Labour democracy and “cabinet solidarity”

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A response to Peter Murphy’s comments on Leftwrites

Bob Gould

I read Peter Murphy’s comment on Mark Aarons’ articles about unions and the Labor Party after returning last night from a rather heated debate between Aarons and Senator-elect Doug Cameron at Gleebooks, which Murphy and I both attended.

Murphy’s contribution on this question is useful and I welcome it. It appears to have been written in a bit of a hurry.

The article helps to make some sense of contradictory signals that have been coming from Search Foundation circles on the linked matters of union affiliation to the Labor Party, democracy in the labour movement and the associated question of electricity privatisation in NSW.

It’s notable that Murphy and Search have distributed fairly widely useful material against the privatisation. Clearly, a bit of a debate is going on in Search circles about these two questions, and that can only be a good thing. I agree with Peter Murphy, in general, on those questions.

Peter Murphy opinion is important as he has some influence, through his role in Search, in left trade union circles, including even some left figures who work in some Centre Unity unions.

I sympathise with Murphy a bit, as sharp debate between old associates is often painful and can even become unpleasant. Nevertheless, basic political questions are much more important than personal considerations, and it is an unavoidable feature of politics that we all tend to use whatever personal connections we have to achieve our purposes in current battles and debates.

I would pose the following set of problems to Peter Murphy, which I think are extremely important in the battle over electricity privatisation and the apparently impending battle over union influence in the Labor Party.

The battle against electricity privatisation must be won. If the supporters of privatisation are victorious it will considerably set back the workers movement in NSW and even Australia and strengthen the hand of those who want to end union influence in the Labor Party, turning the Labor Party into something like the US Democrats.

As Peter Murphy would know, since like me he has old associates who are active in the Greens, even in the Greens there are people who see the electricity privatisation push as unimportant. In this context, it must be said the role of John Kaye in campaigning in a well-informed and tactically shrewd way against the privatisation has been outstanding.

A serious problem for opponents of the privatisation in the Labor is the role of the left cabinet ministers in the Iemma government and even of one left backbencher closely linked to the ministry. This came up at a meeting of the Labor Party rank and file anti-privatisation committee, held simultaneously with the meeting at Gleebooks that Murphy and I attended.

At that committee meeting several representatives of some left cabinet ministers repeated the furphy, rather vigorously, that unfortunately because of cabinet and caucus solidarity the left cabinet ministers couldn’t speak up against the privatisation push. This was in the context of a proposal to the anti-privatisation committee to lobby a number of cabinet members’ offices on the question.

The representatives of the left ministers argued that the left ministers should be exempt from such lobbying. These representatives also repeated something that has been said previously by left ministers: that they might lose their positions in the cabinet if they opposed the privatisation publicly.

You see the problem. In politics achieving a change of course by a Labor government, even one that’s in as much strife as the Iemma government on a range of questions, is a substantial and difficult project.

To achieve that change of tack, the maximum concentration of all the forces opposing the privatisation is obviously needed.

On the right of the Labor Party John Robertson, Matt Thistlethwaite, Bernie Riordan, Ben Kruse and the substantial majority of Centre Unity unions are fighting the good fight, and doing so quite effectively. On the left, the metalworkers union, the CFMEU and the public service unions are also fighting effectively.

Nevertheless, all the unions that are fighting are up against the phoney monolith of cabinet solidarity in the Labor caucus and pressure emanating from left cabinet ministers is being applied widely to exempt them from criticism, thereby in practice blunting the whole campaign at the level of the Labor caucus in the parliament.

These are significant problems. I don’t advocate demonising the left cabinet ministers, and most of them are good people (with the notable exception of one bloke, a one-time ultraleft, who is flat-out for the privatisation).

Surely though, all of us — Peter Murphy, Bob Gould and everyone else who is seriously opposed to the privatisation — should bring maximum pressure to bear on everyone of significance in the Labor caucus, including the left ministers, to stop sheltering behind the furphy of cabinet solidarity, which is not mentioned in the Labor Party rules, but which boils down to the proposition expressed crudely by some of the some of the left ministers and their representatives that they would be booted out of cabinet if they came out publicly against the privatisation.

I’d be interested in Peter Murphy’s observations on such problems, because they’re crucial to the defeat of the privatisation and by implication the future of union influence in the Labor Party.

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