Dust and nostalgia hung heavily in the air at Barcaldine, in central west Queensland, on a mild evening in May 1991. A century before, the main street of the town had been the scene of a historic revolt by striking shearers. From that seed of defiance — planted beneath a ghost gum called the Tree of Knowledge — the Australian Labor Party grew. Now its leaders had returned to pay homage to the party's founders, the working men and women who had fought for the workers' ideal of a fairer world.
The ALP had much to celebrate in its centenary year. The party had been in power at the federal level since 1983. Prime Minister Bob Hawke had won four federal elections, making him Labor's most electorally successful national leader. Labor governments held office in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. And Queensland. Wayne Goss, the man who had beaten Joh Bjelke-Petersen's gerrymander, was the party's new golden boy, still riding the wave of popularity that had swept him into the premiership in December 1989.
It had seemed only fitting, then, that Goss should deliver the keynote address on the opening night of the centenary festivities. Young and university-trained, he represented the modern Labor ideal: the working-class kid who had got an education and got ahead. People were calling him the face of the future. But the speech Goss planned to deliver that evening amounted to a challenge to what many True Believers would hold to be traditional Labor values. He intended to call on the party to disavow socialism, to look ahead to the next 100 years, not back to the past. "I wanted to say that socialism is dead," Goss recalls. "We are not a socialist party — never have been — and we've got to pay that premium and face up to the reality of what Labor actually is so that we can move on to defining what we are going to be about in the future."
Goss never got to have his say. He was talked into changing the speech by his political advisers, who argued that the ALP's 100th birthday celebration was hardly the place to make such a call. Goss believed it was. He still does. Understanding why is central to understanding Wayne Goss.