Union Control of the ALP: Separating Myth from Reality

Author: Doug Cameron is Senator elect for New South Wales

This debate arises from Mark Aaron’s contribution to the book -- "Dear Mr Rudd" edited by Robert Manne.

I reject Marks contention that the union movement is a Gordian knot that should be cut. This panders to decades of antiunion rhetoric from the Australian media, the Liberal party and various right wing think tanks.

Reactionary forces have been ranged against the union movement. This has been designed to disarm, discredit and demonise one of the only mass organisations capable of, and prepared to, stand against the economic and political excesses of the neo liberals and their big business supporters.

Marks contribution reinforces the worst of the right wing stereotypes of the Australian union movement and its leadership

 

The Australian Left Ignoring Von Hayek and Friedman

There were a number of excellent contributions to the book nevertheless the fundamental weakness was that most contributions analyse the symptoms rather than the disease

The book ignores the growing left intellectual analysis of the consequences of the domination of neo liberalism, which, if left unchecked will continue to undermine and diminish the role of government and continue to tear at the fabric of society.

There is no analysis of the social implications of the economic policies of Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman. These policies predominantly drive economic and social policy development in Australia.

There is no analysis of the dominant role of the market in relation to society.

There is not even a passing glance at the negative impact of the Washington consensus or the role of the Chicago School on economic and political theory.

Surely these are areas that what Robert Manne describes as the Australian “left intellectual elite" would want to take up with Kevin Rudd especially as the Prime Minister formed his own critique of the Hayek/Friedman legacies in a major speech to the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on the 16th November 2006.

Every area of economic, social, and environmental policy discussed in the book is influenced by the Friedman philosophy of laissez-faire economics. Friedman's golden rules of economics include:

  1. Removing all rules and regulations standing in the way of the accumulation of profits
  2. Selling off public assets that could be run by corporations at a profit
  3. Dramatically cut back funding of social programs (deregulation privatisation and cutbacks)

These are the underpinning policies that were adopted by Pinochet in Chile, Reagan in the USA, Thatcher in the UK and Howard in Australia.

A chapter on the effects of global neo liberalism would have contextualised the various contributions and strengthened the intellectual underpinning of the book.

 

The Aarons Shock Doctrine

I want to address some of Mark Aaron’s assertions and proposals which are, in my view, based on a lack of research, and a poor understanding of the priorities for the Federal Labor government.

Marks analysis and conclusions are overly influenced by his long-term involvement with the New South Wales Labor government.

Embarking on an orgy of internal party review while there are so many challenges and opportunities for the Rudd government would be the Australian equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

Party reform is a not the "main game". The government faces huge challenges such as a potential US recession coupled with deflation driven by the sub prime mortgage crisis.

In addition, global warming, resources for public education and health, national capacity constraints, poor productivity and an imbalance in the structure of our economy are issues which demand a united and focused government response.

To exert significant resources to internal party debates on the relationship with the trade union movement would be a victory of form over substance. This is particularly so as the premise of Marks contribution lacks serious intellectual analysis, evidentiary facts or an assessment of the costs to the stability of the party.

Much of Marks contribution is based on assertions with lack of evidence.

For some reason he wishes to entrench the media stereotypes of the trade union movement and union officials. This is popular amongst certain elites who do not understand the role, operation and importance of the trade union movement to fairness, equity and justice, not only at work, but in the broader society.

The trade union movement plays a crucial role in ensuring that the ALP is a party of vision and values and has an anchor back to working-class Australians.

The Rudd government will not stand or fall on the party rules governing its relationship with the trade union movement. It will stand or fall on whether it meets the challenge of balancing the role of the market with the needs of Australian society.

This will require a strong and constructive relationship with the trade union movement.

Mark engages in polemic and inflammatory language when he talks about the union movement and its leadership. This seems to be common amongst some of the more socially disengaged and isolated party "intellectuals".

When describing the union movement and union leaders Mark resorts to hyperbole and stereotypes. He talks of:

  • “Undemocratic power”
  • “Antiquated power structures”
  • “Extraordinary influence”
  • “Troglodytes from unionisms past”
  • “Union involvement in the party being simply and brutally the plaything of the union Secretary”
  • “Power exercised by some unions threatening to grow into a cancer”
  • “Young blokes in suits -- regarding unions with ‘blistering scorn’”
  • “Some union leaders dizzy with success”
  • “Rudd not allowing the unions to dictate to him, let alone run the country”

His use of the Gordian knot analogy is highly inappropriate as the trade union movement predominantly plays a positive and constructive role in the ALP.

