Clarrie Martin said once:
‘My people suffered. I suffered. That’s what drove me into active politics’[i].
Tonight, in reflecting on Clarrie Martin’s active life in politics, I want to consider what drives political engagement – Clarrie’s, and others’ – and what we can learn from one man’s passionate, life-long commitment to ideas and ideals as we strive to alter the form and functions of the Labor Party to draw the disaffected close and energise the faithful once again.
Clarrie Martin was born in Ballarat at the turn of the 20th century; in a period and place where many were animated by the call for ‘socialism in our time’.
The only child of a boot-maker and waitress, Martin’s early life was, transient, precarious. The family moved from Melbourne to Stawell and then to Broken Hill in New South Wales.
His mother Catherine was a constant - but Clarrie lost two fathers when just a boy. His natural father Edward abandoned the family. His stepfather Bartholomew succumbed to the rigours of a life spent doing menial tasks down mine shafts.
Poverty cast a shadow over his childhood. It cast a pall of such depth and breadth as to leave a life-long yearning for certainty, stability and improvement[ii].
Bereft of a breadwinner, for a time Clarrie and his mother lived off ‘bread and drippings’[iii].
His education was interrupted by the need to support the family. Despite these disruptions Martin topped the leaving certificate at Broken Hill District School.
It was a way out.
Martin left for the city, to study at Sydney Teachers’ College.
For Martin, as it is for so many, teaching was a bridge to the middle class—a steady occupation that offered an escape from the uncertainties and cruelties of his early life. A fellow student from this time recalled;
‘…a slight figure…poor… [who spent] all of his spare cash on books. He always wore the same two-piece suit…There was a kind of pathos about his determination to rise from lowly beginnings’[iv].
Martin’s rise from lowly beginnings started in 1923 when he was appointed to Young District School. It was there in rural New South Wales, where ‘…the young and brilliant school teacher’[v] became involved in the Labor Party.
A lingering ambition to represent Labor in Parliament saw him stand for preselection in the state seat of Cootamundra in 1924.
In questionable circumstances he ran a distant fourth.
But injustice wasn't a deterrence; the experience left Martin in his words; ‘…[determined to] fight those who by underhand methods have succeeded so far in keeping me out’[vi].
In 1926, he moved to Newcastle to take up a position with the Workers’ Education Association.
And it was in that industrial city, while lecturing railway workers and labourers, that his involvement in Labor deepened and a passing interest became a life’s work.
Through his party activism — via the branches, and state and federal conferences — he garnered a reputation as an effective advocate — but he also witnessed the dubious practices of the party machine.
He moved back to the Riverina in 1927 to fulfil his political ambitions. Clarrie Martin was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in the seat of Young in the 1930 Lang landslide.
A year earlier, Black Thursday precipitated the Great Depression. As darkness spread from Wall Street to the rest of the world, the Scullin Government tried desperately to address the economic crisis, while NSW Premier Jack Lang disrupted the chance of achieving a national consensus – however tenuous – by rejecting the Premiers’ Plan in favour of his own.
Martin was cautious about the Lang Plan, conscious of the trouble it would cause the federal Labor party. He remained timid for a time but grew concerned by the impact the Salaries Reduction Bill would have on the livelihoods of the state’s public servants[vii].
Martin wanted an expansionist economic policy to protect against the privations of poverty, but he also harboured deep concerns about Lang’s ‘dictatorial’ style.
In 1932, in the wake of Lang’s dismissal, Martin was narrowly defeated in Young.
He was not alone. New South Wales Labor lost 31 seats that day.
Martin turned to Labor Party activism to fill the void.
At the NSW conference of 1931, he helped establish the Socialisation Units as a counterweight to the power of Lang’s inner group. In today’s Labor Party it may seem quaint, but the Units believed in discussion and debate as central to Labor’s mission. The Units sought to lead the party leftwards on the economy while encouraging decentralised democratic power within NSW Labor[viii].
As Clarrie’s Grandson Nick wrote decades later;
‘…the Socialisation Units attempted a difficult and contradictory policy of staying within the Langite mainstream as long as possible, while attempting to push it left-wards'[ix].
Martin fought Lang’s inner group on the conference floor, on the pages of Socialisation Call, and across the airwaves via 2KY.
