Bob Gould, 2008

Labour democracy and “cabinet solidarity”
A response to Peter Murphy’s comments on Leftwrites

Source: Ozleft, March 27, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

I read Peter Murphy’s comment on Mark Aarons’ articles about unions and the Labor Party after returning last night from a rather heated debate between Aarons and Senator-elect Doug Cameron at Gleebooks, which Murphy and I both attended.

Murphy’s contribution on this question is useful and I welcome it. It appears to have been written in a bit of a hurry.

The article helps to make some sense of contradictory signals that have been coming from Search Foundation circles on the linked matters of union affiliation to the Labor Party, democracy in the labour movement and the associated question of electricity privatisation in NSW.

It’s notable that Murphy and Search have distributed fairly widely useful material against the privatisation. Clearly, a bit of a debate is going on in Search circles about these two questions, and that can only be a good thing. I agree with Peter Murphy, in general, on those questions.

Peter Murphy’s opinion is important as he has some influence, through his role in Search and in left trade union circles, including even some left figures who work in some Centre Unity unions.

I sympathise with Murphy a bit, as sharp debate between old associates is often painful and can even become unpleasant. Nevertheless, basic political questions are much more important than personal considerations, and it is an unavoidable feature of politics that we all tend to use whatever personal connections we have to achieve our purposes in current battles and debates.

I would pose the following set of problems to Peter Murphy, which I think are extremely important in the battle over electricity privatisation and the apparently impending battle over union influence in the Labor Party.

The battle against electricity privatisation must be won. If the supporters of privatisation are victorious it will considerably set back the workers movement in NSW and even Australia and strengthen the hand of those who want to end union influence in the Labor Party, turning the Labor Party into something like the US Democrats.

As Peter Murphy would know, since like me he has old associates who are active in the Greens, even in the Greens there are people who see the electricity privatisation push as unimportant. In this context, it must be said the role of John Kaye has been outstanding in campaigning in a well-informed and tactically shrewd way against the privatisation.

A serious problem for opponents of the privatisation in the Labor Party is the role of the left cabinet ministers in the Iemma government and even of one left backbencher closely linked to the ministry. This came up at a meeting of the Labor Party rank and file anti-privatisation committee, held simultaneously with the meeting at Gleebooks that Murphy and I attended.

At that committee meeting several representatives of left cabinet ministers repeated the furphy, rather vigorously, that unfortunately because of cabinet and caucus solidarity the left cabinet ministers couldn’t speak up against the privatisation push. This was in the context of a proposal to the anti-privatisation committee to lobby a number of cabinet members’ offices on the question.

The representatives of the left ministers argued that their ministers should be exempt from such lobbying. These representatives also repeated something that has been said previously by left ministers: that they might lose their positions in the cabinet if they opposed the privatisation publicly.

You see the problem. Achieving a change of course by a Labor government, even one that’s in as much strife as the Iemma government on a range of questions, is a substantial and difficult project.

To achieve that change of tack, the maximum concentration of all the forces opposing the privatisation is needed.

On the right of the Labor Party, John Robertson, Matt Thistlethwaite, Bernie Riordan, Ben Kruse and a substantial majority of Centre Unity unions are fighting the good fight, and doing so quite effectively. On the left, the metalworkers union, the CFMEU and the public service unions are also fighting effectively.

Nevertheless, all the unions that are fighting are up against the phoney monolith of cabinet solidarity in the Labor caucus and pressure emanating from left cabinet ministers is being applied widely to exempt them from criticism, thereby in practice blunting the whole campaign at the level of the Labor caucus in the parliament.

These are serious problems. I don’t advocate demonising the left cabinet ministers, and most of them are good people (with the notable exception of one bloke, a one-time ultraleft, who is flat-out for the privatisation).

Surely though, all of us — Peter Murphy, Bob Gould and everyone else who is seriously opposed to the privatisation — should bring maximum pressure to bear on everyone of significance in the Labor caucus, including the left ministers, to stop sheltering behind the furphy of cabinet solidarity, which is not mentioned in the Labor Party rules, but which boils down to the proposition expressed crudely by some of the some of the left ministers and their representatives that they would be booted out of cabinet if they came out publicly against the privatisation.

I’d be interested in Peter Murphy’s observations on such problems, because they’re crucial to the defeat of the privatisation and by implication the future of union influence in the Labor Party.


Aarons wonky on union role in ALP

Peter Murphy

Posted on Leftwrites, March 25, 2008

Mark Aarons’ article, “Labor’s ties that grind”, in the March 1-2 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald is wildly wrong about the relationship between the trade unions and the Labor Party, and the democratic prospects of the Labor Party.