The union movement is not an intractable problem for the operation, values or vision of the Labor Party. There is no need for any bold strokes from Kevin Rudd or anyone else in the party.

It seems to me that Mark has wittingly or unwittingly adopted the neo conservative strategy outlined in Naomi Klein's recent book "The Shock Doctrine"2. This is a three stage strategy.

  1. Take advantage of/or create a crisis
  2. Use language that reinforces the crisis
  3. Engender confusion in the public

Marks contribution, wittingly or unwittingly, comes straight out of the neo con text book. He is attempting to create a crisis that does not exist and by his use of language engender confusion within the party and the public.

 

Failure to Develop a Compelling Argument

Marks contribution is not based on fact or effective research. As a professional researcher/advisor Mark should not simply look for the next headline, he should bring a more reasoned and less personalised analysis to his work.

The role of research and policy advice was considered in September 2007 by Secretary to the Treasury, Ken Henry in his address to the Curtin Public Policy Forum.

I would not agree with Ken Henry on many issues however his analysis on the fundamentals of providing good policy advice is enlightening when considering Marks contribution.

He describes the fundamentals of effective policy advice as containing the following:

  1. The highest standards of evidence based analytical rigour
  2. A clear strategic perspective
  3. Persuasive and compelling arguments

In his Curtin address, Ken Henry also quotes Owen Harries a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute as saying -- “policy advisers must not allow the parochialism of the present to limit and distort their perspective."

It seems to me that Mark has been consumed, and his perspective is distorted, by his personal, experiences.

I sympathise with Mark on his treatment however he should be more dispassionate and professional when reaching conclusions based on his personal experiences.

Thankfully New South Wales ALP politics is not representative of how politics operates at the Federal level.

For Mark to generalise his experiences in New South Wales and use this as the basis for his analysis is a significant weakness in his hypothesis and prognosis.

Where is Marks analytical rigour when he falsely claims?

“Unions have grossly out of proportion even extra ordinary influence over policy formulation, the day to day administration of Labor governments and in the preselection of candidates for the plums of political life.”

As detailed in "True Believers", the reality of modern political life is that policy is predominantly determined by professional advisers, costed by bureaucrats and tested by pollsters.

Changing predetermined policy positions by the leadership at national or state conference is extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible. I know this from years of practical experience.

Unfortunately many Labor governments have been unduly influenced by capital and their neoliberal agenda. Privatisation, decentralised bargaining, competition policy, free trade have all been aggressively promoted within the party as a direct consequence of the influence of big business, the media and the domination of rightwing think tanks.

The task for the trade union movement is to increase its influence as a counterbalance to the domination of big business.

Unions, as an important party unit, are entitled to have an influence in preselection campaigns; they should exercise their influence by ensuring quality candidates are presented within the party and to the electorate.

Trade unions are the largest non-government organisation in the country with close to 2 million members. These members volunteer to be part of the union and make a financial commitment to the organisation.

The reach and influence of the trade union movement is much wider than its paid-up membership. During the "You're Right at Work" campaign trade union activists mobilised and politicised family members, friends, and community members.

The argument for increased union influence within the party is justified by the movements’ historical relationship with the ALP, membership base, financial contribution to the party, campaigning effectiveness and the influence it exerts within the community.

In particular, restoring a proper balance between the influence of big business on government and the needs of society is a major task for the trade union movement and party activists.

“Union secretaries can caucus amongst their factional colleagues and decide ALP policy at conference.”

Union secretaries predominantly caucus within the formal factional system of the party and become bound by the decisions of their respective factional caucus. The caucuses are made up of members from a wide cross-section of party activists including union activists.

Bringing union secretaries together in an attempt to predetermine policy outcomes would be extremely difficult and achieving agreement from union delegations on a range of policy issues is almost impossible. Even on issues such as fair trade, the manufacturing unions were split on factional lines, some unions who voted for fair trade resolutions at the ACTU Congress voted against resolutions containing the same principles at the ALP national conference. This was predominantly due to the influence of senior MPs enforcing their "authority" and views within caucus.

