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The irony of the ACTU's defence of the ALP

By Jo Coghlan and Scott Denton - posted Friday, 18 May 2012

The Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) represents 1.9 million union members from 46 affiliated unions. It is the peak body of organised labour in Australia. Since its formation in 1927, the ACTU proudly cites the achievements of trade unionism and the benefits that all Australian workers reap from union activities in increasing wages, ongoing improvements in occupational health and safety, and in protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation. The ACTU, and more broadly unionism, has a long and proud tradition in Australian political culture. As the 'labour movement' it joins its parliamentary wing, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), in developing and implementing the ideals associated with social democratic egalitarianism.

At this week's 2012 National Congress the ACTU, various past Party and union leaders stood before delegates defending its parliamentary wing. Among them was Bob Hawke, is speech and song, calling for solidarity. There is some irony in this.

In 2002 the ALP National Executive endorsed former ACTU president and Opposition leader Simon Crean's call for a review in search for answers to Labor's then third successive federal loss to the John Howard led Opposition. The year-long review was conducted by former ACTU leader and Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former NSW Premier Neville Wran. The 2002 National Committee of Review, generally referred to as the Hawke-Wran Review,received 669 submissions, with over 2,000 union and Party members participating, and resulted in 38 recommendations.


The three distinct concerns cited in submissions were: poor policy development resulting in an over reliance on bipartisanship driven by pragmatism; the power of the factions; and branch-stacking. The 2002 Hawke-Wran Review accepted that ALP policies were not resonating within the wider electorate, but ignored submission demands for tangible policy change. The final report argued that a two-stage approach was needed to ensure that policy objectives were more clearly differentiated from the Liberal-National Coalition and to better articulate the relevance of ALP policy to the wider electorate. This in turn, the report suggested, would attract more genuinely committed ALP members and thereby weaken the factions. As for responsibility, the final report in large part blamed trade unions for the unelectable position of the ALP in the post-2001 political environment.

The 2002 Review did acknowledge the "historical truth" that "it is possible to have a party of social democracy without the unions, it is not possible to have a Labor Party without the unions." For social democratic parties, the relationship between the political arm and the industrial arm is considered a "privileged link." In the case of the ALP, unions cannot be treated like any other interest group, at least not without risking remaining a party of labour in any meaningful sense. Further, the "historical truth" of the union-ALP relationship recognises the financial relationship between the two. Traditionally, unions have provided 80 per cent of ALP funds. Since 2000, the ALP has received from the union movement on average $5 million annually and substantially more in election years. In addition, the ACTU noted in its submission to the 2002 Review, unions "keep the ALP directly and structurally engaged with the concerns and aspirations of working families."

While submissions to the Hawke-Wran Review raised concerns about factionalism, branch-stacking and policy, the Review chose to focus on the need to reduce union representation from a 60-40 ratio of voting delegates at the Party's national policy-making conferences to a 50-50 ratio. This would peg union voting rights to a maximum of 50 per cent of the available voting quota. The Hawke-Wran Review argued that a ratio of 50-50 better reflected an "effective partnership between the union movement and the ALP."

The change did not guarantee unions would have 50 per cent of delegates at National Conference, nor was there any detail of how the formula would work for selecting delegates, union or otherwise. The more worrying claim for the trade union movement came in the 2002 Review's assertion that there needed to be a "reassessment of the ALP's relationship with the union movement". The final report from Hawke and Wran stipulated that the "partnership between affiliated unions and Party members should be a guiding principle," although no concrete details were offered on how this would address poor policy or electoral decline. Unsurprisingly, unions threatened to disaffiliate from the ALP if the 50-50 rule was implemented.

Arguably underpinning the 2002 Hawke-Wran Review was Simon Crean's view that: "reducing union voting rights within the Party was a "perception issue" for the ALP: "It is not that we won't have a relationship with the trade union movement but we have got to build relationships with other constituencies." Clearly, "other constituencies" indicated the middle-class, who in Crean's assessment were anti-union. Union reactions to the recommendations and Crean's "perception" claims became very public.

Then NSW Labour Council Secretary the right-wing John Robertson, now NSW Opposition Leader, argued that reducing representation to 50 per cent "would not deliver one extra vote at the election." The then left-wing National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMU), Doug Cameron, now Senator Cameron, supported the proposal but only as required for Crean's profile, adding that the 50-50 rule was "absolutely meaningless." This view was shared by Joe de Bruyn, National Secretary of the largest union in Australia, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). Crean responded:


I never said that the union influence in terms of the decision making process of the Party should be diminished. What I did say was that if we wanted to be a more inclusive Party we had to reach out to a wider base…[so the unions] had to come in as equal partners. That was the significance of fifty-fifty…I also widened the decision-making processes, the ability for the rank-and-file to vote for the presidential position for example…I am really making a statement about restoring some trust…

The ALP-trade union relationship had certainly been waning for some time. In order to cement a more middle-class persona, progressive parties in the U.K and Europe have attempted in various ways to distance their political wing from the industrial wing, ostensibly to improve electoral chances. The view that the union movement could be treated as just another interest group and hence no longer reflected the historical truth of the Party's past or as a financial contributor, was a difficult position for Crean to adopt and defend. Conversely, Crean failed to consider that with declining union membership union influence within the Party was in natural decline.

Trade unionists interpreted the 2002 Hawke-Wran Review as not just an attack on union voting rights, but as a larger attack on labour traditions. Crean's strategy was based on populist politics in regard to union 'reform'. Tradition and principle were rejected in favour of providing Labor with a middle-class persona. This strategy failed to deliver votes, as noted in Labor's loss of the federal heartland seat of Cunninghamto the Australian Greens in October 2002 (based around the industrial city of Wollongong on the NSW south coast), a seat held by the ALP since its inception in 1949. It also signalled the demise of Crean's leadership, as this was the only electoral test his leadership was to face. As a political strategy, the 50-50 rule change backfired. Portrayed by unionists as prepared to sacrifice the 'soul' of the Party, Crean succumbed to a climate where polls showed Howard's anti-union rhetoric appealed to aspirational voters.

Hawke's endorsement of Crean's position, as co-author of the Hawke-Wran Review, posits his consent for reducing the role of the Party's industrial wing, so his appearance in leading his 'comrades' in a rendition of Solidarity Forever at this week's ACTU National Congress was not only sad but ironic.

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About the Authors

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

Scott completed a PhD on Australian electoral politics in 2010. He is an academic at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He regularly writes on Australian and American elections and electoral history.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jo Coghlan
All articles by Scott Denton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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