Unions' weakness opens door for Abbott

Submitted by martin on 11 August, 2010 - 12:54 Author: Martin Thomas

Australia's federal election on 21 August shows a strange picture. The Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, is a Catholic, a monarchist, anti-abortion, anti-gay, an old-fashioned male chauvinist, disdainful of the rights of indigenous Australians, someone who believes that climate change "is crap" and therefore it's fine to be reckless about trashing the environment.

He makes an outcry about "reducing government debt" (code-word for cutting social provision) when Australia, almost alone of the world's richer countries, has absolutely no government debt "problem".

He was one of the architects of the anti-union legislation of the Howard administration (1996-2007), and has spoken of reintroducing a modified version of Howard's "WorkChoices".

He campaigns on a strident anti-refugee platform: "My message to voters from now until polling day will be that if you want to stop the boats you have to change the government".

None of his right-wing stances are particularly popular, except possibly the anti-refugee one.

Yet Abbott has finessed the problem by adopting a "small target" tactic (on the model of Labor's tactic after its eviction from government in 1996, after a long period of office), and, unlike Labor then, he has done it with success.

He has shelved almost all his sharp right-wing policies, saying either that he has changed his mind or that the issue is not immediate. The differences between his announced plans and current government policies have become mere shadings. He has campaigned mostly on "exposures" of real and alleged bits of mismanagement by the Labor government in its "economic stimulus" programme at the peak of the global financial crisis (subsidies for house insulation, school rebuilding).

Since 17 July, when the Labor government announced an election for 21 August, Abbott has gained in the polls. He could possibly win. If Labor wins, it will be with a smaller majority.

A longer back-story throws an even harsher light on the weaknesses in the labour movement which have allowed Abbott's success.

In November 2007 the Liberal-National coalition, long in office, which had done great damage to the Australian working class, was finally voted out.

What brought it down, more than anything else, was its drastic industrial legislation, WorkChoices and the BCII (Building and Construction Industry Improvement) Act.

WorkChoices aimed gradually to shift the entire Australian workforce from regulation by collectively-negotiated and legally-enforceable awards to individual contracts. It was more drastic, in long-term implications, than anything Margaret Thatcher pushed through in Britain.

The BCII Act set up a special industrial police, the ABCC, for the construction industry, and made trade unionists liable to to fines or jail for such things as insisting on a right to silence when summoned to be questioned by the ABCC about their union comrades' activities.

Australia's unions launched a big and well-organised campaign against the laws, and formulated a good, radical set of demands which they said they'd fight to get a Labor government to implement.

Labor came to office in November 2007 committed to repeal WorkChoice and the BCII Act; to take action on carbon emissions (the coalition government had stood almost alone with the USA among richer countries in refusing even to sign the Kyoto agreement); to run at least a slightly more humane asylum and immigration policy; and to make an official apology to the "stolen generations" of indigenous Australians.

It had a big majority in the House of Representatives, and an apparently manageable position in the Senate.

The new Labor government immediately faced a global financial crisis. But Australia was able to come through the crisis as the only one of the world's richer countries not to have an outright recession, and not to run up a big government debt. That was due more to the vast pump-priming investment spending of the Chinese government, which pulled in copious Australian exports, than to anything the Australian government did. Nevertheless, it happened, and on the Labor government's watch.

After the global crisis had abated (at least for the time being), the Labor government moved to recoup the costs of its economic stimulus spending by taxing the mining companies which had made huge profits from a pumped-up Chinese market.

The mining companies and the media launched a huge campaign against the Labor government, accusing it of threatening jobs.

The shocking thing is that the labour movement has been incapable of countering that campaign.

On the back of that campaign, Labor ousted Kevin Rudd on 24 June and put in Julia Gillard as leader.

The operation was largely run by unions, especially the AWU. The official left in the union movement applauded it. Dave Noonan of the CFMEU, for example, has written: "Under Kevin Rudd, Labor often looked like a pale shadow of itself. Many people had stopped listening to Rudd. Julia Gillard has an opportunity to win back the true believers..."

Gillard was backed by the unions and came from an ALP left background. That she is an atheist and a woman who has never bothered to get married must help her with many Labor-minded people, as compared to the sanctimonious Christian Kevin Rudd.

