Reform of union power

The case for reforming the structure of the Labor Party is unarguable and it has been unarguable for many years.

When the party was formed in Australia back in the 1890s, the workers were truly exploited and unrepresented; the great strikes of the time, and particularly the shearers' strike whose leaders were jailed, made the need for a political voice imperative.

Thus the ALP came into being with the aim of asserting and improving the rights of the workers, under the control of the elected representatives of the workers, the trade union movement. And for the first 50 years or so of its existence this arrangement was both logical and satisfactory.

Blue collar workers, both urban and rural, made up the bulk of the population and the majority of them belonged to the appropriate union. Landmark battles over terms and conditions were fought and won and the Labor Party was acknowledged as the party of reform.

But its success brought fresh problems. With the rise of the white collar workforce and the growth of the middle class, the party needed to move beyond its industrial base. It did so, and became a broad based progressive party of the centre left, increasingly winning support from intellectuals whose aims and ideals encompassed a far wider agenda than those of the factory floor.

Indeed, they often came into conflict with the party's traditions. What had once been articles of faith - White Australia, all round protection, public ownership of resources, indeed the socialist objective itself - were gradually discarded as having passed their political use-by date.

And in the process the party structure changed; state branches were reformed, the once narrowly state-based national conference was broadened and the parliamentary representatives assumed more power and freedom. And the monopoly of the unions weakened, their direct representation on the key bodies being reduced first to 60%, then to 50%. It is still, say the critics, far too much; these days less than 20% of the workforce is unionised and in any case many of the unions are far less closely tied to the ALP, if at all.

And the rank and file party members seem to agree. In recent years membership has been falling steadily and after the last election it became a rout; some 10,000 left, reducing the total to 32,000, not much more than the crowd at a Twenty20 cricket match and far less enthusiastic. Clearly, It's Time - the need for change has become seriously urgent.

But there is a huge stumbling block: Labor is in government, and in knife-edge minority government at that. To start a major intra-party brawl over party reform in the circumstances would almost certainly be suicidal.

In the past what reforms there have been have all taken place when Labor, federally at least, has been in opposition. The major restructuring masterminded by Gough Whitlam some 40 years ago and even the minor reforms steered through by Simon Crean in the last decade could never have been made by a prime minister - only a determined opposition leader could afford to take the crash through or crash approach needed to break down the entrenched barriers of self interest.

So it is both silly and pointless of the commentators to censure Julia Gillard for her reluctance to enter the fight. And it borders on hypocrisy for Bob Hawke to be among the chief urgers.

Speaking in the ex-cathedra manner which has become his hallmark, the former leader said recently: "The party will always be sympathetic to the interests of working men and women, but that doesn't mean there has to be what is now an almost suffocating union influence."

Well, true enough, but how did it get to be that way? When Bob Hawke left the union movement to enter parliament in 1980 the need for a reduction in union dominance was already obvious, but that did not stop Hawke using it, and doing so ruthlessly. He persuaded his union mates to deny Bill Hayden the agreement for wage restraint he had been seeking, thus weakening Hayden's leadership in preparation for his own takeover.

With that accomplished, the unions immediately delivered the Prices and Incomes Accord, giving them more direct political power than they had ever dreamt of. For most of Hawke's term in government the ACFU secretary Bill Kelty effectively held the role of a senior cabinet minister, being consulted on all major policy matters and holding an implicit power of veto on those concerning union matters.

At the same time Hawke encouraged the developing and strengthening of the union-controlled factions within the caucus; the legendary warlords of the right, Graham Richardson and Robert Ray, became his enforcers and protectors within the party room, at least until Richardson deserted him for Paul Keating.

And it need hardly be said that no suggestion of reforming the party structure emerged at anytime during the eight years of his prime ministership. If the union influence is now so suffocating the party, this is when they got the lethal pillow.

Gillard is not averse to the idea of reform; she supported token changes during last year's national conference, and although they made no real dint in the union leaders' power, they did signal that at least the idea is back on the table, and that it will merit genuine attention - at the appropriate time.

And it may not be too long delayed. If the polls are to be believed, Labor is heading for a catastrophic loss at the next election. What better opportunity to rebuild the smoking ruin from its very foundations?

There will, of course, be plenty still keen to squabble over the spoils of defeat; in the Labor Party there always are. But there will also be the tough-minded idealists concerned with revival, reconstruction and re-engagement. Thankfully, the Labor Party has always produced a few of those as well.

"Landmark battles over terms and conditions were fought and won and the Labor Party was acknowledged as the party of reform."

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