shtikl – a little bit of something
By Clare Fester
When we think about 1950s Australia we often associate it with Robert Menzies’ long Liberal rule, social conservatism, and the White Australia policy. It was a period when migrant political participation was almost unheard of. Labour movement disinterest combined with the disinterest of migrants themselves, meant demands for economic equality and social recognition were not won until the 1970s. The New Australians Council (NAC), a small migrant auxiliary section of the Victorian ALP that existed in 1955-1959, punctuates this vision.
Led by a small group of migrants active in Melbourne’s Jewish Labour Bund, the NAC leadership grew to include ten migrants from eight different nationalities, represented approximately 200 workers from migrant backgrounds, and may have indirectly influenced many more. In 1957 the NAC held a successful meeting in Wonthaggi, a rural coal mining town in Gippsland. NAC secretary for the full four years it functioned and leading Bundist Bono Wiener, alongside L. Zandendea, a migrant activist from Italy, joined Assistant State Secretary R. Balcombe to address a mixed Australian-born and migrant audience of 67 people, including 25 Italian miners. Zandendea, who a year later would join the NAC’s executive, spoke in both English and Italian.At the end of the meeting several Italians joined the party.
In part the council existed to help the ALP assimilate and recruit new migrants. It ran Victorian ALP election campaigns directed at migrants. But it also served as a place for migrants to access and participate in Australian society. It was run for and by migrants themselves, producing English and foreign language media and material for migrant union members, and held quarterly conferences to discuss migrant issues.
That the NAC began to conceive counter-proposals to the assimilation agenda of the 1950s is in part due to its Bundist leadership. Every year at least one Bundist was represented on the NAC leadership. In its final year three Bundists joined the executive: Wiener, Joseph Winkler and Jacob Kronhill. This was far in excess of the proportional Bundist presence in the Australian migrant community.
The Jewish Labour Bund grew out of the revolutionary movements in Tsarist Russia and inter-war Poland, calling for Jewish civil, political and national rights. Forever a minority wherever they found themselves, Bundists understood (at least rhetorically) that the liberation of the Jewish working class was intimately bound up in the fate of the working class around it. In 1957, the year of the NAC’s first migrant worker conference, the International Jewish Labor Bund released a publication for its sixtieth anniversary stating: “The Bund has always held that only through joint action with the non-Jewish Socialist and labo[u]r organi[s]ations and other progressive elements in the countries where they live, can Jews improve their lot.”
Due to their very marginality, Bundist ideology allowed its members to understand themselves as a culturally distinct minority in the context of surrounding cultures.This understanding was borne out in practice through the NAC: it created the potential to facilitate united fronts between Jews and non-Jews. According to Wiener, Bundists were
… Jews who believe [in] the ideals of social justice as expressed in the Labor party [and] strive for the rights of those who are oppressed and persecuted because they are Jews, Spaniards, Czecks [sic] or Greeks. We want the smaller people to have the same rights in life as the stronger.
These principals, along with the Bund’s vehement anti-Communism, often came into conflict with the NAC’s benefactors in the ALP. As is clear today, the ALP leadership’s support for migrants (whether they come by boat or as skilled workers) is ambivalent and unreliable. The ALP was the architect of Australia’s post-war mass migration program for the purposes of population and economic growth. However, fears about economic conditions, the political division caused by the ALP/DLP Split in 1955, and its electoral weakness, fractured the party’s position on migration.
As Bundists reported in their Yiddish-language journal Undzer Gedank in 1956, an organised anti-foreigner sentiment was re-emerging in the party. A union delegate at an ALP conference brought a motion calling on the federal government to immediately halt its migration program until there were enough houses and jobs for locals, implying that migrants were to blame for decreasing living standards. Wiener intervened from the floor:
People must force the government to create better conditions for migrants. We do not come here in order to depress the lives of Australian workers, only together with you can we struggle for better conditions… I request tolerance … and for Australians and New Australians to struggle together … Let us have more immigration and not less.
Indeed, statistics from 1958 do not show any correlation between housing shortages and migration. In WA migration was proportionally higher than in NSW, yet there was no housing shortage in WA. Rather, the housing crisis was the product of public under investment. The WA state government invested £8.3 per capita in public housing development, while NSW invested only £3.2 per capita.
The NAC positioned Wiener and his comrades as party activists capable of mobilising migrants to join the ALP. But it also allowed them to penetrate the ALP in a way that few migrants could during the 1950s. This opened an opportunity for them to disagree with the party and articulate a clear pro-migrant position from inside it. They wanted to be part of an ALP that fought for the jobs and living conditions of every worker in Australia, regardless of their birthplace.
The NAC existed only four years because it was perpetually mired in sectarianism. Like most political forums in 1950s Australia, the NAC became a breeding ground for Communist and anti-Communist infighting, particularly between Jewish political factions like the Bund and members of the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism.
In 1958 Wiener led a campaign against an ALP senate candidate, claiming he was at least a Communist sympathiser, if not a member of the Communist Party of Australia. The Victorian ALP, having lost many of its anti-Communist members in the Split, had softened its relationship with the CPA and the leadership was deeply reluctant to take Wiener’s campaign seriously. Wiener had somewhat of an obsession with the matter and was eventually expelled from the ALP. Although the conflict did not involve the NAC as such, the press nonetheless reported that the NAC’s dissolution in 1959 was a direct result of Wiener’s anti-Communist fallout with party. When the ALP launched a new Australians sub-committee tightly controlled by the state executive in 1959, it invited former NAC members to take part. Bundists were conspicuously absent.
A tiny organisation with politics from another place and time, the Bund needed the NAC as its lifeline to the ALP and the Australian working class. But this also spelled the NAC’s downfall. Wiener and his comrades became entangled in the political obstacles and conflicts of the period, and were too small to carry through their pro-migrant and anti-Communist positions from within the ALP. Whatever nascent social democratic cultural pluralism they envisioned existed largely in the minds of Melbourne Bundists, not on the shop floors of the Australian working class.
The history of the NAC and the Bund’s involvement in it tell us some important things for today. We may not associate 1950s Australia with migrant political participation. But the NAC shows us that migrants challenged the profound limitations imposed upon them by Australian society at this early juncture. For the Bund this meant fighting for a more inclusive country that truly welcomed migrants. The NAC, for all it failings, was a critical vehicle through which the Bund carried out this struggle. Importantly, the NAC also shows us that the ALP leadership is capable of taking a pro-migrant position – when it is economically and politically advantageous. When the party enters political crises or economic uncertainty, this position can falter. In this case, it is up to activists like Wiener to make the argument that migrants are not the cause of unemployment or worsening living standards. It is not new migrants who write austerity budgets or fail to invest in jobs and services. That only a united Labour movement that cuts across ethnic and cultural lines can demand jobs and services for all, which was Wiener’s argument in 1956, is just as true today.