Re-engaging union members with our labour political project

Author: Bob Nanva is the National Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

It’s great that we’re having this conversation because the future of the relationship between organized labour and the Australian Labor Party is such a vital issue - especially in the context of threats to that relationship coming from a number of different quarters.

I don’t intend to go through all the various proposals for party reform.

But I will start by saying that, in my view, when it comes to party reform, all roads lead back to better policy.

Because Labor is about ideas, about values, and about putting our values into practice.

We need to be having discussions about policy at every level of our organisation.

But to get better policy, we need better people.

Frankly, the people we’ve been putting into State and Federal Parliaments over recent years have been letting us down.

So when we’re sitting around in forums like this, talking about how we can re-engage our traditional union base with the progressive political project, our focus has to be on the process of how we select Labor candidates.

Before I talk specifically about the pre-selection process, however, I want to rebut some of the arguments that have been put forward by people within and without our party to justify a de-coupling of the ALP and the broader labour movement.

 

UNIONS SHOULD BE INDEPENDENT OF THE PARTY

The first argument that should be put to bed … is that the industrial and political wings of the party need to be perceived as independent of each other.

It has been argued that unions have been forced to change their old business model of working behind the scenes, and have now become now campaigning organisations, using citizen rights and community engagement to lobby all parties externally.

Trevor [Cook] has called this the 'pressure group' model – where unions campaign on particular causes to support any candidate that is favourably disposed to union objectives.

It’s argued that this pressure group model is incompatible with party affiliation - partly because union leaders are constrained from being critical of the party.

In essence: you have to be either inside the tent, or out of it.

I strenuously disagree.

Yes, unions are campaigning organisations - but this is to supplement, not override, our work within the ALP.

In times gone by unions could just outsource their political campaigning to the party, but I believe that is no longer sustainable.

In the union movement, we have to do our share of the heavy lifting.

We have to more active in making the public case for labour values and for progressive policies.

It is our job to persuade the public of the virtues of our joint social democratic traditions.

We do so to be part of the public debate and to keep the party honest to its history and its mission.

As for the charge of not being able to be critical of ALP governments, well, this just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and it certainly doesn’t correspond with my personal experiences in the labour movement.

Some of the harshest media criticism sof the former Federal Labor Government came from the union movement.

Think of Paul Howes’ advocacy on asylum seeker policy, our union’s criticisms of the Federal Government’s approach to rail safety, or the union movement’s opposition to the ABCC.

Internally, some of the harshest attacks during Conferences also came from union movement.

My fellow panellist Sally McManus was a fierce and vocal proponent of equal pay on the Conference floor.

Tony Sheldon led a passionate criticism of Labor’s performance on safe rates for truck drivers.

I have personally been present at meetings with the PM, at both the Lodge and Kirribilli, where words were never minced.

That is only access which affiliation provides ,yet it did nothing to neuter our sentiment about a raft of policies.  

In short, the affiliation/pressure group models are complementary - not contradictory.

I say that our hybrid model of working inside the tent, while advocating outside the tent, is the right model for Australian unions, and it’s working.

Look at the working conditions that Australians enjoy today:

·      Most Australians don’t live in a state of working poverty;

·      Their work hours have a welcome predictability that enables them to enjoy a decent family life;

·      They get paid overtime;

·      Their superannuation guarantee gets paid;

·      They’re not regularly exposed to dangerous working conditions;

·      And so on.

The fact these protections and conditions are in place, and have survived attacks from Conservative Governments is a testament to the success of unions working both inside and outside the party.

Sure, there is some independence between us, and there will always be friction over certain issues- but should we abandon the relationship?  No way.

Consider us to be like the Fabians in a sense, a critical friend of the ALP.

 

UNION AND PARTY VALUES NO LONGER ALIGN

The second criticism that is levelled at the relationship is that ALP and Union values are no longer in alignment.

It’s said the ALP needs to broaden its base to include support among businesses, the expanding middle class, and other social groupings who are not enamoured with collectivism, but moderate individualism.

