The end of the affair?: Unions, citizens and the future of the ALP

Frank Bongiorno, University of New England

The 2001 federal election had its peculiarities, but in one respect it was business as usual: the hunt for the votes of the potential ‘swingers’ was on again. In particular, ALP strategists realised that most electors were untroubled by the Government’s stand on asylum seekers—indeed, most supported the ‘Pacific Solution’. Labor correctly perceived that it would take the mother of all election hammerings if it looked soft on refugees. Hence, in one television ‘grab’ the Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party reminded Australian electors that the ALP had invented mandatory detention— a truly Calwellian piece of Labor statesmanship.

The logic of this approach to electoral politics is impeccable. Labor, like its opponents, tells the electors what the pollsters say the electors want to hear. At best, you’ll win an election; at worst, you’ll avoid the kind of 1996-style hiding that electors inflicted on the Keating Government. I think it was Jim Hacker who remarked, ‘I am their leader. I must follow them.’

Labor, as it happened, did avoid a hammering. The ALP received forty-nine per cent of the two-party preferred vote on 10 November. In terms of seats, its position is a little worse than before the last election, but considerably healthier than in 1996. It attracted good publicity during the election for its health and education policies. It is in government in every State and Territory except South Australia. Compare that with the situation in the late 1960s, when Labor was briefly out of government in the Commonwealth and all of the States. At that time, commentators speculated about whether the party had any future at all, and thought post-war affluence might have destroyed the foundations on which Labor had been built.

Hardly anyone says that kind of thing these days, for Labor’s future in Australian politics seems secure enough. By any measure, the ALP has been an electorally successful party in both the Commonwealth and the States since the late 1960s. Indeed, under Whitlam, Hawke, and Keating Labor reinforced its reputation as the ‘party of initiative’ after a period in which it had come to be seen as dull, old-fashioned and out of tune with the times. In many respects, it has set the agenda in Australian politics in the last thirty years, and its main opponent has often had to struggle for policy relevance.

Labour parties are rare beasts, little known outside Scandinavia and a handful of English-speaking countries.

Yet there is another sense in which the Labor Party’s situation is less satisfactory. Its share of the primary vote in the November election was the party’s lowest since 1931. In this respect, it performed only marginally better than the combined Federal (Scullin) and New South Wales (Lang) Labor Parties in the Depression era debacle of that year, and a little worse than Labor in 1977, 1990 (remarkably, an election victory for the ALP), and 1996. In 2001, Labor lost primary votes from both its ‘traditional’ working-class support base and among middle-class voters. Meanwhile, Labor ‘loyalists’ are grumbling about a lack of democracy in the party, about the quality of some of its candidates and about a hierarchy ‘out of touch’ with its grass roots. Some are struggling to reconcile their consciences with support for a party that gave its assent to the Tampa legislation, even in the modified form in which it was passed. This issue was admittedly a difficult one for Labor’s leadership, but the extent to which the party’s handling of it has undermined the ALP’s moral authority among some of its loyal supporters should not be under-estimated.

Those familiar with the history of the party will immediately recognise many of the criticisms that members and supporters have recently directed towards the ALP. They are standard fare in party, when it’s languishing in defeat no less than when it’s riding high on a wave of success. All that the party leadership needs to do, its critics say, is listen to its supporters and ‘get back to basics’.

If only it were so simple. The key challenge Labor faces is how to reconstruct an alliance between some very diverse constituencies. Again, contrary to what one might conclude from reading much post-election political commentary, this is not a new task for the Labor Party. Its success has always rested on an ability to build such alliances. The New South Wales Labor Party of the 1890s, for example, was essentially a radical country party that depended on an alliance between urban and rural workers and small farmers (Markey, 1988). The radical critic and scholar of the party, V.G. Childe, writing in the early 1920s, emphasised the great ‘heterogeneity of elements’ within a party that included unionists, socialists, democrats, nationalists, small farmers, prospectors and small mining proprietors, shopkeepers, the Roman Catholic Church, the liquor trade, and some middle-class electors. ‘The reconciliation of such divergent interests’, commented Childe, ‘has inevitably meant some tightrope walking for the politicians and has filled the Labour platform with inconsistencies’ (Childe, 1964 [1923]: 80).