It was a perilous undertaking—one that threatened to see him expelled from the ALP.
It was a perilous undertaking—one that resulted in defeat; when, in 1933, the NSW Easter Conference disbanded the Units.
It was a perilous undertaking—one that exacted a cost on Martin’s health, finances and enthusiasm.
In 1933 Martin lost a dubious preselection ballot to a Lang inner group candidate for the Federal seat of South Sydney. He topped the vote but lost on preferences. Head Office had thwarted his efforts once again[x].
He drifted away from politics.
Martin played no part in the Federal campaign of 1934 or the state election of the following year. He was, in his own words; ‘strangely apart from it all’[xi]
He focused instead on the struggle to combine his law studies and work. Barred from teaching because of his political views[xii], he worked wherever he could—in a motion picture company, as an insurance salesman, as a deliverer of census forms.
He did so while contending with financial insecurity; a diminishing sense of self-worth and a profound fear of failure.
But he overcame, graduating from the University of Sydney in 1934.[xiii]
For a time Martin practiced at the bar. He became President of the NSW Branch of the Council of Civil Liberties, represented the League for Peace and Democracy and defended shearers before the Industrial Commission[xiv] - but the ‘pull of politics’ remained.
Fabians, of all people, understand that politics is about the long game.
And so in 1939 he entered parliament again – elected in a by-election for the state seat of Waverley.
Martin’s triumph was more than a personal victory.
It represented the changing dynamics of NSW Labor as Lang’s power waned.[xv]
After a Federal intervention, the NSW Caucus was given the right to elect its leader once again, and, two days after the outbreak of the Second World War, as Caucus immediately made use of its restored power to elect the leader, Bill McKell replaced Lang as party leader.
In 1941, a reunited and rejuvenated Labor Party swept to power in New South Wales. The McKell years were a welcome return to moderation and reform. Fabians, of all people, should understand that the purpose of power is to effect change beneficial to the disadvantaged and dispossessed. There is no point in moderation in the absence of reform.
In McKell’s first ministry Martin was appointed Attorney General where he transferred his zeal for reform within the party to law reform in New South Wales.
He became our state’s longest serving Attorney General.[xvi] 61 years after he left office, his record looks beyond challenge.
Over more than a decade, Martin expanded legal aid by establishing the office of Public Solicitor and Public Defender; introduced conciliation in marriage disputes; amended the Crimes Act; proposed amendments to the Monopolies Act and began the process which saw capital punishment abolished in NSW[xvii].
For much of this time he also served his country in the Second World War–rising to the rank of Major[xviii].
In 1949, Martin contested the Deputy Premiership, a position made vacant due to the resignation of John Baddeley. He lost by one vote to Joe Cahill.
In 1953, he was appointed as the Minister Transport under, by then, Premier Cahill.
Of course, at this time, Clarrie also made the bold move to form the Fabian Society, primarily to provide an intellectual counter-point to the rightward drift in the party, and the Caucus.
It was one of the finest and final things he would do.
On the 5th of September1953, after years of ill health, Clarrie Martin died at his Centennial Park home. He was just 53.
‘My people suffered. I suffered. That’s what drove me into active politics’[xix].
Clarence Edward Martin’s active life of politics played out on the stump, on the conference floor, in the lecture hall, at the bar and in Parliament. His life encapsulates the best traditions of the Fabian Society’s democratic, egalitarian and progressive instincts. He was, of course, your past president.[xx]
Much of his life was recorded in the daily diary he kept from 1929 until his death 24 years later. It was a measure of his insight, his discipline and his capacity for in depth commentary and analysis.
Clarrie’s politics and his professional life make it easy to describe him as an educated middle class activist — exactly the sort lambasted as chardonnay socialists or the latte-sipping left today.
But Clarrie believed in the power of ideas.
He was energized to activism by the personal experience of grinding poverty, of want and the fear of want, and of injustice. He was driven to fight for Labor to prevail, for what is best in Labor to prevail, by his deep and intimate understanding of what failure would mean for Australians in circumstances just like his own family’s.
His career reminds us that Labor’s history has always been a delicate and daring balance between the urgent demands of those living in economic and social deprivation, the institutional power of the labour movement, and the progressive idealism of activists and radicals. Sometimes, that delicate balance is achieved within not just the same party, but the same person.
