Bob Gould, 2008

No friends but the voters and trade unions
Robert Manne’s collection of essays, Dear Mr Rudd

Source: Ozleft, March 13, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The Kurdish people, the largest nationality in the world with contiguous boundaries that wants a state but has never had one, have a saying: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” That saying can be adapted in Australia to the situation of the economically poor and excluded, trade unionists, indigenous people, migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds, refugees and the more exploited sections of small business. Those Australians, who are a majority, have, in practice, no friends but the voters and the trade unions.

This dilemma is highlighted by the contradictory nature of Robert Mannes’ book, Dear Mr Rudd, which is presented as a kind of leftist platform to be considered by the new Labor government. It must be said there are some things in the book that are useful, such as the the article on indigenous reconciliation by Pat Dodson and the overview of the health system by Bill Bowtell (although his conclusion that market solutions can solve the health crisis is essentially reactionary).

The striking thing, however, is that on major economic questions the book accepts the parameters set by the conservative leaders, right and left, of the new government. The economic propositions throughout the book share the assumption that the wages and living standards of most Australians must fall. This underlying outlook is a poisonous view to present to a new Labor government as some form of leftism.

There’s nothing at all in the collection of essays about the inadequacy of the Labor government’ss approach to trade union and industrial relations. This is all accepted as given and nowhere is there a challenge to the clear implication built into the Rudd government’s attitude to these matters that substantial wage increases would be a bad thing. In that sense the book is a bit like the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn’t bark in the night. It ignores the fairly vigorous advocacy by a number of important unions of the need for the government to extend industrial rights to negotiate.

The government’s chimerical emphasis on economic stability in a world capitalist system that is becoming more unstable by the second (because of the inherent contradictions of the system) is nowhere challenged by any kind of even moderately social democratic alternative economic model. If anything ever called for socialist economic measures it’s the current unending speculative binge and the resulting world capitalist economic turmoil. The only solution advanced by the government is a repeat of the disastrous economic model presented by pre-Keynesian classical economists at the start of the Great Depression: reliance on austerity measures, budget cuts, and the Reserve Bank and banking conglomerates raising interest rates.

The economic leaders of this incoming Labor government seem to be aware of no history at all, particularly not the history of the 1920s and 1930s.

Nowhere in Manne’s book is any of this bourgeois economic alleged wisdom challenged. Even the extreme political conservative, the late B.A. Santamaria, in his last years made the general point that government credit could be raised, as it was during World War II, by relying on the basic credit of the economy and the national wealth. Nevertheless, all that the new government is proposing is the rather terrifying prospect that in current conditions free market international economic arrangements are immutable and unchallengeable. Manne’s book largely fails to take up these problems.

None of the essays take up the failure of the government to bring back anything like the union advisory committee that previous Labor governments have had. In fact, such an institution is deliberately ruled out by the new government in favour of constant discussions with very big business.

What’s more, some of the essays contain a kind of pre-emptive strike against both the living standards of ordinary people and any power being given to trade unions as bodies with more direct relationships with ordinary people to influence events.

The article by Clive Hamilton is complex and requires careful examination on its own. I note that Tom O’Lincoln has made a careful analysis of Hamilton’s ideas in the latest Overland. Tom’s critique is a little mild for my taste, but it’s a good start. Tom’s article may encourage sections of the far left to examine environmental issues concretely, which would be a healthy corrective to the rather insular and routinist tradition of much of the far left in such matters.

The overarching content of Hamilton’s essay is the rather unrealistic and arrogant proposition, coming from a privileged Canberra think tank operator and veteran political adviser to Labor politicians, that most of the population must accept lower living standards.

This proposition from ideologue Hamilton is a central economic mantra implicit in the new government’s economic conservatism, and its preoccupation with a kind of Laborist economic rationalism in the face of the developing world economic crisis. Once again, the failure to learn from history is palpable.

The keynote essay from the point of view of the attempts of the ruling class and big business to influence the Labor government is Mark Aarons’ call to arms against the trade union movement.

Aarons’ essay is extremely important and should be widely discussed in the workers movement, because it’s the part of this book that will be taken up by the ruling class to put pressure on the new government.