It’s said the ALP should be more concerned with opportunities and personal choice - not collectivist ideas around equality and the advancement of particular social classes or groups.

It’s said, and this is what angers me most, that unions are far less representative of the total population than they once were, and no longer espouse the values that most Australians hold.

Again, I would contend that this argument is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

For every conservative commentator who thinks unions are no longer relevant, there are dozens of people who rely on their union to protect them, and to protect the values of fairness and social justice.

In fact, there is a strong counter-argument to say the ALP has become too many things to too many people, and now has a conviction deficit.

In its quest to add new constituencies to the base, the ALP dithers on divisive issues.

It places a higher priority on electoral success than living up to its aims and goals.

In short, winning government has become an end in itself.

In the race to populism, Labor risks turning itself into a pale imitation of the Liberal Party.

But at least the Liberals stand for something.  The truth is, if we keep going down this path, we’ll actually end up as a pale imitation of the Australian Democrats.

And we all know how that story ended.

If you want a party of individualism, you can join the Libs.

If you want a party of protest, you can join the Greens.

If you want to be part of a nebulous catch-all campaign organisation, that stands for everything and nothing all at once, without having to even sign a membership form or attend a meeting, then you can put your name on the Get Up mailing list.

But we are the Labor Party - the party of working men and women.

Let’s stop pretending to be something that we’re not.

 

OUR MORAL PURPOSE

I believe the problem is that unions have taken their eyes off the ball in regard to both candidate selection and policy development.

We’ve allowed the political wing to lose its sense of moral purpose - the very thing that has historically made our partnership a success.

The Rudd / Gillard Federal Goverment Government was at its best when it was pursuing collectivist ideal-think health reform, NDIS, Gonski.

It was at its most embarrassing worst when pretending to outdo the Libs on individualism - think attacks on payments to single mothers and the facile infatuation with returning to surplus.

As Andrew Leigh’s excellent book “Battler sand Billionaires” shows, inequality has been steadily rising in Australian society since the end of the Whitlam era.

Members of our youngest generations have experienced rising inequality for their whole lives.

The rise in inequality has come at the same time as the decline of trade union density.

In a nation where inequality is rising, people want solutions, and the union message of curbing inequality is only going to become more potent in years ahead.

There is no need for us to be squeamish about our commitment to tackling inequality, or our belief in a compassionate society, just because those ideals have become unfashionable in the tabloid press.

We are on the right side of this debate.

Our lesson from those turbulent years in Government should be that, far from downplaying the ideologies that bind unions and the ALP together, we are at our best when we embrace them.

Weakening the links between unions and the ALP will only compound the problem.

The notion that Australians have turned their backs on ideas of collectivism, and that we’ve all become hard-line Social Darwinists, clawing over each over in the never-ending race to get ahead, is simply not true.

 And the ALP sure as hell shouldn't be courting the Social Darwinist vote in an attempt to “engage with a wider base'”.

 

UNIONS HAVE AN UNDUE INFLUENCE OVER THE PARTY

The third main criticism of the union/ party link is the supposedly undue influence the union movement has on candidate selection and policy development.

By now it probably won’t surprise you that I find this criticism absurd.

Granted, the Labor Party used to attract farmers, small business operators, and independent contractors.

These people are no longer coming to us.

I believe we should be reviewing the way our party works in order to welcome these people back to the fold.

In that, I think we’re all on a unity ticket.

But is it true to say that unions have been hijacking the preselection process?  Absolutely not.

The truth is that pre-selections have increasingly been dominated by powerful fiefdoms built on a foundation of a few stacked branches.

The great British historian AJP Taylor was contemptuous of what he called “cigar butt strategy” in World War 1, in which a politician would point to a map of Europe and confidently declare “let’s go here!” - despite being ignorant of local conditions.

In the Labor Party, this is exactly how factional stitch-ups have failed in the past - powerful individuals signing deals that tie our suburban geography to particular groupings or dynasties.