Political engagement can be a complex mixture of self-interest and sacrifice.
Martin’s work with the Socialisation Units in response to Lang’s political machine is a timely reminder of how party structures and practices can be changed by persistent and intelligent individuals dedicated to reform.
Reform was important to Martin then, as it is critical to our party now.
We live in a time when someone who dedicates themselves to an active life in politics is often a subject of derision and suspicion.
We live in a time of astounding social connection where the world and its people are located just beyond our fingertips and yet the majority of people remain distant from, and disaffected by, traditional politics and our party.
A recent study conducted by the Museum of Democracy and the University of Canberra found that just 8% of those surveyed thought their local member was a good representative for their community and only 16% thought politicians were accountable to the people.
The same research found that amongst those aged 25-34 many regarded themselves as politically active but very, very few were members of a political party.
But young people’s participation in online advocacy, demonstrations, boycotts, and petitions suggests disaffection with arcane party structures rather than disinterest in active politics.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
When party involvement is limited to branch meetings whose resolutions and recommendations are duly ignored.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
When party involvement is limited to handing out how to vote cards on election day—the privilege for which we ask people to pay an annual fee.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
When the tools of the electronic age are used to send endless emails asking for donations, but not to engage our membership in the processes and policy making of the party.
Like us on Facebook but leave us alone.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
When party conferences are little more than media spectacles where the important decisions were made by a handful of people months ago.
For some, the preference for non-party and non-electoral forms of political engagement is not a concern, but simply a reflection of an age where information and power is distributed horizontally not vertically; an age where people are less deferential, less inclined to revere authority and institutions.
There is some truth to this but I believe that however pervasive and attractive non-electoral forms of politics are, elections and the parties that contest them still matter; because our parliament remains the best expression of the intentions of the people; our democratic system the most effective way of finding worthy solutions to complex national problems.
Elections will stop mattering when Parliament stops mattering; and Parliament will stop mattering when laws stop mattering.
And so we must use the instruments of the online age to reshape our political parties to draw the disaffected close, and energise the faithful once again.
Last month, I spoke of how we might restore faith in politics - our party and its practices.
We must replace the delegated democracy of yesterday with the direct democracy of today—at conference, within our policy forums and affiliated unions.
We must use the online tools not as instruments of address but interaction tools for discourse and debate, organisation and action.
If our party is to endure and prosper, if it is to navigate an exciting yet uncertain future, form must fit with function. The form of our party should be democratic and representative. The function should be to give all those who share our values every opportunity to participate in the party’s processes and policies.
The means to do so are within our reach – what’s lacking is the will to do so.
But as Clarrie Martin’s life of activism showed, even one person with the will to create change can make a difference.
It’s hard work. It’s a long road. It takes patience and it takes courage – qualities Clarrie had in spades. They should be Fabian qualities.
But if we, like Clarrie, see the solution to injustice in our Parliaments and in the Labor Party, then we can do no less than, as he did, turn our hands, our minds, and our hearts to the task.
[i] P.22. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[ii]P130. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis
[iii] P20. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[iv] P25. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[v] White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[vi] P57. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[vii] P89. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis
[viii] P. 179. Martin, N. 2007. ‘Bucking the machine’: Clarrie Martin and the NSW Socialisation Units 1929-35. Labour History, 93.
[ix] P. 178. Martin, N. 2007. ‘Bucking the machine’: Clarrie Martin and the NSW Socialisation Units 1929-35. Labour History, 93.
[x]P 70-1. Martin, N. 2003. ‘Standing for a Socialist Objective’ CE Martin and NSW Labor 1929-39. ANU Honours thesis.
[xi]P 117. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xii] P59. Martin, N. 2003. ‘Standing for a Socialist Objective’ CE Martin and NSW Labor 1929-39. ANU Honours thesis.
[xiii] P130. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xiv] P133. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xv] P 8-9. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xvi]P 245. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xvii] P 172. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xviii] P 193. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xix] P 22. White, P. 1986. C.E. Martin: a political biography 1900 – 1953. Masters of Economics Honours Thesis.
[xx] President of the Fabian Society of NSW from 1947-1953.