Bob Gould, 2008

Mark Aarons touts “centre-left” Blairism

Source: Ozleft, March 18, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

By Bob Gould and Ed Lewis

It’s fairly rare for one individual to get a run on the same issue within a couple of weeks in the opinion pages of the competing broadsheet newspapers of the Fairfax and Murdoch press, but Mark Aarons is obviously saying something that the media owners like to hear.

A couple of weeks ago, the Sydney Morning Herald published extensive extracts from Aarons’ piece of anti-union propaganda in the book of essays edited by Robert Manne, Dear Mr Rudd, even before the books was published, and today the Murdoch neocon house organ, The Australian, gives Aarons a big chunk of the opinion page in a piece demagogically headed in traditional yellow press style: “Rein in strongmen who pillage workers’ dues for ALP war chest”.

At a time when big business and property developer donations to political parties are under scrutiny because of very public corruption scandals, the Murdoch-owned Australian a week or so ago very deliberately tried to turn the issue around by asking Kevin Rudd a question about union donations to Labor and then making its question the focus of its coverage. Rudd was speaking at a press conference on the general issue of political donations.

Business buying of influence in politics has been in the spotlight, and business interests and the Liberal Party are desperately trying to shift the focus. The Liberals have been poring over electoral funding disclosures, but haven’t been able to come up with much in the way of evidence of massive union financial influence.

One Liberal politician, the apparently assigned dirt-digger on this matter, can only cite about $500,000 from the Communications, Electricity and Plumbing Union and a couple of $100,000 or so donations from other unions. Those amounts are a lot of money to any union, but petty cash to many big businesses.

As well as the attempt to deflect attention from business buying of political influence, the media and Liberal Party noise about union funding of Labor is part of determined pressure on Labor to extract pro-business, anti-worker concessions as the Rudd government drafts and discusses its new industrial relations laws to replace the Howard government’s Work Choices.

In the midst of all this, Mark Aarons chimes in, in his self-appointed role as messenger boy for the forces in the parliamentary Labor ranks who want to reduce or eliminate union influence in the party.

Aarons’ message will be particularly galling to the tens of thousands of union activists and the hundreds of union officials who organised and campaigned mightily, and successfully, to remove the Howard government, and who quite properly spent millions of dollars of union funds to defeat the Tories. The message from those who support the Aarons view is something like: thanks very much to all you trade unions and working-class Labor supporters, you’ve done your job, now go away.

The media campaign against union funding of the Labor Party is entirely hypocritical.

Union funds raised for Labor electoral purposes are obviously and publicly associated with the desire to ensure that Labor governments do the right thing by the working class and there’s very rarely any hint of serious corruption associated with union donations.

The massive donations by big business, and medium-sized businesses such as property developers, to both the Liberals and Labor, are an entirely different matter. They are, in fact, as shown by various upheavals going on in NSW, often the source of the most barefaced corruption, and they’re often directed at getting illegitimate preferment for individual developers, companies, etc, from governments, federal, state and municipal.

The WA Inc affair a few years ago is probably the most famous recent incident of this type. It showed peddling of influence right at the heart of business and government. Unions were quite marginal to all this, except insofar as the WA Inc players tried to influence unions as well.

Concerned citizen Aarons says very little about any of that, but along with Liberal Party, he seizes on every media beat-up about union influence.

From the point of view of anyone in the labour and progressive movements who has any class instincts at all, it’s pretty clear that the issue of trade union influence and financial support is the opposite of the issue of big business and developer influence and financial donations.

Union influence and support is limited by the resources of unions and the labour movement and directed at the legitimate end of ensuring a fair deal from Labor governments. Business influence and financial support is directed at diverting Labor governments from their basic role, which in the first instance should be defending workers’ rights. Business influence is often narrowly focused on preferment for this or that company or developer.

Aarons also prattles on, in a way that might have some appeal for the uninformed and unobservant, about removing union influence making Labor the natural party of government.

Whether or not Labor is, or becomes, the natural party of government in Australia has a good deal more to do with demographic changes, such as the rapid increase in migration from poorer countries, than it has to do with more superficial shifts in electoral opinion.

The shift to the right of labour and socialist governments in Europe, which has been a feature of the past 10 years or so, was also supposed to make those rightward moving parties the natural parties of government in Europe.

In this respect it’s well worth reading a couple of articles in the Australian Financial Review on March 14, “Idealism not leftism” by Robert Reich and “Realism not leftism” by Ernst Hildebrand, which point out, and to some extent document, the phenomenon of European labour and socialist governments moving to the right, and in the process becoming less, not more, attractive electorally.

Such parties in recent times have lost elections even in a previous stronghold such as Scandinavia as a result of disillusionment and demobilisation at the base of the labour movement. As disillusionment has grown, it has become harder to mobilise workers to campaign for centre-left governments.

In addition to this, a certain space has opened up for the left of those governments and parties, as demonstrated by the emergence of the Left Party in Germany with about 10 per cent of the vote.

In Spain, on the other hand, where the Socialists have adopted a rather determined progressive agenda on matters such as breaking the unreasonable grip of the Catholic church on major social issues, a centre-left government survived a recent election.

Aarons’ formula that eliminating union influence would make Labor the natural party of government is a piece of rather crude propaganda that flies in the face of developments in Europe, particularly Germany, France and Blair’s Britain.

In Blair’s Britain, where elections are first-past-the-post elections, the Labour government survives on about 35 per cent of the vote mainly because the conservative vote is divided between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

The Australian labour movement should avoid Mark Aarons’ Blairism with an Australian flavour like the plague.