Kenneth Davidson

John Button’s main recommendation in Beyond Belief: What Future for Labor? is the disaffiliation of the unions. On mature reflection I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. For far too many union leaders the union movement has become fertile territory for their political advancement, rather than the advancement of their members. But there is a danger that the baby could be thrown out with the bathwater. The interests of trade unionists (and the ALP) may be better served if unionists, rather than their unions, were affiliated with the ALP. Under the present system the union secretary is able to cast a vote in Labor forums proportional to the membership or claimed membership of the union. It is the exercise of these votes, either on behalf of the union secretary personally or on behalf of the cabal with which he/she is associated – in conjunction with the state executives who control their respective ALP branches – which is the basis of the power of factional warlords.

The power of the union-based factional bosses could be curbed, and the unionists and their interests could still remain associated with the ALP in a meaningful way, if, instead of the current situation, the individual unionists were directly and individually affiliated with the ALP. Instead of bloc membership whose voting strength is exercised by the secretary of the union, unionists would be able to opt for individual membership of their industry union ALP branch or a general industry union branch in each state. The voting power of the union branch in Labor forums would be proportional to the number of unionists who explicitly opted for membership of the ALP union branch, rather than the number in the union as at present.

Should those who opt out be given a rebate equal to the individual affiliation fee with the ALP? I think not. Those who opt out would be providing more revenue for the direct operations of their union. Those who opt in are opting for more of their affiliation fee being spent on improving the general environment for unions and unionists.

Arguably, the policy of the Coalition is to make effective trade union activity illegal. For this reason there is likely to be a high proportion of unionists opting into individual affiliation with the ALP and a real focus in the industry union ALP branches on the interests of unionists, rather than on advancing the political careers of trade union officials.

But a further step is needed to break the present nexus between the position of union secretary and factional boss. Eligibility for elected office in union-based ALP branches – which would be the conduit for participation in the higher forums of the party such as State and National Conferences – would have to be restricted to union members who are not full-time office holders or paid employees of the union.

Those who would completely break the relationship between trade unions and the ALP have a duty to explain how that, in itself, would increase the power of the traditional branches and branch members of the ALP. This has not been done. The suspicion remains that the real reasons for severing the link between the trade unions and the ALP are, first, that the linkage makes the ALP less electable and, second, that breaking the link would reinforce the power of the Oligarchs who now control the party. I am cynical enough to believe that if a deal was stitched up to sever the trade union/ALP link there would be transitional arrangements put in place to protect the positions of the Oligarchs whose historic path into the oligarchy had been via the trade unions. History shows that Oligarchs never give up power voluntarily.

There are two interrelated reasons for the interest of leading Oligarchs in reforming the ALP machine. One is to reinforce their power. The quickest way to do this is to reduce the power of the trade unions movement which, for all the faults of the current system, is the only institutional mechanism through which the individuals in the existing oligarchy are likely to be disturbed.

The other is to offer the appearance or the prospect of reform in order to make the ALP under Simon Crean more electable. Trade unions are unpopular and a diminishing force, hence putting them down puts Simon Crean’s electoral appeal up. The hope of reform may keep the present core of true believers inside the ALP in order to provide workers during elections. That possibility of reform might also provide a fig leaf of idealism for the ALP while the Oligarchs get on with their real business of divvying up the diminishing stock of power and patronage available to a party in opposition. And if the Oligarchs can convince the electorate that the Hawke–Wran Report1 is serious then anything is possible at the next election.

If the Oligarchs are serious about democratic reform they must increase the power of the branches by making the branches the prime source of policy input and the pre-selection of candidates. This involves making and enforcing a few simple, understandable rules. It used to be something like this: if you were a paid-up member of the ALP for three years and you attended three meetings a year you were eligible to participate in the pre-selection process for ALP endorsement for parliamentary elections. Branch meetings had purpose because if resolutions put up in the branches got through to the State and National Conferences and were passed, they became party policy.

There is plenty of evidence that there is no will where it counts to democratise the ALP. The latest evidence is in the federal electorate of Cunningham in NSW where, as usual, the candidate for the by-election was selected by head office; and in the behaviour of the Bracks government in Victoria which has ignored a unanimous resolution of the State Conference in May 2002 to abandon its policy of encouraging expensive Public Private Partnerships in the creation of new social infrastructure. It is clear the policy is being made by the financiers who stand to profit hugely from the PPPs.