In fact, the Labor leadership change was a shift to the right, not the left. Gillard followed up by making concessions to the mining companies to get a deal (which has not stopped them campaigning against Labor in the federal election). She signalled a more restrictive policy on immigration. Rudd had welcomed large-scale immigration, saying that he "believed in a big Australia". Gillard declared on 27 June: "I don't believe in a big Australia. Kevin Rudd indicated that he had a view about a big Australia. I'm indicating a different approach".

The leadership switch was followed by Labor rising in the opinion polls, but, as people have seen what Gillard really is, that rise has quickly disappeared.

Some Labor people - it's hard to say how many - have been alienated by the cynicism of the leadership spill.

The fundamental weakness giving Abbott his chance, however, is the lack of political ambition of the unions (including the "left" unions) and the ALP's official "left" wing.

Industrial action has been at a low level. Striker-days are down to about 30,000 a quarter, compared to about 100,000 in 2004, and about 200,000 at the turn of the century.

Labor has repealed the Liberals' attacks only in a very limited way, but the unions have toned down their demands enormously since Labor took office in November 2007. The unions have about 50% of the vote in every state conference of the ALP, and thus about a 50% say in the federal conference, but even the left unions have done nothing to use that vote to push the demands the unions developed in 2006-7.

Now the union leaders drown almost all other considerations under cries about preventing a return to office of the Liberals.

In New South Wales a strong union campaign against electricity privatisation forced right-wing Labor premier Morris Iemma to resign in favour of a Labor 'leftist', Nathan Rees, in September 2008. Rees then introduced a revised version of privatisation, and the unions subsided. In December 2009 Rees was ousted by another Labor right-winger, Kristina Keneally, and she looks like to be ousted by the Liberals soon. In the latest state opinion polls, Labor in NSW is running at 25% against 46% for the coalition.

In Queensland, too, most of the unions, and the official Labor left, have gone along with privatisations pushed through by the nominally Labor-left state premier, Anna Bligh. Labor has lost electoral ground in Queensland, too.

Although the economic bad news in Australia since 2007 has been less than in other countries, many voters are apparently more impressed by the badness of the news than by the not-very-comforting thought that it is not as bad as Greece or Latvia or even the USA.

Labor has acted as a manager of capitalism, and a conventional manager at that. In January 2009 Kevin Rudd declared that: "Neo-liberalism and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy".

But the supposedly "left" Julia Gillard has not said even that. Labor governments, federal under both Gillard and Rudd and in the states, have continued thoroughly conventional neo-liberal policies.

And there has been scarcely any voice from the unions demanding anything more. In that situation, disillusion leading to an electoral shift to the right can grow quickly. The Liberal-National coalition has a natural opinion-poll lead as the best manager of "the economy" (i.e. of capitalism). It had that back in November 2007. It has it again - 47% to 35% - and in the absence of any clear offer from Labor on other issues, that lead is weighty.

Every union - including the "left" ones like the CFMEU and the MUA, and also including many which are not Labor-affiliated - is backing Labor without making any demands on Labor. Most unions make some comment that Labor has been not as good as they wished, but then bury the thought under the warning that the only choices are Gillard or Abbott, and Gillard is the lesser evil.

The only prominent trade unionist taking a different line is Dean Mighell of the ETU in Victoria, who supports the Greens and has launched a legal battle against donations by his federal union to the ALP.

On 11 February Mighell published a call - in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, not in a labour-movement publication - for unions to disaffiliate from the ALP. But that was the opposite of a call for independent working-class politics.

Mighell cited the USA as a better set-up than Australia. "In the United States, unions largely support the Democrats and their campaigning and finance are critical, though they have no affiliation mechanism. They effectively lobby Republican politicians on many issues and some unions actively support Republican candidates if they believe it is in their members' interests".

In Australia, Mighell claimed that disaffiliation will bring the advantage of a more pro-worker policy from the Liberals and the Nationals.

"By remaining affiliated with the ALP, unions are automatically the enemy of the Liberals and National Party and I seriously question if their stance on trade unions would be as severe if unions were not an intrinsic part of their political rival".

Workers should not back Mighell's line. To vote with the unions - for Labor - still makes sense, if coupled with socialists and activists demanding that the unions start using their power within the Labor structures to push working-class policies.


Submitted by martin on Sat, 14/08/2010 - 06:25

1. Another view on the left is that the Greens are a progressive alternative to Labor. For example the NSW Teachers Federation advises its members that Green education policies are better than Labor's.