While Aarons notes the positive role of unions on Work Choices and on asbestos, he absolutely opposes the unions being affiliated to the ALP. But how else did Labor win the November 2007 election, except for the Your Rights At Work campaign, which was led by the unions? So in reality, Aarons wants to neuter the factor that enabled Rudd Labor to win, by ending the political role of trade unions, limiting them to industrial and some public campaigns.

Curiously, Aarons thinks this is the formula for Labor to stay in power forever — the “natural party of government”. Hardly a democratic aspiration.

In fact, Aarons is really with the Liberals on this one, since they too firmly oppose trade union links to the ALP, they too strongly oppose any political role for working people. If there is any role for unions, according to the Liberals, it is a tightly defined and policed industrial space.

Aarons radically distorts history, and indulges in some of his own personal loyalties to argue this case.

For instance, in the 19th century, when the Labour Electorate Leagues were set up in New South Wales and Queensland, there were only 2-3 per cent of workers in trade unions. When the Harvester Judgment by Mr Justice Higgins was handed won in 1907, there were just 6 per cent of workers in trade unions. This is a fact Mr Aarons ignores while parading the “facts” about union density falling from 50 per cent in 1983 to 20 per cent in 2007.

The political facts about unions aren’t really about the density of membership, but the ability of the labour movement to project a vision that inspires the bulk of the Australian people. That’s why such a Labor Party, led by such a tiny but dynamic part of Australian society, could win federal and state governments within the first decade of the 20th century. And that is why even Rudd Labor could win in 2007.

I wonder if Jenny McAllister supports Aarons’ view that the union role in the ALP should be abolished, just because she was not chosen in that notorious NSW Left Senate preselection?

Arguments based on the fate of a friend, or on the gossip of two young men at the Melbourne Cup, are fatally weak. The attack on “union secretaries” (union bosses) is just pure Howard.

Of course, the labour movement desperately needs to renew itself, and that will only help Labor to be more relevant and attractive to voters. That renewal is evident in what was achieved in the fight against Work Choices. A lot more is needed if workers’ rights are really to be respected and entrenched, and if our democracy is to rise to the serious challenges facing it on so many fronts.

In the 2007 elections the great weakness of the ALP was exposed to those involved. If it wasn’t for the Your Rights At Work mobilisation of many non-ALP members, the ALP would not have been able to field polling teams on November 24, let alone reach out to the voters in crucial seats in the months leading up to the vote.

The Labor Party, far from being dragged down by unions, can barely operate at all without the unions. Yes, union density has fallen for the last 30 years, but Labor Party membership has also fallen away, especially after it adopted neoliberal policies in the 1980s. This was at last formally acknowledged by the Hawke-Wran review, which urged branch amalgamations to create viable units and urged a greater democratic role for members in party policy. Apart from the good move to have direct election for the ALP President, little progress has been made.

Rudd Labor is there in Canberra now, and Labor is in government in every state and territory. But it is very fragile.

Aarons for some reason chose to level his aim at a Left union, the AMWU, for its allegedly nefarious power in the ALP, but didn’t mention the much larger Bill Shorten AWU intervention in Victorian pre-selections in 2006.

The problem with union power in the ALP is also a factional and political problem. The neoliberal and pro-Washington domination of Labor’s leadership gets strong support from the Right unions, especially the AWU and the Shop Workers Union. Overcoming that neoliberal domination requires a deep change in those two big right-wing unions, rather than cutting all unions out of the ALP.

Back in the 1930s, when the Labor Party fell apart and the unions were largely crushed, it was a workers political movement in the Communist Party and in the ALP, which rebuilt the strength of the labour movement and instilled in it some of the values that continue to make it attractive today. Something similar is needed now. It would challenge the ALP, and change it. It may add some vital dimensions to the Greens. Maybe the ALP would not survive this kind of renewal. Maybe a very strong environmental movement will develop outside of the union sector, and it too may challenge Labor and the Greens.

It is in this area that Aarons should look for positive change, and not at cutting the heart out of the ALP, and turning it into some kind of bunyip US Democratic Party.

Perhaps Mr Rudd knows his history and his factions. Mr Aarons’ superficially jazzy approach is one that Dear Mr Rudd should politely decline.

Peter Murphy is the Coordinator of the SEARCH Foundation.

This item and the following discussion is reposted from Leftwrites, an independent left blog that no longer exists.

Philtravers, April 17. If we don’t get bored by Mark Aarons and the ALP and the whole process, seeing the universe for all its lack of acknowledgement of humanity in Australia, in Parliament House, etc, is larger in mind than both!