The crooked band who disgraced NSW Labor, for example, were able to pick and choose which electorate they would invade and impose their own General.

They were able to accumulate so much power because the branch structure of the party had become so weak.

It’s much easier to manipulate a branch of 50 than a branch of three or 400.

And there was simply no resistance to their predatory attacks on the pre-selection process.

Of course, the party warriors responsible for Cigar Butt strategy in NSW, are now the masters of the Sergeant Schulze defence when the whole thing started going pear-shaped … “I see nothing, I know nothing!”

 

LOCAL PRESELECTIONS

The key to combating Cigar Butt strategy, to overcoming our values deficit, and to re-engage with our disillusioned political base, is to throw away our broken pre-selection model and replace it with something that works.

In a nutshell, we believe pre-selection votes should be weighted 50 / 50 between local branch members and local affiliate members.

What are the benefits of this?

Opening pre-selection ballots up to a broader field of voters means that candidates will genuinely be tested.

Candidates will need to be articulate, and will need to show they can prosecute policy arguments.

They will have to prove themselves as campaigners, they will have to prove themselves on the stump, and they will have to build coalitions of support beyond a core group of local party members.

Candidates would need to talk directly with local train drivers, council rangers, shop assistants and bartenders about the issues which affect them.

What’s more, a candidate selected in this way is far more likely to have a stronger commitment to Labor values than someone who has skated through the process imposed on the party because of loyalty to a tribe, or fealty to a numbers cruncher, and who sees their union membership as a ticket of convenience, rather than a badge of honour.

I’d argue that a candidate selected in this way is also far more likely to make a positive contribution to the development of policy ideas and to the successful implementation of our policy platform.

 

TWO-WAY STREET

Of course, re-engaging with union members is a two-way street.

On one side of the street, union leaders like myself and Sally [McManus] need to do the hard yards out on the shop floor, speaking directly to rank and file members and explaining to them why we think it’s in their interests to become more involved in the labour movement and Labor politics.

On the other side, the party has to give union members a more compelling reason to join the party.

We can no longer expect workers to join by default, and so we have to sharpen our sales pitch, and we have to show that membership - be it membership  of a union or membership of the party - is really worth something.

Member engagement can’t be a token exercise.  It’s not a box to be ticked off.

At the moment, we have a top-down model of representation  - where elected representatives, such as myself, get involved in the inner workings of the party as proxies for rank and file union members.

But we need to supplement the traditional top-down model with a bottom-up approach - one that directly engages members, bringing them into the fold and giving them a genuine stake in the ALP.

This is the first step to converting union members into true-blue Labor voters, and then into fully-fledged Labor members, and kick-starting the process of renewal in our local branches.

If we can achieve a better pre-selection process - one that directly engages union members and gives thema real voice in the selection of their local candidate - then why not also review rules like the requirement for candidates to hold a union ticket, because there would no longer be any need for it.

So to sum up:

Like Sally [McManus], I believe the key to party reform is opening up the voting franchise for our pre-selection processes.

The bottom line is that we need better candidates who have a real commitment to Labor values, and are able to win back the trust and respect of our political base.

There have been far too many Labor politicians in State and Federal caucuses who simply don’t care about Labor values, and have no respect for the purpose of our party.

They treat Labor membership and Labor supporters as mugs, and they treat the platform as an irrelevance.

The model we’re proposing is not intended as a panacea to all of our problems, but it will make it harder for a small cabal of self-interested phonies to take control of party, and to manipulate their way into positions of power and authority.

The fact that we’re having this debate at all is incredibly frustrating, because it’s an insider’s argument that distract us from the real problems that voters want Labor to be tackling.

Frankly, punters don’t care about the structure of the party, they care about transport and housing and health and education.

But we need to get our structure right, so we can get our policies right.

Let’s just get it sorted out, and sorted out quickly, so we can get back to the main game.

Because as I said in my introduction – all roads should lead back to policy, and to our sacred mission of improving the lives of working people.