Whither Labor?

I write this essay with a sense of some sadness. In it I will relate how the Australian Labor Party has lost its way. You see, even though as you have detected from reading my essays, I have some conservative views, I come from a family that have largely been Labor supporters. My father was a staunch unionist and served a few terms as a Labor alderman in the local council. When I was a boy, if ever I wanted something to read there were always copies of The Worker and Hansard lying around the house (as well as of course the magazine Walkabout, the collected verses of C. J. Dennis and many of the popular works of Ion Idress.) My sister-in-law served a term as a Labor member in the State Parliament. One of my brothers also ran for Labor on one occasion.

Our local Labor member would often drop by to see dad and talk politics. Indeed I was named after one of his loyal staff members that my mother and father admired. Prior to a number of Queensland elections I was despatched on my bicycle to drop Labor propaganda in local letterboxes.

From my perspective as a child I could see the things that attracted dad to Labor and the union movement. There was a solid feeling of camaraderie. It was not uncommon for a worker to die (life spans were a bit shorter back then) and a widow had to be cared for – which they duly did with concern and generosity. And on Labour Day it was games and ice-cream in the park after the compulsory march with banners and slogans.

It was one of the happiest days of my father’s life when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister. How good was that? The President of the ACTU was elected to be Prime Minister! All was right with the world. Mind you he wasn’t so chuffed to see Paul Keating succeed Hawke. Other things also disturbed him. He believed in public ownership of major infrastructure and key assets. He was always miffed that Labor had failed to nationalise the banks. And he was very opposed to the notion of superannuation. Workers who had paid their taxes until retirement were owed a pension. Encouraging workers to put money into superannuation was just a sneaky way to avoid giving them their dues in a well-earned retirement. The notion of class was strong in his mind and those of his peers. The discussions often revolved around “workers” and “bosses”. As my career progressed and I rose to more senior positions he was probably surprised that I hadn’t grown horns!

But the world has changed since my father’s day.

In the seventies and eighties the ALP was transformed. Gough Whitlam reformed the party and broke a long drought for Labor in government. His prime ministership, full of promise ended abruptly in disaster. But then under the leadership of Hawke and Keating the party moved away from its traditional policy fundamentals to embrace trade liberalisation and the removal of protection, sell off state owned assets, float the Australian dollar, and pursue workplace reforms to enhance the productivity of Australian industry. Having lived through it and having played a role in the micro-economic reform agenda unleashed by these visionary leaders, it was an exciting time and industry was re-energised by these initiatives that saw a cooperative compact between organised labour and industry that benefitted all. It was a time when Australia prospered and the Labor Party led us to a better economic future.

But other demographics were also changing.

When Bob Hawke and Bill Kelty, then Secretary of the ACTU, formed the Accord which gave the micro-economic reforms such a strong dynamic, Bill Kelty, with some legitimacy could claim to represent the workforce of Australia. Union members at the time comprised 50% of the Australian workforce. Today union members comprise only some 17% of the workforce. The union movement’s legitimacy as a representative body has been vastly diminished. And yet of course the union movement continues to dominate the Labor party commanding 50% of the delegates at national conferences and providing a vast majority of new politicians in the Party. With the Labor Party now dominated by Labor lawyers and union officials there is no chance that they could now ever spawn a politician like Ben Chifley, a train driver, to aspire to be prime minister. My father would have decried this state of affairs.


Union membership has dwindled because of the changing nature of industry. When the union movement had a majority membership in the workforce it was largely because they represented trades people, unskilled workers and the public service. In today’s world many tradespeople are not employees but work for themselves and are therefore not union members. The demise of the manufacturing industry in Australia reduced the ranks of potential union members. Technology has diminished opportunities for unskilled labour. It is only the public service that has endured as a constant source of union members and Labor Governments unfailingly rush to swell its numbers whenever they assume government.

Whilst always tied closely to the union movement, the Labor party of the seventies and eighties, standing alongside a union movement with far more members was, however, less dominated by the unions than they are today. In recent decades it would seem that more people rushed to become union officials to further their political careers than to serve the workers. This state of affairs has been decried by many of the elder statesmen of the party, like John Faulkner, Simon Crean and martin Ferguson.

The Labor party has also moved its policies in recent times more to the left. This seems in some part at least to be due to the Greens, which have slowly eroded Labor’s votes. In responding to this threat they have tried to emulate the Greens’ stances on environmentalism and progressive social policy. Whilst appeasing the inner city intellectual elites they have alienated much of their traditional worker base. I suspect, for example, for the average working person same sex marriage is hardly a dominant issue. And often their policies so fashioned come at the expense of the workforce as for example their current attack on the coal industry.