"The power exercised by some unions on the ALP has now become so pernicious that it threatens to grow into a cancer."

This is a massive exaggeration and is obviously based on Mark's personal experience in New South Wales.

Unacceptable union or personal influence only becomes a problem in the face of weak party leadership and an inability to confront unacceptable and bad behaviour whether from union leaders, parliamentarians or business identities.

The real crisis for the New South Wales party is the power, influence, and reprehensible behaviour of local party officials and developers in Wollongong. This coupled with years of neglect in infrastructure development and an economically flawed and electorally unpopular decision to privatise the electricity industry are the fundamental problems facing the Iemma government.

These problems have not been a creation of the trade union movement. The influence of developers in New South Wales ALP requires strong, decisive, and effective leadership from the Premier and the party organisation.

If ever there was a Gordian knot that needs to be cut it is the relationship between the New South Wales ALP and developers.

"The union movement outspent the Howard government on the key issue of workplace reform."

This is a bewildering statement and demonstrates the lack of intellectual rigour brought to Mark’s essay. Estimates of the Howard government's expenditure on launching WorkChoices then promoting the so called "fairness test" are in the region of $160 million. The union movement expended less than $20 million on the "Your Rights at Work Campaign". I cannot understand why Mark would regurgitate the Liberal party/Joe Hockey propaganda that was not only wrong but rejected by the electorate.

The Melbourne cup test

One of the most ridiculous propositions in Marks contribution is the "Melbourne Cup test" of the standing of the union movement.

To use a discussion over "a few beers” on Melbourne cup day with two young, upwardly mobile, blokes "in suits" who regarded the unions with "blistering scorn" as the benchmark for the success or failure of future Labor government is naive in the extreme!

Mark's Melbourne cup anecdote is straight out of the Mark Textor/Howard advertising campaign. Thankfully the Australian public demonstrated more commonsense in the assessment of its effectiveness than Mark.

Recent research by associate Professor Ken Reed of Deakin University into the level of public confidence in a society's institutions demonstrates a declining confidence in institutions in the period 1984, 1996 and 2003.

Professor Reed found that the exception to this trend is an increase in confidence in trade unions.

Professor Reed’s analysis provides the appropriate analytical rigour and is based on a more statistically defensible research program than two beer drinking, upwardly mobile young blokes in suits at the Melbourne cup.

 

The Decisive Role of the Union Movement in the 2007 Elections

Contrary to Marks assertions that Labor must untie the Gordian knot, the trade union movement's contribution to the ALP victory in the 2007 New South Wales and Federal election was extremely significant, and in some electorates pivotal.

The union movement financially underpinned the ALP Federal election campaign and the Your Rights at Work campaign moderated the swing against the ALP in the New South Wales election. There is no doubt that the union movement's community campaign increased the swing for the ALP in the Federal election.

Analysis of the New South Wales and Federal election by Ben Spies - Butcher and Sean Wilson of Macquarie University5 clearly demonstrates the fundamentally important role played by trade union movement in the 2007 ALP State and Federal election victories.

Butcher and Wilson’s research demonstrates that the union movement's "Your Rights at Work" campaign reduced the swing against the New South Wales ALP in the State election and increased the swing for the Federal party in the 2007 National election.

Why anyone would argue to weaken the union movement's involvement with the ALP when it would clearly diminish the campaigning capacity of the ALP is not reasonable or intelligible.

 

The Union/ALP Relationship -- Tense, Tangled, Ultimately Strong and Unbroken

I agree with Professor Stuart Macintyre contribution to the story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party "True Believers". Professor McIntyre asserts that the union relationship is crucial to the fortunes of the ALP.

Frank Bongiorno also notes that the foundation of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party in May 1901 was the product of several decades of experimentation by Australian trade unions with various forms of political activity.

It was the union movement's determination to wrest political power from employers that brought ALP into existence and trade union activists made up the majority of caucus in the early years.

In 1927 with the formation of the ACTU a formal relationship was created with the ALP.

Up to 1951 Parliamentary leaders such as, Watson, Fisher, Tudor, Charlton, Scullin, Curtin and Chifley moved from the shopfloor to lead the party

As an aside, seven out of 24 parliamentarians in the first Labor caucus were Scots immigrants.