Similar tensions are evident in the modern ALP, which tries to cater to what is left of the traditional working class after the ravages of recession, globalisation, and economic rationalism; urban professionals of great and little wealth; workers in the ‘new’ economy, some handsomely paid, others lowly in income and status; small businesses, struggling or thriving; varied and noisy regional interests; students with the smell of modern university decay in their nostrils; young home-buyers for whom low interest rates are a ‘A Good Thing’; self-funded retirees for whom low interest rates are ‘A Bad Thing’; battling pensioners; and many others (I’ve deliberately avoided that piece of pseudo-sociological-cum-psephological nonsense that has been the main linguistic legacy of the 2001 election, the ‘aspirational voter’).

Controversies over union influence on the ALP are nearly as old as the party itself.

One of the Labor’s traditional constituencies is the union movement. Labour parties are rare beasts: outside Scandinavia and a handful of English-speaking nations they are virtually unknown. Don Rawson, a political scientist, once pointed out that they have two common characteristics: they are initiated by the union movement, and the unions maintain a formal affiliation with them (Rawson, 1969). As such, unions occupy a privileged position in the party structure, and the party derives finance, workers, and important aspects of its identity from the unions. In the modern ALP, unaffiliated unions—many of them white-collar—are also part of the equation. Their affiliation with the ACTU gives them special access to the ALP, while many active members of these unions also belong to the ALP through local branches. Unaffiliated unions often provide the Labor Party with crucial support—financial and other—at election times (Manning, 2000: 245-7).

There has been a lively debate since the 2001 election on the role of unions in the party yet whatever the causes of Labor’s failure to displace the Howard Government, union domination of the party seems an unlikely explanation. Certainly, nothing was more predictable than that the election would be followed by a public debate about the ALP’s internal organisation. Corruption in the Queensland Branch of the Party, branch stacking in South Australia and the bad publicity resulting from the brawl in New South Wales over preselection in the seat of Robertson have inevitably combined to refocus attention on the internal party structure and rules (Evans, 2001). The debate about organisation would have re-ignited sooner or later even if Labor had won the election.

Defeat, however, concentrates the mind, and Labor is now looking closely at how it runs its affairs. But why has union influence been the focus of this debate? Carmen Lawrence raised the issue of union influence in the party before the dust had settled on the election, but only in the context of a broader argument for party reform. Nevertheless, the issue of union influence has been debated inside and outside the labour movement with great vigour ever since. One reason is that Australian Workers’ Union domination of the Queensland Branch of the party was at the heart of the rorting controversy there; another is that the unprecedented degree of formalisation involved in the Accord process during the 1980s and early 1990s left a void that has necessarily been filled by uncertainty about the future role of the unions in the ALP, especially in view of declining levels of unionisation (Manning, 2000). The fact that the new Leader of the Opposition is a former president of the ACTU has also possibly fanned the flames.

Not surprisingly, the ‘quality press’, with Blairite stars in its eyes, has been very enthusiastic in supporting a reduction of union influence, while Tony Abbott gleefully rubs his hands together as he assembles the centrepiece of the third Howard Government’s agenda—the further reduction of union power. Herein lies a part of the danger for the Labor Opposition: by focussing too much attention on the relationship between the Labor Party and the union movement it will allow the Howard Government to control the political agenda. For a government that has entered its third term with very little that passes for policy, this would be an undeserved tactical victory.

Democratic participation in decision-making was one of Labor’s great innovations in Australian parliamentary democracy.

The fundamental reason for the focus on union influence is historical and organisational: that is, it is inherent in the past and present character of labour parties. Whatever else they might be, labour parties are the political wing of the labour movement. The unions formed the party, and one way in which early party activists defined their mission was to transform society in the image of unionism. Unions therefore have a privileged position in the structure of labour parties and cannot easily be treated like any other interest group—not, that is, without a labour party ceasing to be a labour party in any meaningful sense.

Accordingly, controversies over union influence on the ALP are nearly as old as the party itself. In 1895 the Victorian Parliamentary Labor Party caused an outcry among unionists when, having resolved not to receive deputations, it promptly applied the policy to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council! Similarly, as early as 1891 the question of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council’s power and status in the newly formed NSW Labor Electoral League (LEL) was a controversial matter. At the first conference of the LEL held in early 1892, there were complaints that the number of Trades and Labour Council (TLC) delegates on the party executive was too large, and the gathering approved a reduction of TLC representation on this body to three delegates. Moreover, every delegate had to be a financial member of a party branch (Nairn, 1989: 87-9). Interestingly, this issue is still being debated over a century later.

