Labor’s trade union connection raises issues of perception and reality including the enduring question of ‘who gains’. The perception, enthusiastically promoted by John Howard and Tony Abbott, is that unions are a monolith with a dominant say in Labor policy and were it not so, the ALP would fall over itself in a rush to
embrace the government’s IR agenda.
The reality is otherwise. One does not have to be a unionist, let alone one affiliated to the ALP, to believe that there should be a balance in industrial relations and that a return to the master-servant arrangements of the nineteenth century may not be the best option for a civilised, decent society. After all, the Greens and (to
a lesser extent) the Australian Democrats have voted with Labor senators on IR legislation, yet they have no affiliation to the union movement.
Throughout Western democracies, less conservative parties are more likely to defend the right of workers to collective organisation and action than are their opponents, yet formal affiliation with unions remains the exception rather than the norm. Does anyone seriously contend that US unions (unaffiliated) had to think long and hard
over whether to donate to Gore rather than to Bush?
On the other side of politics, is the Liberal Party’s pro-business position any weaker because, unlike its predecessor, the United Australia Party, it opted to discontinue the formal organisational links between itself and the business community? At the perception level, it is able to portray itself as superior to the ALP in this
regard, but it is difficult to see how business interests would be any better served under the Liberals had those historical links been continued. But, perception is more significant electorally than reality, and thus Labor has to address the issue.
As for the chatter about the power ratio at party conferences, these meetings are set pieces whose outcomes are decided in advance by factional warlords. It is the unions’ incorporation into Labor’s stifling factional system which is the problem, not some imaginary conflict between pro and anti union positions. Within those
factions, affiliated unions span the spectrum, although these days, that spectrum seems more one of labels than ideologies.
At the more substantive level, it is a fact that Labor relies heavily on affiliation fees and union donations to conduct its affairs, especially election campaigns. This is a clear gain from the relationship and if this makes the party beholden to unions in the policy area, then similar questions must be asked in relation to the
Liberal Party’s more generous donors. Clearly, unless the ALP has reasonable prospects of securing alternative funding from non-union sources, the financial aspects of this debate may prove the most problematic.
What unions gain from affiliation is more contentious. It is not a novel view to suggest that the ALP/ACTU Accord did more for the Labor government than for unions and indeed, union officials acquiesced in a range of policies which disadvantaged their members- policies which if proposed by previous conservative governments, would
have seen unions take to the barricades. Indeed, in that context, it is surprising that more union voices, as opposed to ALP ones, have not been heard questioning the value of the links.
That comparative silence may owe much to the one clear benefit which the union movement secures from its links with the ALP: a career path for its higher flyers. The ACTU presidency is no longer a job in its own right, merely an apprenticeship for parliament, and it would seem that some union officials spend at least as much time on
ALP politicking as on attending to members’ problems.
When combined with Labor’s factional circus, this is a venomous mix, resulting in regular media stories that some vacant parliamentary seat is the preserve of a left or right union nominee, regardless of what the dwindling number of branch activists think. Come election day, in several marginal seats at least, that nominee is then
routinely beaten either by a sitting coalition member with an impressive local record or by a recently endorsed candidate with credible community credentials. Voters are justifiably offended when the first time they’ve encountered the Labor candidate’s name is on the ballot paper.
When such people secure safe seats, they often end up as time-servers, with no prospect of advancement, but denying opportunities to those who might make a better contribution. This ailment is particularly evident in New South Wales at present.
The problem is that even a backbencher’s salary is more than these members could ever expect to make in the non-political world (not to mention the superannuation), so, short of a crow bar or dynamite, they won’t move. At least some of the Liberals’ non-performers are able to exit gracefully and return to their previous
The end result is a Labor parliamentary party that is short on two vital components: talent and representativeness. Thus, while Simon Crean’s front bench contains an impressive share of the available caucus talent, it is still vulnerably narrow in terms of those members’ backgrounds, with an unhealthy preponderance of ex-union
officials and ex-staffers of ministers and MPs. This is grist to John Howard’s mill as he seeks to demonstrate that Labor is out of touch and unrepresentative of the community it seeks to govern: unfair at some levels, but predictable and probably rewarding politics.
Labor’s defenders will assert that what is described above is merely the professionalisation of politics, a plus not a minus. While there is a grain of truth in that position, there is no guarantee that a "professional" politician will provide better value for the voters. The skills required to secure pre-selection are
not necessarily those which translate into quality representation of an electorate or a keen interest in policy formulation, let alone the capacity to run a department as a minister of the crown. For every successful pro like Paul Keating, there are a lot of non-achievers. And, were he to seek pre-selection today, an
"outsider" like Gough Whitlam would probably be beaten by a factional "hack" who could be busy organising the numbers while Whitlam was practising law.
While officials from non-affiliated unions also secure pre-selection, the advantage which affiliation brings to parliamentary career planning is self-evident. For that reason alone, it is difficult to envisage those dreaming of having MP after their name (or Senator before it) giving up without a fight.