I accept and acknowledge that times have changed, notwithstanding this, a sense of continuity and purpose is important for the party.

The enduring relationship between the trade union movement and the ALP is essential for the party’s survival and success.

The ALP/union relationship is described in "True Believers" as “tense, tangled, ultimately strong and unbroken".

This relationship will remain unbroken despite some of the hysteria from "intellectuals" like Mark.

Despite the views of a minority within the party, the current ALP rules and present relationship between ALP and the union movement is robust, professional and in the best interests of the Labor movement.

 

Trade Unions -- Adjusting to the Challenges

There is no doubt that the trade union movement like all other organisations has its share of colourful characters. The trade union movement is not perfect nevertheless the movement has been working tirelessly to adjust to the massive economic and structural changes sweeping the globe. In this context; to receive a lecture from Mark about the need to reach out and renew the movement is breathtaking.

Mark continually makes assertions without any real or detailed knowledge of the facts.

The trade union movement has faced and defeated a powerful ideological and political onslaught mounted against it by the former Howard Federal government and its big business backers. John Howard used massive amounts of government resources in an attempt to discredit and destroy the trade union movement. It is unfortunate that Mark's experience in New South Wales had led him to such an extreme analysis that will only benefit conservative political and business forces within Australia.

The ACTU has expended much time and energy in analysing the challenges for the future. The union movement has looked out, reached out and adopted many of the successful strategies and innovations being implemented world wide.

The ACTU strategy was not developed by what Mark describes as "young Australians who want to rejuvenate unions". The "Unions at Work" strategy and the "Your Rights at Work" strategy was developed by a group of senior, experienced union officials and has been adopted enthusiastically by many young Australian union activists. I invite Mark to read the reports of the ACTU overseas study groups that I have been intimately involved with.

The ACTU has also been innovative and successful in advancing its political agenda to the Australian public.

Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tim Gattrell were magnificent during the election campaign. They led an impressive political and organisational victory and advanced an attractive narrative based on change to the Australian public. Notwithstanding this, their job would have been so much harder, if not impossible, without the financial and organisational support of the Australian trade union movement.

It was the Australian trade union movement who created the foundation for the defeat of the Howard government.

It was the trade union movement who were opposing and focusing on Howard's industrial, economic, and social policies while the Federal Parliamentary party was tearing itself apart through personality conflict and leadership challenges.

I do not like to personalise debates however Mark Aarons has decided to use me as an example of the "problems" associated with the union ALP relationship.

The casual reader of his essay would have the impression that I stood in the way of talent, renewal and young women activists and that I was just another ageing union hack using my position to advance my personal ambitions.

I have had an interesting and challenging relationship with many of Australia's most senior political journalists. Many have had preconceived ideas and views in relation to my industrial and political activities. The most professional journalists always check their facts and give you an opportunity to influence their conclusions.

Unfortunately Mark chose not to allow professionalism to get in the way of a good story and his preconceived ideas and opinions.

I do not know Mark, other than by reputation. I have never had a social or substantive conversation with him. Even though I have been active in key policy debates at the State and Federal level of the ALP, for many years, I have never had to discuss any significant policy issue or initiative with Mark Aarons.

People tell me he is a "good bloke" and I have no reason to believe otherwise. I simply think it is unreasonable for Mark to single me out for special "treatment" based on gender and age and my previous leadership position within the trade union movement.

To my knowledge, Mark has made no attempt to research my contribution to policy development and campaigns within the ALP. He obviously has no idea of my support within both the trade union movement and the ALP.

In the preselection ballot I received a significant majority of votes from both trade union delegates and branch rank-and-file members. Many significant women of standing within the party supported my candidacy.

Mark argues that young female candidates would benefit the Federal Parliamentary ALP, broaden Labor's base of appeal, and eventually become ministers. This, I suppose, in Mark's mind, means that any male union official over 50 can never make a significant contribution in Parliament. Obviously this is wrong.

I want to take this opportunity to say that no one, not even the minority of ALP members who opposed my preselection, challenged my politics, commitment, energy, or intellectual capacity, to effectively represent the ALP and the people of New South Wales in the Senate. Never at any stage was my capacity to make a serious contribution to the ALP caucus or the broader Parliamentary party challenged until now.

