Labor must stop letting unionists run the show
Unions have played an integral part in the Labor Party since its inception in 1891. After 120 years however, serious stress fractures are appearing. The time has come to rethink the power exercised by unions within the ALP, which is something British Opposition Leader, Ed Miliband, says must happen within his Labour Party.
I do not question the importance of unions and I support them. Their 2007 campaign against Work Choices is reason enough for unions to be politically active. However, the way union representation is now exercised within the ALP means that huge power is vested in a small number of union officials who act on behalf of their membership as if all the members are of the same mind. So, if a union controls, say, 10 per cent of the votes at the party conference, then all those votes are cast in a bloc. The problem isn't that unions affiliate with the ALP, there are good reasons for this link, rather it is the extent of their influence. Today, affiliated unions represent 50 per cent of the votes at ALP state conferences. This makes their bosses very powerful people within the Labor Party and some of them exercise that power to advance policy agendas. There's nothing wrong with that provided their voting power doesn't give them an unfair advantage in policy formulation and adoption.
The exceptional growth of unions within the Labor Party has occurred at precisely the same time their numerical strength in the wider Australian society has waned. Over the past 25 years the rise of union influence within the ALP has been in inverse proportion to their workplace coverage. Consider these facts: union membership as a percentage of the workforce has dropped from 46 per cent in 1986 to 18 per cent in 2010. However, over the same period the number of Labor senators who are former trade union officials has grown from 11 out of 35 in 1987 (less than one-third) to 23 out of 31 (more than two-thirds) in 2011. Labor's Senate tickets are usually settled at state conferences. In 1971, 24 per cent of federal MPs were former trade union officials or staffers. By 2005 they represented a whopping 67 per cent of federal Labor MPs. Of course, there are many examples of former unionists who have made outstanding parliamentary contributions - before and after Bob Hawke. That's not the issue, rather it's whether union power in policy formulation and parliamentary representation now discourages participation in the party by progressive Australians.
In the 1970s and 80s, Labor produced leaders who set new social and economic agendas. As old class divisions started to break down, these leaders from Gough Whitlam to Don Dunstan to Neville Wran to Hawke and to Wayne Goss reinvigorated the party. Labor was given a new lease of life and newfound relevance as it seized the agenda and made the next generation of voters its own. They were followed by Paul Keating, Bob Carr, Mike Rann, Steve Bracks, Peter Beattie, Jim Bacon, Clare Martin, Jon Stanhope and Geoff Gallop, who continued the tradition of balancing industrial democracy with social, economic and environmental reform. Then somewhere along the way Labor governments seemed to lose their mojo. It was a combination of age, a loss of experienced members and advisers as well as a narrowed intellectual, parliamentary and electoral base.
The rapid loss of electoral appeal for Labor in recent years suggests that it runs the risk of becoming a third force in politics for the first time in a century. Unless it can once again become a broadly appealing and inclusive party the future will be grim. That means addressing the unprecedented power of the affiliated unions within the party. Their influence in the choice of candidates and policies must be reduced if membership is to grow and in doing so, appeal to a broader constituency.
So what can be done? The success of the Kevin 07 campaign was in part due to the co-operation of Labor and the unions in their opposition to Work Choices. Therefore, rather than break entirely from the unions, Labor should reduce the percentage of union voting power within its ranks to the union movement's level of representation in the Australian workforce. The union movement's power within the ALP should reflect its relevance and appeal in the broader community. That would mean a drop in their portion of conference delegates from 50 per cent to 18 per cent. However, if they manage to connect with workers by increasing their percentage of workforce coverage then that should be reflected and rewarded with a higher vote at party conferences.
The Faulkner-Bracks-Carr review of the ALP's recent election problems recognised the need to transform the party. A key recommendation was the adoption of a system of primaries that allow registered Labor supporters to vote in preselections as in the US. This would be an important step.
Progressive Australians need a truly open and inclusive Labor Party with which they can identify and whose policies they can help mould. They will only pour their energies and their donations into the ALP if they know they will not be thwarted before they start by entrenched and ultimately undemocratic structures within their party.
A more inclusive ALP has the potential to inspire a cross section of fair-minded Australians and win elections, just as it has done so many times over the last 120 years.