 May 2011  

Similar Articles

The murder of Osama Bin Laden

  • Moira Rayner
  • 04 May 2011

Barack Obama has committed his people to a legal and ethical mistake which will be a continuing obstacle to the West's integrity in its pursuit of freedom, democracy, internationally recognised standards of justice and human rights, and lasting peace. 


Justifying Bin Laden's execution

  • Tony Kevin
  • 03 May 2011

Obama was admirably honest that Bin Laden had been killed after, not during, the firefight. Why wasn’t Bin Laden taken alive and returned from Pakistan to face US courts? Here is a case where the cutting of the Gordian knot through an on-the-spot execution may be justified as the lesser evil.