Even though as socialists and advocates for working class interests, we do not expect the Greens to speak for or represent us - I think we need to try to think ahead to what might be learned by the Left, failed or achieved in terms of reform, if there were a Green balance of power in either the Senate or the House of Reps.

Even the Greens with many more 'progressive' policies overall than Labor, are explicitly in favour of capitalism and have no accountability to the labour movement. Greens leader Bob Brown actually sees unions, or some specific unions, as part of the problem, on the basis of conflict in Tasmania between environmentalists and unions over forestry policy. If the Greens are in a position to be tested by virtue of holding the balance of power, they will not be looking to the labour movement for support to help them stand against pressures from capital and the government, to hold out for working class interests.

Yet no doubt there would be a considerable amount of negotiation and intrigue between the Greens, the government and possibly the opposition if the Greens were to hold the balance of power. Might any unions demand that the Greens hold firm against a Labor (or Liberal) government, on any important policies that we supported? Might the Greens hold out for policies we support, regardless of a union position? How would we relate to those developments if they occurred? How do we forsee them now, at election time? I'm not sure.

2. The article states no position on the Socialist Alliance, or any other small left parties running as socialists. The only reason I can see for voting for them is that it 'sends a message' to no one in particular that there are 'socialists' out here... but that means that there is no need to distinguish too finely between their platforms. Voting for any of them would do. And I'm not sure that 'sending a message' is of any value. But is it just sour grapes not to advocate a vote for the SA?

3. One critical point that could perhaps be elaborated more somewhere. That is the mistaken reasoning behind the disaffiliation view. It is probably behind a lot of the spruiked 'disillusionment' in the electorate generally.

The failure of unions to mobilise members and to tackle Labor much more forcefully on vital issues such as the ABCC is much more the reason for Labor policy failures, than union affiliation to the ALP, and a 'monopoly' on workers votes. In fact disaffiliation Mighell style is a smoke screen for the earlier failure, whereas campaigning and action where it really counted, by trade union members, would point logically to unions making use of ALP affiliation to call parliamentary Labor to account in support of union action.

Mighell in particular is implying that political parties are like producers of commodities (policies), a vote is like a purchase, and competition between parties for the purchase will make them fashion their policies (products) to a market (voters). So rather than unions giving Labor a monopoly on workers' votes, and therefore not needing to shape their policies for the Labor market (pun intended) of voters - unions should spread their choice of producers of policies.

We are arguing that political parties represent class interests, and philosophies. A collection of policies forms a whole and even if a party adjusts some of its 'products' , its program as a whole is not necessarily better for trade unionists in particular, or the working class more broadly, even in the short term.

But against the market metaphor I think we could also advocate for an understanding of democracy. The working class is better served by participating in politics as citizens than as consumers - with a working class party operating on the basis of informed discussion, policy votes and election of representatives who are accountable and recallable by the citizenry.

What Mighell is in effect denying is that the working class has distinct interests, that are against the interests of capital, and the working class needs at least an independent voice in politics, if not an aspiration to forge its own government.

Submitted by martin on Sat, 14/08/2010 - 06:34

1. The NSWTF is indeed strongly pro-Green. I was surprised that the Queensland Teachers' Union came out so strongly for Labor - while commenting, as it does and truly, that the Greens' policies are better than Labor on many points.

2. I'm not sure there is much point "demanding" the Greens do this or that. We are addressing people in the unions and the ALP, so it makes some sense to talk about what they should "demand" from the ALP leadership. But we don't have a constituency, even a small one, in the Greens. We might have, but we don't. I suppose it might make sense to talk about what we would want left-wing members of the Greens to demand in the case that the Greens hold the balance in the Senate. We might select two or three left-wing points of Green policy which we'd want to suggest to those left-wing Greens they might push.

3. I didn't comment on the SA candidates because there are so few of them, and because I presume they will run on the traditional DSP basis, which is pretty explicitly to use the election to gain publicity and contacts without making much effort to address the wider electorate - i.e. their election campaigns are aimed at the SA/DSP periphery rather than a larger audience. That may or may not be a reasonable tactical choice for them, but I don't see that it is "sour grapes" if we don't push people to vote for them, much more than it is "sour grapes" if we don't push people to go to SA/DSP public meetings.

I'll vote no.1 for Sam Watson for the Senate in Queensland, partly because it is Sam, not just the SA in general. I might in principle take part in a campaign for him and try to "intervene" through it, but in practice that is not feasible.

4. I agree on Mighell.

Martin Thomas

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