Unless you are one of these people that really believes the world begins when Labor is elected. I have seen its past lives and found it unsurpassing in its narrative about itself.

Bob Gould, May 4, 2008 The conference of the NSW branch of the Australian Labor Party today overwhelmingly rejected the Labor government’s proposal to sell off the state’s electricity network. This is a major victory following a long and effective campaign by most trade unions, the Labor Party ranks, the Greens and other community organisations.

The battle is not over, as the government has said it will defy the conference. Much will defend on a vote of the Labor parliamentary caucus on Tuesday.

Captain Swing, May 4, 2008One pissed-off ALP Conference delegate told me that the ALP Left Executive knew about the need to give sufficient written notice if they wanted to change the party platform on privatisation or anything else, but the Union Secretaries did nothing about laying this essential mechanical foundation to bind the Party and its parliamentarians. That’s perhaps one reason why the vote was so overwhelming — because it didn’t bind the Caucus members, becoming a pure policy motion only and thus not technically binding on the Government.

If Conference had succeeded in changing the platform, Iemma and Costa would then have been acting directly contrary to the platform on electricity privatisation, thus stiffening the backs of Caucus members inclined to vote against it next week. Iemma and Costa would have been stuffed, but of course the “loyal union secretaries” had to leave the Terrigals a way out, didn’t they? Had to be seen to be fighting, but did not really want to win.

They did this (sit on their hands re giving notice) presumably because they thought they could negotiate a deal on privatisation with the saner members of Cabinet, ie sans Costa, before the Conference, or at it. This was certainly a possibility as late as Thursday night I understand, when the deal story was run in the Daily Terror. Costa apparently angrily rejected the thought of any compromise, at a meeting attended by the Premier, who remained silent during the Costa tirade, I am told.

As to the outcome of all this — what if the Liberals voted in favour of privatisation in both houses of parliament? They’ll sniff the wind and vote it down I think, as it seems to be very unpopular — so that leaves the Greens, Shooters and the Nile Team in the Upper House to vote it down. The Greens and the Shooters might well be enough to see its end if the Libs also block it. I imagine the government would have to amend the SOCs Act and other sundry legislation to get the privatisation through, so there will be a parliamentary vote.

(Ask Bob who Captain Swing was, he’ll have the book in his shop, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude).

Ablokeimet, May 5, 2008 Well, this Anarchist is impressed. I’ve been watching the campaign from the distance of Melbourne, though with a source or two in NSW. Bob’s analogy with the 1950s is not bad, but there’s a better one. What we’ve witnessed is the sort of thing that happened during the 1917 split over conscription.

The rank and file of the Party and affiliated unions, using their (often flawed) democratic processes, have given the Party tops a defeat over something both think non-negotiable. In the process, the traditional machine operatives of the Party were placed in an unusual position. They were squeezed between the pressures of the membership and the Government until they had to declare a side — and, faced with the virtually unanimous fury of the ranks, they caved in to the membership.

What we’ve seen is a massive movement of the working class. True, it hasn’t been over the sort of issue that capital-R revolutionaries like me would have expected, and the position taken up by the ALP Conference is itself open to great criticism, but these issues are secondary. The workers of NSW have drawn a line in the sand. They have said, “No matter whether we agree with how far you’ve taken us already, we’re not letting you go any further.”

The question now is what next? As Bob notes, the next battle is in Caucus. What must happen now is that the Party, having declared its position, states that anyone who votes against the Platform is a rat and will be expelled. This will put maximum pressure on wavering Caucus members to force them to decide that the path which results in least damage is to keep the “Cabinet rump” as small as possible.

It’s theoretically possible that Iemma could lose in Caucus and still get the privatisation through Parliament. If he and Costa can round up enough rats, the Libs could swing the vote his way. I’m not privy to the thinking of the open representatives of big business, however, so I won’t predict which way they’ll jump.

This battle probably counts as justification for Bob Gould’s half-century in the Labor Party. It’s the exception rather than the rule, however, so there’s no way I’ll be following suit (if it was the rule, I’d have to re-examine my Anarchism critically). I’ve learnt the evils of sectarianism well enough, however, to know that when someone in the ALP stands up for the right thing, we need to support them on that issue. So hats off to Bob for fighting the good fight, and to all the other Labor Party members who said “No pasaran”.

Tom O'Lincoln, May 6, 2008 I’m also impressed with what’s happened in NSW, but if we are going to talk about a “massive movement of the working class”, rather than a mobilisation of party activists and union officials, that would need to manifest itself in the streets and in industry. Just such a movement is probably still needed to stop Iemma’s privatisation plans.