Labor after the 2001 federal election


Submission to the ALP committees of inquiry

In making a submission, it is important to review the present structure of the ALP, and the relationship between the ALP and the trade unions, and to look also at the historical background of that relationship.

In a polemical piece I wrote recently, directed at the members of a small socialist group, I described the present structure of the ALP in the following way:

    Australia is a federation of states and territories, and the existence of these states and territories has a real geographical and social basis. Australia is the most urbanised country in the world, and the states are mostly focused around the major cities in the state: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.State governments are still a decisive part of the political set up, and they have many more powers than, say, the Scottish or Welsh assemblies in the UK. The labour movement industrially and politically, for obvious reasons, reflects this geographical and governmental pattern.Trade unions and the Labor Party started in the separate colonies, and each state has quite distinct historical traditions. The standardisation of the ALP political set-up (mostly in 1971) took place during the last great upsurge in the class struggle, but it also reflected the specific geographical circumstances and state traditions.ALP structures, in all states and the two territories were adopted, which embodied the principles of proportional representation for Right, Left and Centre at state conferences, and in five states, eventually, the conference delegate proportion was fixed at 60 per cent of delegates for trade unions and 40 per cent for ALP electorate branches.

My understanding is that in South Australia and the two territories the proportion is 50:50. In all states and territories except NSW, where individual branch members vote in preselection ballots, the structure for ALP preselection is collegiate, with branches and trade unions having a vote under a proportional representation arrangement.

This general ALP set-up gives the trade unions considerable institutional power. The shift of the labour movement to the right in the Accord period wasn’t the fault of the institutional influence of unions on the Labor Party, or of this 60:40 set up. It took place because of the ideological collapse of the left in the labour movement, and its conversion by Laurie Carmichael, the Communist Party trade union leader, to the virtues of an Accord between the ACTU and the ALP, which had such disastrous consequences for trade unionism, particularly trade union density.

Despite the all-pervasive Accord environment, the 60:40 proportional representation set-up at state conferences made possible such sporadic instances of successful resistance to the ALP’s shift to the right, as the defeat of electricity privatisation in NSW, and the pressure on state Labor governments to remove many aspects of industrial relations legislation that handicap unions in the state arena.

The historic ALP restructure in the early 1970s

The present ALP structure, which I describe summarily above, came about after a series of upheavals in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The general rubric of 60 per cent unions, 40 per cent branches, with proportional representation for factions, became institutionalised at that time to resolve the occasional problems of balancing the interests of unions and ALP members and also, implicitly, of parliamentary Labor parties, which had lurched backwards and forwards in different ways from the foundation of the ALP in the 1890s, until the 1970s.

The ups and downs of the structural set-up in the ALP are described in a number of books (many of which I list in my bookshop’s Labor Movement Catalogue. The detailed account of this 1970s settlement, and the definitive structural arrangements that emerged, is in a very important book, Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party, edited by Parkin and Warhurst (Allen and Unwin 1983), which unfortunately is now out of print, even in my bookshop).

Why should we change the electorally most successful structural set-up in the history of the ALP to please Howard and Costello, and some extreme Blairite Labor parliamentarians such as Mark Latham, who view themselves as the white knights of an untested “Third Way”.

The virtue of the existing structural set-up in the ALP is, that since the 1970s settlement, the ALP internal arrangements have given all elements in the party an institutionalised input, and a tangible, entrenched interest in the movement.

From the electoral point of view, it has clearly been a success, because during that period the ALP has had its longest periods in government, both state and federal. The old saw goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and surely this applies to the ALP electorally, in relation to the preservation of the existing party structure.

As an ALP member of the extreme, and in some ways, quite traditional left, I am extremely angry at many of the things done by ALP governments over the past 20 years. This disquiet is shared also by many ALP members on the traditional social democratic Right of the party, as well as those on the Left. Both people on the left and the right of the ALP are very bitter at the partial liquidation of the public sector, and the lead taken by Labor governments in implementing so called “economic rationalism”.

It has to be pointed out, however, that the implementation of “economic rationalism”, which it is now widely recognised did a great deal to undermine the fundamental role of the ALP as a party of reform in the interests of the working class, did not have anything to do with the existing ALP structure. Indeed, towards the end of the period, when trade unions, in particular, began to be more sharply disaffected with “economic rationalism” the existing ALP structure, with its institutionalised trade union influence, became a major factor in such things as the defeat of electricity privatisation in NSW, and the rejection in the federal arena of the further sale of Telstra.

This fact is, of course, one of the reasons that conservative forces want to push the unions out of the ALP. State and federal conferences must be held regularly to ensure that ALP policy is implemented by elected Labor governments. The existing structure should be properly implemented, rather than being changed to suit the whims and interests of some politicians.

The real issue in the ALP is that the existing structure of the party should be properly implemented, and not put aside to suit some Labor politicians.

The striking area in which this is important is that of holding annual state conferences and biennial federal conferences at the proper time. In NSW, the so-called “reform” to workers compensation legislation, implemented by the Carr Government, would never have got through any state conference under the existing rules.

The failure to hold last year’s annual conference was as much a device to assist the Carr Government in this regard as it was motivated by federal electoral considerations. The swing away from Labor in NSW electorally, in the federal election in Labor seats, can be easily explained by working class resentment at the workers compensation debacle.

