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Core values the key to Labor renewal

By Greg Combet - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

John Howard's electoral triumph on November 10 has understandably triggered a debate about why Labor lost, and what it must do to win next time.

Few commentators would deny that there were two defining features of the 2001 Federal election. First, the degree to which domestic political issues were overshadowed by external factors. Second, the extent to which the tactics and policies of the major parties were defined by their parliamentary and administrative leaders - as evidenced by Howard's 'strong leadership' pitch and Labor's pre-election 'small target' strategy.

It is surprising then how much of the post-election analysis, led by commentary in The Australian, has been dedicated to the relationship between the Labor Party and the unions. It is an issue that had no discernible electoral impact at all.


Which is not to say that the Labor-union relationship should not be debated, but that it should be seen in a proper context.

Unions helped create the Labor Party more than 100 years ago because they recognised that action was needed at a political level, as well as at a workplace level, if the aspirations of workers and their families were to be advanced.

The foundation of the relationship between Labor and the unions, one which continues to this day, is a set of broadly shared values and objectives – the commitment to a fair and just society.

Those of us in the labour movement must never lose sight of this. Consideration of the Labor-union relationship must not be confined to narrow debates about the size of union delegations at ALP conferences.

Labor's new leaders can build a platform for future electoral success by boldly stating their convictions, by developing policies which take into account the aspirations of Australian people, and by insisting on quality parliamentary candidates.

The most significant barrier arises in the selection of candidates. If ALP rules, factional self-interest, or union involvement demonstrably stand in the way, it is on that basis that the necessary changes must be argued. The problem is in no way confined to the NSW Branch of the ALP, which has attracted criticism. But leadership from NSW will be vital, for Federal Labor is strong when NSW Labor is strong.


In recent years the relationship between unions and Labor has been defined more by the Coalition than by the labour movement. John Howard, as a student of the Menzies period, knows that the conservatives can dominate when the labour movement is divided. That is why he denigrates unions and ridicules Labor politicians with a union background. Labor has been defensive about the issue, whereas a positive approach is needed.

Those in the labour movement who argue that the Labor-union relationship should be jettisoned altogether should consider the issues very carefully indeed. They should look to build on the strengths of the relationship, rather than condemn it for its weaknesses.

Unions are made up of 1.9 million members. Their fundamental objectives are to improve the living standards and quality of working life of these members and their families. Unions stand up for people's rights. And, contrary to the uninformed and glib assertion of Peter Botsman in The Australian, many unions are adapting to the challenges of an open economy and are reaching out to new sections of the workforce.

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About the Author

Greg Combet is Secretary of the ACTU.

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Australian Council of Trade Unions
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