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Rachel Nolan

David Marr writes that Bill Shorten has no great ambition for reform. His goal is power for Labor and Bill Shorten, “and decent administration for Australia.” The trouble is that Labor can’t win like that. That Labor has to have an agenda, that it relies for its electability, not only on its integrity, but also on its capacity to inspire hope, is a pearl of political wisdom passed on to me many years ago by a more experienced political friend. That wise friend later became a federal MP; perhaps ironically, he was the one vote who went across with Shorten in the belated decision to become a party to the knifing of Gillard as prime minister.

Marr writes that while Shorten believes in plenty of things – the Labor values of jobs, prosperity, education and health – there’s nothing particularly distinctive in his standpoints, nothing brave. To defeat Malcolm Turnbull, Shorten will have to do better than that. He will have to move beyond being a safe pair of hands and take a giant leap of policy substance, as well as style. He will have to present an economic vision to the country – one that gives Australians the confidence to believe we can make it in a competitive, more Asian world. He’ll also need new ideas for social reform, ideas that are truly Labor and run deeper than Turnbull’s patrician smile.

For Shorten, as for Labor leaders before him, that journey begins very close to home, with the project of defining not just who he is, but what modern Labor is. In the week Marr’s essay was published, headlines about the Labor Party were already ablaze. The Royal Commission had moved to Queensland, where reports suggested it had uncovered a classic union rort. Heydon’s team grilled David Hanna, the former secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation, the allegation being that Mirvac had funded $150,000 worth of trades work on Hanna’s new house. And while Hanna’s defence was simply that he and the bosses were “good blokes,” the implication was inescapable: that in paying off the union boss, the company had bought industrial peace.

The alleged rorting was not systemic – and so it was not Royal Commission gold – but the backstory was a classic one of union money in the ALP. While never a huge player, Dave Hanna had for some years wielded influence in the Queensland party. His deal-making approach – backed by employers’ money, it now seems – had created discomfort and ultimately a split in the centre Labor Unity faction. When Hanna and his supporters moved the remains of the faction to the Left, they helped to deliver power to that side of the party for the first time in many years. And while the shift brought money and stability to a then very weak ALP, the quid pro quo was a conservative, almost frozen economic policy, a leash that if not deftly handled will tightly constrain the new Labor government. 

Union membership has plummeted from nearly 45 per cent in the early 1990s to between 15 and 20 per cent now, but union power in politics, particularly Labor politics, has seen less of a diminution than a change. Unions bring less moral authority and less ability to mobilise than they did in the old days, but with super funds, training levies and the ability to get their hands on employers’ cash, unions exert their influence through the chequebook. We know money talks.

The solution to this for Shorten will be a complex one. Simply to end union affiliation, as some shallow commentary suggests, would destabilise the party, change its historical nature and see the money flow to the Greens. There remains a critical role for unions in the workplace and the ALP, but their power must be diminished in keeping with their plummeting workforce coverage and they cannot be allowed to put a brake on the party’s longstanding mission to modernise the country’s economic base.

The great Labor leaders of the past have redefined the relationship between the party and its essential power base: Whitlam stared down the faceless men, then set about tariff cuts; Hawke changed the game with the Accord; and Keating won the battle of ideas outright on the need for economic reform. While it’s sometimes forgotten in the eulogising of the past, all came from the Right. All brought Labor well away from the comforts of economic protection by promoting a vision of Australia as free-trading, educated, innovative and open to the world.

This challenge will in some respects be harder for Shorten than it was for Labor leaders before him – he has won his position not on the power of his ideas, but on his ability to negotiate and the fact that he is well-regarded inside the party. To present a new economic vision, he will have to step outside his comfort zone and burn some of the allies who have brought him this far. In politics, we are defined by our fights. If Shorten is to win, he must be more than Marr’s “faction man.” Taking on the unions is a hard fight, but one that Shorten must have.


Rachel Nolan was the state member for Ipswich in the Queensland parliament from 2001 to 2012. She held the portfolios of Transport, Natural Resources, Finance and the Arts as part of Anna Bligh’s Labor government.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 59, Faction Man. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 60, Political Amnesia.


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