Again, it is now widely accepted in the ALP that the deviation from a civilised stand on asylum seekers and refugees, combined with vacillation on the issue, was one of the causes of the small swing against us in the federal election.

In my view, had asylum seeker and refugee policy matters come before a state or federal conference, the outcome would have been more civilised, and in fact more electorally useful to the ALP.

The lessons are obvious. What is required is the proper use of the existing structure, not its abolition to suit the whims and desires of a minority of ambitious ALP politicians.

Re-establishing the ALP as a serious party of reform in the interests of the working class and the useful section of the middle class

The overwhelming majority of people, of all factions, who bother to take out ALP tickets and work on election day for ALP candidates, feel that the ALP should be re-established as a serious organisation of reform in the interests of the great majority of the useful people, rather than the interests of the ruling class.

It is widely recognised that even right-wing populist movements such as One Nation hark back to many traditional social democratic notions like government banking and a large public sector.

On economic questions, something like 60 per cent of the electorate, if you add together the Labor vote, the Green vote, the Democrat vote, the One Nation vote, and many votes that go to independents, have a basically hostile attitude to the interests of the global corporations that now dominate the world, and this 60 per cent of the electorate clearly desires a more traditional social democratic policy.

In this political environment, it is absolute madness, electorally speaking, to toy with the idea of a Blairite, “Third Way” project in Australia, with further economic changes to benefit the corporations.

Such a development would open up a massive electoral space, for the Greens on the left and One Nation on the right, primarily at the expense of Labor electorally.

The push to weaken the trade union influence in the ALP, and the liquidation of proportional representation in internal ALP affairs, is ideologically driven, and comes in the first instance from the Liberals and the most conservative section of the ruling class.

Some of the parliamentary figures in the ALP pushing for these changes, share these conservative ideological convictions and vaguely hope to be swept to parliamentary leadership in the ALP on the basis of this sort of structural and ideological shift.

It seems to me that those in the ALP pushing for major changes to the existing structural set-up, in the direction of reducing or eliminating union influence, and getting rid of proportional representation, have a considerable task ahead of them.

They are demanding an enormous “self-denying ordinance” of all the factions, groups and interests that currently make up the ALP. Why should any of these factions, groups or interests, give up their clear input, and their equity in the existing structure, which has worked so well electorally?

Those trying to get rid of 60:40 and ditch proportional representation are hoping to overcome the very substantial problem that they face by creating an atmosphere of crisis where, in fact, no such crisis exists electorally for the ALP (other than the crisis of votes going to the Greens or One Nation because of ALP voters’ anger at “economic rationalism”).

Driven by a mixture of right-wing ideological beliefs and the hope that they may benefit personally from the new arrangements, they are trying to achieve a three-card trick in this artificially beaten up atmosphere of non-existent (in two-party-preferred terms) electoral crisis, to change the ALP fundamentally into a second party of capitalism.

This push should be rejected summarily by the membership of the ALP and the affiliated unions.

Real problems of future directions for the ALP should be addressed in a concrete way. The Labor Council of NSW, which has courageously taken the lead in establishing Labor for Refugees to help reorient the ALP in an appropriately civilised direction on the question of asylum seekers, has done so with its eyes wide open to the real problem that the Tory government’s appeal to racism on the question of migration has a certain resonance with older Australians and some trade union members.

We should take careful note of John Robertson’s remarks last week. When releasing a Labor Council poll of union members, and non-union workers, which showed that, so far, a majority of both categories supported the Government’s asylum-seeker policy, he did not retreat from the Labor Council’s policy of defending a civilised stand on refugees but asserted that the immediate task facing the labour movement was to conduct an effective campaign, using the weight and influence of trade unions in society, to change this situation.

(Robertson did not say this, but he may be remembering that when we started the agitation against the Vietnam War in 1965, we were a distinct minority of society, but we turned that around in about three years, and we eventually became an overwhelming majority of the electorate on the question of the Vietnam War.)

ALP and trade union members should follow the realistic and proactive approach sketched out by Robertson, confront ideological problems such as racism head-on, and campaign to achieve an electoral majority for the ALP on a principled and civilised basis.

In practice, this won’t be at all impossible, although it will take energetic and innovative campaigning. The last thing we need in the context of the real tasks we face currently is a major change backwards from the sensible structural set-up that has served the ALP so well electorally for the past 30 years.

It is extremely galling for the rank and file of the ALP and the unions to have to put up with the atmosphere engendered by this hullabaloo about union influence in the ALP, commenced, as it was, by some of our own parliamentary representatives.

It is particularly infuriating to have to endure the pugnacious and arrogant Tory minister Tony Abbott rabbitting on in the parliament about 60:40 and trade union influence, praising Lindsay Tanner, Mark Latham, et al.

The enthusiasm of Abbott for getting rid of union influence in the ALP is one of the best reasons for keeping that influence. Nevertheless, this partly self-inflicted wound will damage the ALP until the issue is settled once and for all.

Federal conference should be called together within the next few months to decisively settle the question, and preserve the existing useful structure.

The transparent and public nature of ALP internal democracy at state conferences and federal conference, should be used to demonstrate the utility of 60:40 and proportional representation, and if the issue is definitively settled properly at an early federal conference, after a bit of bleating by the Tories and a few ambitious ALP politicians the issue will wither away and the media will move on to other things.

February 21, 2002

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