The one element missing from the current
debate about the relationship between
the labour movement and the ALP is any
discussion about what's in it for the
While everyone now seems to agree that
the question of union control of party
forums is a red herring, the real question
is what responsibilities elected Labor
Are they elevated to elected office
by dint of their own intrinsic value or
are they merely custodians of a workers'
movement that created the party they represent
more than 100 years ago?
The answer to this question is integral
to any renegotiation of the relationship.
If one takes the view that these are
brilliant individuals who have achieved
office because they are talented and wise,
then it would be fair to give them freedom
to set their own course into the future.
If one takes the broader historical view
and recognise Labor MPs as representatives
of the movement, then they must carry
certain obligations into the Parliament.
Like adhering to the policy of the Party
they are elected to represent, even when
it may not be electorally popular. Like
championing policies consistent with trade
union values, even at the risk of losing
a few dollars in corporate sponsorship.
Like treating trade unions as partners
in policy, not headaches to be side-stepped
The problem with the current reform
agenda for many in the union movement,
is that the call to break ties comes from
those who have taken the most from the
union movement; who have been shoe-horned
into seats on the back of the factional
deals that they now purport to undo.
It's like the ethos of people born wealthy
who then profess a firm belief in the
rights of the individual over society
- they turn their backs on the structures
that have given them their privileged
The current project seems to have become
more about how to make 'brand ALP' most
electable, rather than making the Labor
product as good as it can be.
John Button copped all sorts of flak for his essay on the future
of the ALP, not least for the headlines
that had him calling on the Party to sever
ties with the union movement.
But maybe this should be the starting
point of a new relationship. Let's go
back to first principles and work out
why it is that the relationship exists
in the first place.
Let's look at the experiences abroad
where social democratic parties are independent
of organised labour; let's see what happened
when the Swedish union movement severed
all ties with the political party it created;
let's see how the British movement has
fared under Tony Blair's New Labour.
If on the evidence it is determined that
the relationship should continue, then
let's lay it out clearly: what is expected
of the ALP, what is expected of MPs, what
is expected of union leaders and what
is expected of the rank and file.
If there's going to be a New Deal, the
union movement and its leadership must
be partners in the process not victims
of the outcome.
The ALP makeover has to work for both
wings of the movement, to create a vessel
that flies politically and industrially.
And if Simon Crean succeeds in forging
a New Deal it should be recognised that
it is not the unions he has busted; but
the ideological void within the political
wing of the movement that made his predecessor
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