The Australian Labor Party, as the second of the two major political parties in Australia, is in nearly as bad a position internally as is the rival Liberal Party. It is just as riven by factional battles sometimes fought to bitter winner-take-all conclusions, yet often the factions come to “arrangements” which usually involve power sharing. Input from members in many aspects of its operation is minimal. In NSW some of the faction leaders or their lieutenants have gone to gaol for corruption and the effort to counter such a threat illustrates the fights Tony Abbott started in the Liberal party to stop such potential conflicts. These were concentrated on faction leaders having business interests and when their decisions helped determine the selection of the parliamentary MPs who would make decisions relating to those business interests.
Above all the ALP has, for years now, been a party under virtual control by trade unions. While nominal control is not new in itself, its historical formation from the bitter industrial battles in the 1890s has grown much tighter from the late 20th century. Now, thanks to their dominating internal voting and financial power, the union control of the party is almost unbreakable.
The union control of the ALP was relatively benign at one time and the parliamentarians retained a balance between their loyalty to unions and the integrity of governing. In the 1940’s ALP clashes with militant communists led a Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley to send troops into coal mines to break a strike, but in more recent years, such actions have continued. Bob Hawke who was PM from 1983 until 1991 broke the airline Pilots union over a strike in 1989 but also De-registered the militant Builders Labourers Federation a construction union. In NSW a Labor Premier, Barry Unsworth (who had also been head of the state union body, the Labour Council of NSW) broke the power of the militant train drivers union.
Union control of ALP membership preselections for parliament in Australia had grown rapidly. Rodney Cavalier, a former ALP NSW education minister stated in 2005 “even though its formal representation at Conference is 50 per cent, union control of the administration and the preselection oversight bodies is 100 per cent.
Parliamentary ALP governments, state and federal, now typify that administrative control Cavalier spoke of, except that it has often extended to actual parliamentary control too. Very tight union control of the party through the union-dominated factions always will get more and more detailed attention as it chokes the remnants of the Old Party. However, there can be no greater comparison with the ALP of the past than to show the leftward move to combat the Greens party which, while comprising its original green environmental element, that section is competing openly now with its militant hard left which includes former communists and which is seemingly concentrated in its NSW Branch.
From the time of the 2010 federal election, the Greens have been in serious competition for the same demographic and, have been competing fiercely for the old “Labor Heartland” seats. They now virtually own the federal seat of Melbourne and are competing very well in similar inner-city seats in a number of States. The Greens are even competing solidly in some Liberal seats which hold a presence of high-income residents who will vote on green issues rather than their old financially-based votes to the Liberal Party. The ALP has increasingly concentrated attention on challenging Greens which it seems to see as major opposition. Thus we see the inner city of wealthy middle class and many of the self-proclaimed elites has been their (Green) focus and then have given less attention to their traditional working class areas except, perhaps, with the now-common ALP policy of “free stuff” (becoming a world trend in the west, it seems). Whether these potential Greens voters also encompass the voters it favours now as “base” ALP, it could go a way to explain how their traditional working class base has become semi-divorced from the ALP from time to time.
It was because Tony Abbott had hived off a large number of seats from the Gillard Labor government at the 2010 election, that the ALP decided to sign a formal agreement with the Greens to help ensure power with a majority of one over Abbott and his Nationals allies. It showed the inherent weakness of the ALP of that time and perhaps the weakness of its leaders, or maybe even the “green’ nature of the new section of the voter base.
Once in government with the written agreement, the Greens leader Bob Brown virtually took over to set the political agenda. The carbon tax which was supposedly “never” going to happen under Gillard (after her predecessor was overthrown because of it and the attacks on it by Abbott) was forced on, thus re-creating the greatest weapon the then opposition leader Abbott had (and which probably was enough to take him to government in 2013). More than that, Brown of the Greens even took over the parliamentary agenda, with same sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia as high priority issues for the new parliament and which had never been on anyone’s priority radar apart from the Greens. It set the pattern and, as this is but an introduction to lead you to the ALP of today, the Green tinge to the ALP policies has never faded. In fact, with a massive target of 50% renewable energy by 2050 and Labor states talking about the same by 2030, one gets an idea of the power of the green left in Labor. An ALP elders group once recommended going further to attract “progressives”. It happened anyway.
By not focusing on the old working class base and the new tradesmen/women, the party seemed to abandon a solid-core part of their old base, a part which is in play and has been for some years. The “New Labor” left voters/members have long been antagonistic towards parts of this base. They were the racists, the “dog whistlers”, the not-rusted on “Howards Battlers” and “Tony’s Tradies” who voted Liberals into traditional Labor Party seats. Only Tony Abbott seemed to make the attempt to win it over to the Liberals semi-permanently and while he did win a number of the old fashioned ALP seats in these outer suburbs, his party (and perhaps he himself) could make the leap with some policies, but could not jettison/fine tune enough of the policies which didn’t cater for that group. Most of these seats were immediately surrendered when the progressive New Liberals under Turnbull took over. Now no major party seems to be attempting to cater to it directly, perhaps only by generalised handouts. In fact many of the ALP elites of today treat that old trade/working class with modern Green-Left-Progressive contempt.
With unions now being dominant in the ALP for leadership and preselection contests, one can see how persons and organisations external to the ALP that might have no direct connection to the individual MP, can direct how ALP representatives must vote. The evidence of this is startling and deeply concerning, especially when parts of governing appear to be delegated to union whim, a union power which was never voted on by the public. That is mainly the state of play in the State Labor governments and a new post must be the vehicle for such exposure.
Under the former Rudd/ Gillard/ Rudd ALP federal government from 2007 to 2013 did many favours for unions but it must at once re recognised that with an unholy alliance between employers and unions, it hardly created “market forces”. In fact many of the cartel-like practices allied to union-employer agreements needed no input from government at all.
That said, the direct and damaging moves to favour unions were serious and had serious repercussions for the taxpayer. Industrial chaos in the construction industry had (and has) cost Australian taxpayers many billions in excess costs on nearly every large infrastructure project, costing far more than in Europe and the ALP government destroyed the “construction watchdog” the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC). This was the body challenging alleged union sabotage of jobs, illegal strikes etc and in a number of instances attempting to force certain companies out of the industry by secondary boycotts, One company against which a union attempted to force a secondary boycott it allegedly pressured other companies to not accept its concrete supplies. That company has sued a number of times and in one case received a $9 million settlement. The new industrial relations system brought in by PM Gillard was terribly weak and loaded with appointments from ALP-only people.
More damaging actions by the ALP to favour unions are for another post.as is the crude delegation of state power to unions in Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory where ALP governments have shown little fight against union demands.
Further posts are necessary to highlight the highly damaged workings of both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party. In addition, the new parties and the Australian media, especially the Canberra Press Gallery which is supposed to cover federal politics professionally must be held to account. Their actions over years will be put to the test and placed on the record here.