Will no-one rid me of these troublesome unions? So must be the thoughts of NSW Premier Morris Iemma.

The stoush over electricity privatisation is turning out to be a dress rehearsal for a showdown over a more fundamental issue: the future of the link between organised workers and the Australian Labor Party.

The first shots in this battle under a Rudd government came from Mark Aarons, Iemma’s former hired hand. His essay in Dear Mr Rudd has described union power in the ALP as so pernicious that it “threatens to grow into a cancer”. He recommends limiting union representation to the party conference in line with affiliate union density, at about 12%. ALP branch membership has fallen below 50,000. Yet unions affiliated to the ALP make up more than 1 million people; that’s roughly 90% of membership with 50% of conference vote.

There is no doubt the union link needs to be democratised, but diminution is not the answer. Political parties are not microcosms of all society, they are voluntary affiliations of a broad range of people committed to pursing common political ends. They percolate and crystallise ideas into a shared agenda. Traditionally in Australia, this has been along a right-left class line. With the Australian Labor Party, there is a bit of a clue in the name. Unions formed this party and remain its bedrock.

However, the message from the managerial elite of Labor – the staffers, hacks and careerists – is that the business of politics would be a lot easier if our parliamentary representatives did not have to kowtow to these unions.

On top of this is the stink about corporate donations and the push for state-funded election campaigns. Hand-outs from developers and the hotel lobby have become politically unsustainable. If the ALP is forced to give up the corporate cash cow, it will become more reliant on union funds. For Iemma and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, that is not on. But to remove the unions from the equation creates a financial problem for the ALP. Enter state funding for elections. From the corporate teat to the state bottle.

To achieve this seismic shift the ALP machine will need an ideological package. This partly explains the national executive’s move to revisit the party’s pledge to democratic socialism.

Every year at ALP state conference, delegates go through a little charade. One branch or other recommends removal of the party’s commitment to democratic socialism. Some more modern, neutral words such as fair-go, equality, solidarity are suggested. And every year the party’s hierarchy recommends its rejection, all in the interest of party unity.

But not this year.

Last weekend, the Georges Hall branch submitted a motion calling for the scrapping of the party’s socialist pledge. Rather than recommend rejection, the rules committee suggested the conference “refer to the ALP national executive for consideration in the forthcoming Review of the Party Pledge”.

This is the first time most party members will have heard of any such review, but it should come as no surprise. Rudd has emphatically rejected this aspect of Labor’s heritage: “I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist.”

Troublesome unions, controversy over corporate funding and the review of the socialist pledge… Together this is a recipe to attain what even Tony Blair could not fully achieve in Britain: the delabourisation of Labor and the establishment of a centrist liberal party without the unions.

This outcome echoes ALP assistant state secretary Luke Foley’s concerns as voiced on Four Corners on 14 April: “If we’re simply a brand with a good advertising campaign every time an election comes round and nothing else, we only engage in the empty pursuit of power.”

Elections and democracy will be seen as an even more stage-managed affair on behalf of the state and the “urban elites”. Cynicism of the political process will increase. Citizen involvement will decline.

What is at stake is not only the democratic heart of the Labor Party, but the very fabric of our democracy. Without active citizen participation in the political process, what sort of democracy is it? We cannot afford to let a managerial elite cut itself free of civil society and hook up to a self-perpetuating state-government-party funding cycle.

Of course the funding process needs radical reform. The corporate donations must stop and the process must be transparent. Donations and declarations must be simultaneous. Further we need participation of party members and beyond that an active and engaged citizenry; we need accountability of our representatives and ALP members deserve accountability within the party. For a start, rather than union secretaries appointing their delegates to state conference, we should move to rank and file election.

Let’s not contemplate abandoning the pledge or ending the union link. Let’s work to make it stronger, democratic and accountable.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.