Controversy over the ALP-union relationship, then, has been one of the most persistent features of the party’s history. Its resurgence in the weeks since the 2001 election nevertheless contains particular dangers for the party. After all, the ALP should be looking at its internal structure; it should be rethinking its policies; it should be attempting to reform its rules, practices, and structures in ways that give greater meaning to the ideal of participatory democracy. The ALP should be thinking about how it can become more open to involvement by environmentalists, Indigenous Australians, enthusiasts for Reconciliation, women’s groups, advocates of public schools, and others. Moreover, it needs to do so without laying itself open to the accusation that helped to sink the Keating Government—that it is a captive of ‘special interest groups’ or ‘élites’. This is no easy task. Nevertheless, Labor must tap into these forms of community activism if it is going to be much more than a professional vote-catching outfit. The defection of a significant chunk of ALP primary votes to the Greens in the recent Federal Election might not concern the pollsters (provided not too many preferences leak to the Coalition), but it ought to worry anyone interested in a socially relevant, democratic and reformist Labor Party. The ALP cannot be allowed to degenerate into a plaything for grey-suited and shoulder-padded hacks.

The future of the major party conferences is an excellent example of the problems and opportunities faced by the ALP at the moment. Much of the discussion of the union-ALP relationship has focussed on the idea that the ‘60-40 Rule’ gives affiliated unions undue representation at some party conferences (60 per cent for the unions, as against 40 for the branches). The ‘60-40 Rule’, like any other aspect of the party’s organisation, should be subject to debate, and the attempts of some union leaders to shut down discussion of this matter is unlikely to do their cause—or that of the party—any favours. After all, ALP-affiliated unions now represent less than twenty-five per cent of the Australian workforce (Manning, 2000: 244).

Yet surely a more critical issue is how to breathe some life back into party conferences. How can the major State and National Conferences be transformed into occasions for real debate about ideas and policies, rather than arenas in which backroom deals by factional heavyweights are rubber-stamped while bored and cynical journalists look on? Andrew Scott, an internal party critic and historian, has commented that ‘ALP national conferences [are] less directly representative of rank-and-file opinion than their British counterparts’ (Scott, 2000, 240-1). Factions have certainly been a useful way of managing conflict within the party over the last couple of decades, but there arguably needs to be a better balance between the imperatives of factionalism and democratic involvement.

After all, democratic participation in decision-making by the common people was one of the great innovations that Labor brought to Australian parliamentary democracy. In theory, members of the party were not only to have an opportunity to participate in preselection and vote for Labor at election time, but would also help to frame party policy between elections. The labour movement developed machinery that aimed to keep Labor parliamentarians securely under the control of an extra-parliamentary organisation representative of the labour movement. Parliamentarians were to be delegates rather than representatives; their role was to act in accordance with the instructions given them by their masters, the party rank-and-file and the union movement.

More than a century later, it is difficult to appreciate the novelty of Labor’s theory of democracy. It would be far-fetched, I think, to see current Labor practice as a mirror of it, and hardly less so to suggest that it can or should be established in a pure form, in 2002 any more than in 1892. Yet without democracy, the life of the party will gradually be extinguished. The calculations of the pollsters, the research of professional policy-advisers, the careful planning of party strategists, the manoeuvring and compromises of faction leaders, the image-making of media advisers and advertising executives—all are integral to the life of the modern Labor Party, whether you like it or not. But without ‘movement’, without a sense of common purpose, without a feeling among ordinary party members that they ‘own’ the party and can believe in its vision, Labor will become what Childe feared it had already become by the early 1920s: a ‘soulless mechanism … a vast machine for capturing political power … for the profit of individuals … just a gigantic apparatus for the glorification of a few bosses’ (Childe, 1964 [1923]: 181).


Childe, Vere Gordon 1964 [1923] How Labour Governs: A study of workers’ representation in Australia, F.B. Smith (ed.), Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Evans, Brett (2001) The Life and Soul of the Party: A Portrait of Modern Labor, UNSW Press, Kensington.

Markey, Raymond (1988) The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales, New South Wales University Press, Kensington.

Nairn, Bede (1989) Civilising Capitalism: The Beginnings of the Australian Labor Party, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Rawson, D.W. (1969) ‘The Life-Span of Labour Parties’, Political Studies, Vol.XVII, No.3, 313-33.

Scott, Andrew (2000) Running on Empty: ‘Modernising’ the British and Australian labour parties, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Manning, Haydon (2000), ‘The ALP and the union movement beyond 2000’, in John Warhurst and Andrew Parkin (eds), The Machine: Labor confronts the future, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards.

Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the University of New England and belongs to the Armidale Branch of the ALP.