John Howard’s success as a politician was partly due to his ability to engage the traditional worker base which consequently switched allegiance from the Labor Party. Unfortunately Tony Abbott shows little likelihood that he could emulate his mentor’s success in that regard!

If the union movement was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the average worker and dedicated to promoting the national benefit (as it was under the Accord) I could tolerate its domination of Labor. Unfortunately there are few signs that this is indeed the case.

Bill Kelty, who had a qualification in economics, in negotiating with the Hawke Government, at least understood that Australia had to pursue better productivity outcomes. And this meant that some of the so-called “conditions” of union members might have to be put aside in order to promote productivity increases that would eventually mean better pay, more work and job security for union members. I can’t see Dave Oliver having either the understanding or the courage to promote such a message.

Most union officials are against improvements in labour productivity. Their short-sighted viewpoint promotes the notion that improved labour productivity diminishes the size of the workforce which in the short term means fewer union members. However history will attest that in the medium term labour productivity spurs economic growth, employment growth, wage increases and job security. Accordingly unions often work against the national benefit to stave off short term threats to members’ jobs.

To emphasise this point we only have to look at the current union campaign against the Chinese Free Trade Agreement. This agreement has the potential to stimulate a good deal of economic activity which will undoubtedly create jobs. But the union movement is putting the agreement at risk by taking an irrational stance about the hiring of foreign workers. Whilst Australia has successfully negotiated a number of such agreements in recent times, the union protests have only resulted from the agreement with China, raising concerns of xenophobia. Again we see the Labor party in the thrall of the union movement. The opposition initially supported the agreement but has now fallen into line behind the union movement. Even Labor luminaries like Bob Hawke and Bob Carr have come out in support of the China agreement.

Largely as a result of the reactionary influence of the union movement the Labor Party has been transformed from the reforming, progressive economic force it was under Hawke and Keating to a willing tool of the union movement whose ambition seems to be to take Australia back to the sixties.

The recent revelations of the Royal Commission into Trade Unions have provided worrying evidence to suggest that, in going about their day to day business, on many occasions the welfare of union members has been abandoned in favour of promoting the welfare of union officials.

On top of this, the unions have been playing a more interventionist role in election campaigns. It was largely due to the unions’ campaign against Work Choices that the Howard Government was ousted. Similarly, in the last twelve months, we have seen effective union campaigns overturn conservative governments in Victoria and Queensland. Every such victory makes Labor even more beholden to the union movement. Immediately in being returned Labor stacks government boards with union officials and facilitates unions entering public sector workplaces to badger employees to join a union.

Under such conditions it is hard to imagine Labor being brave enough to stamp out the union criminality and thuggery being uncovered by the Royal Commission. It is far easier for it to try and discredit the Royal Commission. Unfortunately even if they succeed in discrediting Dyson Heydon, the Royal Commission has unearthed a lot of uncomfortable evidence that neither Labor nor the unions will be able to dismiss, whatever the Royal Commissioner’s fate.

The way things are going it would seem that the Labor party has a number of prime functions:

  • Ensures Government makes laws to preserve the power and promote the interests of the union movement, often to the detriment of the nation;
  • Provides political career opportunities for union officials; and
  • Manufactures such interference and obfuscation that the union movement might require to ensure the coercive and criminal activities of some unions and their officials are not subject to the public scrutiny and prosecution that citizens pursuing any other form of activity must endure.

Despite his rusted on support for Labor and the Unions, I don’t believe my father would be particularly enthralled by the direction of modern Labor.

2 Replies to “Whither Labor?”

  1. Hi Ted,
    We mere minions are stuck between the desires of big business and big unions. As usual I generally agree with you. The two-party system has served us pretty well, and I was generally a strong Labor supporter for many years. John Howard won me over with his understanding of the changing aspirations of the skilled tradesman (which you covered), good economic management and with the gun buyback – that took some courage. Rudd for me was an unmitigated disaster in many ways, and so the rot continues. Tony Abbott cannot seem to communicate the message, but time will tell.

  2. Good blog again Ted. My upbringing was surprisingly similar to yours but in the bosom of the Tories – I vividly remember stuffing Liberal propaganda into envelopes at my aunties home…. different politics certainly but care for the individual and a focus on hard work and self reliance. For my part I now despair for the modern Liberal Party and what I see as a lurch to the right. There must be a lot of us in the middle wondering what went wrong!

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