This essay is extremely anecdotal, which is the ideologue’s way of creating a political atmosphere without being pinned down to too much practical detail. Aarons even peddles a kind of currently fashionable urban myth. You see, he met in a pub two suited young blokes who said they didn’t like individual contracts and voted Labor, but loathed unions. He seems to expect us to accept this unlikely anecdote as solid evidence of the attitude of the population to trade unions.

Most political activists encounter such people now and then, but when you probe a bit deeper they usually turn out to be diehard Tories striking a bit of a pose. All the serious polling suggests that, despite the constant propaganda of the ruling class, a big slice of the population has a positive attitude to unions. The Tory election campaigning about union thugs went down like a lead balloon, as we all know, yet Aarons has the political hide to hit us with a similar story as part of an argument for ending serious union influence in the Labor Party.

The peculiar behaviour of the neocon newspaper, The Australian, on this book is instructive. Initially, The Australian, being the stronghold of the lunar right that it is, ridiculed Dear Mr Rudd as part of its continuing prosecution of the culture wars.

However, within a few days shrewder views from the wing of the Murdoch press that wants to do what it can with the new Labor government started to emerge and various columnists began saying there were a number of things in the new book that were good and should be considered. They weren’t too specific about this, but you can bet Mark Aarons’ diatribe against unions had made a favourable impression in those quarters.

Aarons’ essay is an unpleasant and rather malicious piece of work. Claiming objectivity, and leaning heavily on a long past, and even family, association with the trade union movement, it’s carefully crafted anecdotal and self-interested.

Mark Aarons is not just anybody. His grandfather, Sam Aarons, was certainly a trade unionist, but he was also politically a Stalinist, and in that sense he was unfortunately a product of his time on the left of the labour movement. He was a courageous man who fought as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, but to the end of his life he justified the Stalinist butchery of the POUM and other leftist rebels in that war. He remained, to the end of his days, a vigorous defender of Stalin and Stalinism, even after Khrushchev’s secret speech on the crimes of the Stalin era. He bitterly opposed those who questioned Stalinist history at the time of the widespread discussions of such matters in the late 1950s and the 1960s in the Communist Party of Australia.

Sam’s son, Mark Aarons’ father, the late Laurie Aarons, who Mark also cites as a trade unionist, was the leading figure in the late CPA in the period when it, through the agency of the rather charismatic Laurie Carmichael, was the ideological spearhead of the Prices-Incomes Accord, and the associated effective wage freeze and clumsy trade union amalgamations that were foisted on an initially cautious labour movement.

Mark Aarons himself was in this period himself a trade union official (of the ABC Staff Association and later, after an amalgamation, of the federal public service union). Trade unionist colleagues of mine remember him as a rather passionate advocate of the Prices-Incomes Accord, the net result of which, together with the accompanying clumsy union amalgamations, was a steep decline in the trade union movement, as Aarons acknowledges in passing.

Mark Aarons’ criticism of the Accord in the essay is entirely cosmetic and retrospective. When the Accord was adopted some union officials were critical, such as Jennie George of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, and one elected official even had the temerity to vote against it at the initial national union meeting that endorsed it, which did considerable damage, to say the least, to her popularity among ACTU leaders and Labor politicians.

Having consulted a number of trade union activists of my acquaintance, no one remembers Aarons as being any kind of a critic of the Accord when it mattered.

Aarons clearly regards all those struggles as ancient history, and probably hopes they’ll be forgotten, but they’re hardly ancient history considering his current campaign to end direct union influence in the Labor Party.

A very large number of trade union activists and officials now have learned the bitter lessons of the Accord experience and are very unlikely to accept such a bag of tricks again. Trade union activists and officials are now stuck with the consequences of that experience and are, in a defensive way, trying to rebuild the unions as instruments of struggle for the interests of their members.

They’re operating in a rather difficult environment. The Howard government’s achievement of its program of demolishing the role of the industrial commission in the federal sphere, and even more the demolition of the state industrial commissions, has rolled back about 100 years of labour history and largely removed a lot of the terrain in which unions achieved improvements by a judicious combination of militancy and advocacy in the various industrial commissions.

