Parliamentarians represent


Don't Let the Unions Control Australia The Coalition's attack on trade union officials as thugs and stand-over merchants is misrepresentation and exaggeration. The use of the derogatory term 'union bosses' betrays the mind-set behind the government attack. I'm not surprised that it is so offensive to many in the trade union movement. But the real and immediate target is the Labor Party; the unions themselves are only secondary and longer-term targets.

How might the government's attack on Labor and the trade unions be rebutted? There are many different options. Those who want a full-blown stoush say Labor should in turn just attack the links between the Coalition and the top end of town. Wiser heads have prevailed and Labor has chosen instead to emphasise the positive contribution of unions to the community.

Kevin Rudd points out that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were themselves union officials and that Hawke was a union leader of such prominence that he became president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

The government's attack on Labor-union links (alleging that 70 per cent of the Labor front bench are former union officials) has several elements that must be disentangled for its potential electoral impact to be judged. Some have no sting at all, but others might be persuasive and ought to be taken seriously.

The government first tries to scare the electorate with allegations of union power and control. Professor Ian McAllister, reporting on his election surveys in Trends in Australian Public Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987–2004, demonstrates that this won't wash anymore. The electorate, by 2004, actually feared the excessive power of big business (71 per cent) much more than the excessive power of trade unions (41per cent); though 41per cent is still no small matter.

John Howard also claims explicitly that the union connection is 'out of whack', that is unrepresentative, because only 15 per cent of the private sector workforce is unionised. This claim is harder for Labor to rebut, other than by the truth that Labor is after all a trade union party so what else would you expect.

Labor has also tried, with some success, to deflect the attack by pointing out the large number of lawyers and party officials in the Coalition's own ranks. While this shows the shallow pool from which all parties draw their representatives, it is only a partial rebuttal.

Thirdly, the government implies that the union link makes Labor old-fashioned because it reflects a time years ago when more than 50 per cent of the workforce was unionised. This implication might cut across Labor's claim to a fresh, new approach. Labor's slogan 'New Leadership' may be vulnerable if those new leaders are frequently drawn from the same talent pool.

The impact of the government's attacks on Labor-union links will be clearer once the election results are known. But they have put Labor on the defensive. The party's responses have not been fully convincing on this issue, partly because there is some discomfit within the party itself about such links and about the behaviour of a few union officials.

The former leader Simon Crean believed that Labor's structure had failed to move with the times. He successfully sought during his time as leader to reduce the union quota in Labor representative bodies, like conferences, from 60per cent to 50per cent.

An election campaign is no place for sensible discussion. But whether or not Labor wins, the party ought not to allow the issue to fade away, because it is central to its long-term health. Whatever happens on 24 November, the prominent place of former union officials within Labor is not endangered. The entry of union leaders like Greg Combet and Bill Shorten into Labor's parliamentary ranks means that the next generation of Labor leaders will have a serious union component.

Given that fact, Labor should redouble its efforts to broaden the characteristics of its parliamentary representatives, not as a matter of capacity to govern well but as a matter of being more representative of the wider community.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.



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Existing comments

Once again a well reasoned and succinct article from John Warhurst. But the question is, will the ALP look at his arguments and act accordingly?
Nick Agocs | 15 November 2007

John Warhust like most commentators misses the point regarding unions and politicians. Unions are the only group providing "real" training for a future political class. Assuming this beholds the apprentice to the union is also wrong. The liberal party attacks this system because they are jealous of it. Joining a political party branch to learn about politics is like joining Hell's angels to learn about bikes. The Labor party should crow about having the only training course available. John Howard's sad team is ample proof of a lack of education!
Bill Donovan | 16 November 2007

Has anybody considered the career arc of someone with a bit of a social conscience who starts out seeking to ensure the people in his workplace get a fair go, moving into positions in the union, then progressively into representing a broader group of people?
A party made up of unionists, so that is a party made up of people experienced in negotiating a compromise between differing needs to gain of all - sounds good to me.
Jonah Bones | 16 November 2007


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