When it comes to widening the ALP electoral base it is not personalities, gender, age, or union affiliation that makes the difference. The difference will be whether in three years time the Rudd government has delivered on its promises and whether it has developed a new vision, a new social compact with the Australian public.

This vision and compact must be based on reasserting a role for government that balances the market and Australian society. The ALP must reject the worst aspects of American culture and society and build a vibrant, inclusive and sustainable Australian society modelled on the best aspects of American dynamism and European social justice.

My election to the Senate means that I will be one of only four parliamentarians out of 116 who have served an apprenticeship, worked in industry as a tradesperson and maintained a household on a tradespersons wage. This places me in a significant minority amongst those parliamentarians who have gained a university degree, worked in the office of a parliamentarian or union and, without any further life experience move directly to a Parliamentary position.

Despite changing demographics it is important, in fact critical, to maintain a link to the ALP's working class, blue-collar, base. As a former blue-collar worker and a representative of Australian workers I bring a real life and practical understanding of the challenges, hopes and aspirations of working-class Australians to the Australian Senate.

The ALP must also be careful not to be seen solely as the "safe, economically conservative” managers of the economy. If managing the economy consumes the party to the exclusion of its capacity to build a society based on social justice, equity and real democracy then the electorate can easily change one set of economic managers for another. This is the real threat to the ALP not its historic and predominantly productive relationship with the union movement.

In this context I agree with Andrew Charlton's analysis, in his chapter on the economy that a challenge for the Labor Government is to marry economic efficiency with progressive social objectives.

 

My priorities for a successful long-term Labor government

Mark finished his essay with some guiding principles for the ALP. I do not intend debating these "principles" as they are not the key drivers for building a long-term and successful Labor government. Whilst acknowledging the significant changes to policy direction implemented by the Rudd government I want to outline my priorities for a successful long-term Labor government:

  1. Labor must recognise that the union movement is a critical institution within society and must build an even more productive relationship with the ACTU through the Australian Labor Advisory Committee (ALAC). Labor must use this process as part of a demonstration of its commitment to its political base and the historic and emerging relationship with the modern Australian trade union movement. ALAC must be an important counterpoint to the massive business influence within the ALP.
  2. Labor should engage with the trade union movement to create a rejuvenated focus on increased productive performance. This will require a focus not only on labour productivity but also on improved management systems, technology, training, work organisation, industrial democracy and skill formation. Labor should undertake an inquiry into management training to ensure that Australian management at up to the task of international competition. The Karpin inquiry under the last Federal Labor administration would be a good model.
  3. Labor must provide practical support for delegate training in a range of areas such as, collective bargaining, best practice, political economy, globalisation, trade, environmental engineering, health and safety. Future industrial legislation must provide enhanced protection for delegates and activists. Specific qualifications for delegates would enhance enterprise and industry productive performance as delegates develop more skills in conciliation, negotiation and leadership.
  4. Labor must ensure that their reform agenda drives the social democratic principles of equity, solidarity and sustainability. This is particularly important in the area of public health, public education and welfare.
  5. Labor must engage constructively with the representatives of the teaching profession. The "education revolution" eventually relies on the quality, commitment, and skills of teachers. A medium to long-term priority will be to ensure a proper balance between public and private education and this will require increased expenditure on public infrastructure and public teaching resources.
  6. Labor must reassert a role for government in ensuring a proper balance between the creative and destructive role of the market and the needs of a good society.
  7. Laissez-faire capitalism must be replaced by a managed capitalism where the needs of the community and the sustainability of the planet are priorities.
  8. Labor must challenge the emerging business culture that is leading to another "gilded age" with the business elite demand unconscionable and unjustifiable executive salaries while demanding ordinary workers bear the burden of restraint in the National interest.
  9. Labor should conduct an inquiry into executive salaries, corporate responsibility to the public and shareholders, and unjustified "super” profits.

10. The Labor caucus must ensure that it exercises a proper check and balance on executive power and ensure that the ALP leadership group remains grounded and in touch with the goals and aspirations of the party and the electorate.

11. The Labor leadership should develop innovative ways to engage more effectively with party activists and branch members in order to provide more grassroots democracy and engagement within the party.

12. Labor must be the party that can speak to working people's authentic concerns and challenge clearly and consistently the excesses of the market and provide hope and inspiration to its electoral base.