Aarons chooses precisely this moment to launch a wholesale attack on the trade union movement, and particularly on its exercise of political power in the Labor Party. When you examine his arguments, you have to know the background to some of them. Aarons’ overarching preoccupation is that Labor governments should have the right to govern without the interference of trade unions, which he explicitly says a few times.

Aarons’ essay is crammed with high-flown rhetoric about members of the Labor Party reclaiming the party by breaking the influence of trade unions. He uses a great deal of Blairite rhetoric about how necessary this is to the construction of a modern Labor Party as the natural party of government. He also claims that the struggle of the NSW unions against electricity privatisation, and their challenge, according to him, to the state government’s right to rule, is likely to bring down the Labor government.

What planet does this man inhabit? The campaign of the unions against electricity privatisation is solidly popular with the electorate, as demonstrated by every poll that is taken. What is very likely to bring down the state government is not the union battle against electricity privatisation but the aura of jobs and favours for the boys and girls that hangs around the Terrigal faction, which runs the NSW party at the parliamentary level, along with Labor’s rather incompetent adminstration in areas such as health and public transport.

In his attempt to defend Costa and co in the union struggle against electricity privatisation, Aarons claims that ending union influence would enable the creation of a modern left-of-centre party. He’s clearly an admirer of the Blairite project in Britain, and the US Democratic Party, which gets some working class votes but has no institutional links with the unions.

Aarons ignores the fact that the humbug Blair, who wears his religion on his sleeve, dragged Britain into the Iraq war despite the overwhelming hostility of British citizens to that war, and that the US Democrats mostly voted for the war as well. In Australia, however, one of the things that stiffened up the Labor Party against the war was the opposition of most unions to the military adventure, backed up implicitly by their institutional power in the Labor Party.

The unions are now engaged in an increasing, although initially careful, battle with the federal Labor government to restore basic union rights and take back terrain on which gains for members can be registered by way of the traditional combination of industrial militancy and legal advocacy in various tribunals.

In his propositions, Aarons is tearing up 100 years of labour history and struggle. The right of unions to exert direct influence on Labor governments was won, not abstractly, but in a combination of popular struggles with factional machine warfare inside the Labor Party.

At important turning points, trade union influence has been decisive in preserving the Labor Party as an instrument, in part, for the interests of the working class. Good examples of this are the battle over conscription during World War I, the mobilisation of the unions behind J.T. Lang’s radical Labor reformism in NSW in the 1920s, the battles over the Premiers’ Plan in the 1930s, the battle for the 40-hour week in the 1940s, the decisive influence of the unions in breaking the grip of the Industrial Groupers on the Labor Party in the 1950s, and the strong union contribution to the struggle against the Vietnam War.

Less glamorous, but in a way of decisive importance, is the kind of thing I witnessed as a delegate to Labor Party conferences between the 1950s and the 1970s. Constant pressure, year after year, by unions left and right, for specific improvements to wages and conditions constantly forced concessions from reluctant Labor governments from the floor of the NSW Labor Party conference. I describe this process in my essay on the CPA, The Communist Party in Australian Life.

Aarons appears to be offering himself as a messenger for those in the parliamentary wing of both factions of the federal Labor Party who more and more want to break free of trade union influence so they have a free hand to do pretty well whatever they like.

In his essay Aarons says this quite brutally: why should unions expect to influence Labor governments, when the job of Labor governments is to govern for that abstraction, the national interest, which usually means, in this context, whatever the ruling class tells the government.

There’s a bit of background to Aarons presenting himself as a messenger for an anti-union push by some elements of the new government. His union associations are now well in the past and more recently he has worked for Morris Iemma before and after he became premier, and Bob Debus when he was a minister at state level.

When he worked for Debus, Aarons was mainly an adviser on industrial matters, and among other responsibilities oversaw negotiations in the fire service. As Debus’s adviser, Aarons took a very hard line against the Fire Brigades Union and, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s considerable animosity between Aarons and that union because of his hard line against its claims.

In this context it’s hardly surprising that Aarons wants to free state and federal Labor governments from the institutional pressure of the unions.

Aarons has also worked as an adviser to Morris Iemma. He played a role in getting Paul Gibson forced out of the ministry by serving as the messenger for the revival of very old claims about Gibson allegedly engaging in domestic violence. Those claims never came to anything in the courts. It’s no secret that Gibson belongs to the rival Centre Unity sub-faction to the dominant Terrigal bunch.