There is nothing new in this. The ALP saw early in its history that there would be an ongoing clash of interests between rank-and-file members whose interest is in advancing a set of ideas, and the paid party bureaucrats and members of parliament whose main objective would be the expansion of their power and influence through achieving government. It is a problem common to all progressive parties. The problem was put by Robert Michels, who described the dilemma from a European perspective:

The Party, regarded as an entity ... is not necessarily identifiable with the totality of its members, and still less so with the class to which these belong. The Party is created as a means to securing an end. Having, however become an end in itself, endowed with aims and interests of its own, it undergoes a detachment from the class which it represents. In a party, it is far from obvious that the interests of the masses which have combined to form the party will coincide with the interests of the bureaucracy in which the party becomes personified.2

The way in which the ALP dealt with the problem is described by Vere Gordon Childe in his 1923 classic, How Labour Governs.3 He outlined how and why the tripartite system of controls (Conference, Executive and Caucus) first developed in New South Wales in response to the early Labor “rats” was adopted by the other states. Childe said, “To sum up, we may say that the system of control from below adopted by the Labor Party from its inception has been proved necessary by the selfish and cowardly opportunism which has distinguished the worker’s parliamentary representatives.” What has changed today is that those mechanisms of control from below have been allowed to atrophy. The excuse is that the post-democratic structure of the ALP is necessary in the interests of making Labor more electable than it would be if policy is determined by the active membership.

Perhaps. But this has come at huge cost to the ALP which has been leached of most of its idealism. As Button describes it, the factions where power now resides have lost any real association with a particular ideological commitment and instead have become purely tribal. The factions’ purpose now is to maximise their power in order to maximise the spoils available to their factional members.

There is no longer any serious attempt to develop policy within the party framework. The Federal Opposition dropped any pretence to a commitment to equality in education when it voted for the schools funding priorities set by the Coalition in 2001. It effectively joined the government in abandoning a commitment to Medicare as a universal system of financing health care when it announced before the election that it would not abolish the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate. The rebate had been introduced by the Coalition in order to accelerate the residualisation of public health provision, in the same way that government schools have been residualised by increasing state aid for non-government schools – financed by cuts to funding for government schools. In the lead-up to the recent election Labor goaded the government into the abolition of the automatic indexation of the petrol excise which was one of the few environmentally friendly tax measures introduced originally by the previous Labor government. The parliamentary leadership of the Labor Party is now as flexible with respect to policy developments as the Liberal Party, and policy is forged out of similarly structured focus groups.

In the longer term policy convergence on the neo-liberal grounds established by the Coalition will consign the Labor Party to irrelevance and its historic role will be taken over by some other political grouping such as the Greens or the Democrats. In this neo-liberal world there is no room for effective trade unions. As the pressure mounts on trade unions, a more purposeful leadership is likely to emerge and possibly this provides the best hope that the grip of the present oligarchy which runs the ALP can be shaken loose before the ALP dies.

I believe the true believers are necessary for the electoral success of the ALP. It was the principled stand of the true believers in 1966 which prevented the ALP accommodating the government on Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam and which gave the ALP a moral authority which was vital to its subsequent electoral successes in 1972 and 1975. That moral authority is now all but exhausted.

The Oligarchs must somehow be made to see that the political struggle between the left (at its best representing equality) and the right (at its best representing freedom) is built upon two incompatible economic ideologies – the one on the left representing social democracy and the control of the economy in the interests of working people, and on the right laissez faire capitalism which represents financial interests. The Oligarchs are kidding themselves if they believe there is a middle way offering security to the majority that can be built on a neo-liberal socio-economic framework.

As John Quiggin argues, “the fundamental issue of our time is whether the world will be controlled by the individual and collective actions of governments, as it was in the post-war boom under the Keynesian consensus, or by capital markets as it was in the nineteenth century.”4 The question is very open as to whether the ALP will be part of that debate in Australia. What is certain is that if it is not part of the debate, it will die.


Kenneth Davidson is a columnist for the Age newspaper and the co-editor of D!SSENT magazine.

1. National Committee of Review Report. August 2002. www.alp.com

2. Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: The Free Press, 1962.

3. Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1964.

4. Christopher Sheil, ed., Globalisation: Australian Impacts. Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2001.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed.


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