The Terrigal bunch includes such notable parliamentary luminaries as Joe Tripodi and the whole clutch of Wollongong Labor MPs and ministers who have been so obviously in the spotlight lately over local corruption in council and development matters.

In a way, the dominant faction in the Labor parliamentary caucus in NSW is a rather awkward coalition between the Terrigal bunch and the slightly dominant sub-faction of the left, who divide up most of the cabinet bums on seats between themselves.

The utterly principled campaign of the unions against electricity privatisation has tended to put considerable strain on these arrangements, which helps to explain the venom with which Aarons says the campaign against electricity privatisation is really a union conspiracy to get at Morris Iemma. Aarons even labels Bernie Riordan, the secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, who has fought very determinedly against the privatisation, as an “anti-Iemma plotter”, which is a pretty bold piece of abuse considering that Riordan is the president of the NSW Labor Party.

Aarons overlooks the fact that the Terrigals are largely the instruments of their own problems by the injudicious use of their power, which includes along with the Wollongong problems, the very poorly thought out attempt to impose electricity privatisation in defiance of the obvious opposition of most Labor Party branch members and the majority of NSW unions.

Aarons becomes very “feminist” in his arguments, saying that Jenny McAllister was prevented from becoming a senator because Doug Cameron claimed the job. I’ve got nothing at all against Jenny McAllister, she’s a fine person, but Aarons’ argument falls down on the fact that the two other women he mentions, Julia Gillard and Penny Wong, both advanced their careers by being an intrinsic part of trade-union-based Labor factions in their respective states. Aarons’ “feminism” is obviously demagogy.

Aarons also makes a kind of bete noir of the metalworkers union and its leadership. He paints a highly coloured picture of the metalworkers as an overwhelmingly powerful force in the NSW Labor left, which always gets what it wants at the expense of the rank and file of the left, for whom Aarons appoints himself as some kind of spokesman.

Once again, the barely concealed inner left factionalism directed at the metalworkers unions is actually a device to achieve Aarons’ aim of creating a Labor Party that’s congenial to him, in which bright men like himself can rise to the top and lead without restraint.

He endorses Howard’s very self-interested propaganda about the talent pool of the Labor Party being dominated by the unions, and he says if the union influence was removed Labor would have better types in parliament, presumably including himself.

One of the unions Aarons is most hostile to, the National Union of Workers, is well known for promoting women officials, several of whom are from the left. John Robertson and Unions NSW have gone out of their way to promote women as part of their leadership team.

Electoral and labour movement politics isn’t an abstract business. Removing union influence would leave a gene pool that would produce representatives from among the more supine advisers to Labor politicians, whose experience of life is infinitely less than that of union officials who’ve spent a large part of their lives representing their members, sometimes badly, but usually quite well.

This picture of plotting, scheming union secretaries is drawn from 100 or so years of bourgeois political propaganda. What about plotting, scheming Labor politicians, such as Mick Costa?

Volunteer messenger boy Aarons is clearly belling the cat for a developing push by some in both wings of the parliamentary wing of the Labor Party to sideline unions. This is because the unions, left and right, due to their greater sensitivity to the mood of the masses, are an obstacle to conservative Labor governments that see their future in cutting all the traditional links of the Labor Party with any sort of radicalism and any sort of popular resistance to neoliberalism.

There’s obviously a very substantial need for the unions as a whole and the Labor Party membership, and anyone in the Labor Party with the slightest pretensions to being a socialist or leftist, to rally behind the influence of the unions in the Labor Party as the only material force in the Labor structure capable of checking the pell-mell shift of Labor politicians to the right.

Aarons’ article is a warning that this battle has already begun, although a lot of people who should know better are trying to ignore it or are quietly supporting Aarons’ point of view. For those who want to shift the labour movement to the right, Mark Aarons is clearly a very useful messenger and his demagogic arguments provide a picture of the full program of these people, whose anti-union project should be opposed every inch of the way.

What is really required in current conditions is more unions affiliating to the Labor Party, and the preservation of union structural influence in the Labor Party as a defence against a wholesale shift to the right.