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Oct 9, 2014

Poll Bludger: Faulkner dares to take on the unions

Senator John Faulkner's call for reform of the Labor Party does not shy away from the party's largest ally -- trade unions.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

At a time when corruption scandals and electoral debacles have left the party at a historically low ebb, Senator John Faulkner’s image as a straight-shooting honest broker is a rare asset for the ALP.

He once again put that reputation to use in pursuing the case for party reform in a speech on Tuesday evening, offering his most comprehensive prescription to date for how the party might dig itself out of its present hole.

One one level, as Bernard Keane explored in Crikey yesterday, Faulkner considered the challenges posed to all political parties by the changing expectations of democratic participation in the age of social media.

But the more substantive of his proposals were concerned with the specific problem facing the ALP: namely the domination of its decision-making by a small coterie of union officials, and the networks of patronage encouraged by its existing structures.

Tackling the matter head-on, Faulkner advocated a ban on MPs being bound to vote along factional lines in caucus. However, such arrangements merely provide formal expression to the underlying reality that a parliamentarian’s career longevity usually depends on he/she staying faithful to those who put him/ her there.

Recognising this, the Faulkner blueprint is equally concerned with the composition of the party’s state conferences, which in turn determine the administrative and preselection committees that have so much bearing on who represents the party in Parliament.

One proposal is for union members to “opt in” to be counted for purposes of affiliation to the ALP. As well as leaving it to members to determine if their fees would be used to pay a contribution to the party, this would also mean that a union’s entitlement to representation at conference would be determined by the number of opt-in members, rather than the total membership.

Such a measure was brought in by the Labour Party in the UK earlier this year, and those who have argued that the ALP should follow suit have included Julia Gillard, former Gillard government minister Greg Combet, and Throsby MP Stephen Jones, himself a former union heavyweight as New South Wales secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union.

One of many obstacles here is that the measure would not stand to impact on all unions equally, as it can be presumed that some unions’ membership bases would be more amenable to opting in than others.

Party observers say the powerful Right faction Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, noted as a force for social conservatism, would have a particularly difficult time persuading the retail workers who dominate its membership to sign on. Other unions of both the Left (United Voice and the Australian Services Union) and Right (the Transport Workers Union) would do rather a lot better out of the arrangement.

Another approach taken by Faulkner involves putting the selection of delegates to state conferences in the hands of the union membership, rather than the leadership. Of particular significance is Faulkner’s view that the elections should be conducted “under the principle of proportional representation”. Otherwise, elections for delegates would largely replicate those conducted for the union leadership, providing a more roundabout means for delivering them what they have already. If a union’s conference delegation was instead made to consist of multiple competing entities within the party, it would no longer operate as a bloc of loyal soldiers acting at the behest of the leadership.

A hint to the likelihood of Faulkner’s proposals taking effect, in the short term at least, is provided by his call for the union component at party conferences to be cut from its existing 50% to 20%.

Given the political trauma endured by former Labor leader Simon Crean, when he succeeded in reducing it from 60% in 2002, this seems extravagantly ambitious. Then as now, the reform project was confronted by the conundrum, by no means peculiar to the ALP, that power to change the organisational status quo lies in the hands of its very beneficiaries.

So for the moment at least, it appears the best Faulkner can hope for is to add momentum to a reform drive that continues to proceed tentatively and inconsistently.

It is no doubt telling that the New South Wales and Queensland branches, having been reduced to parliamentary rumps at their most recent state elections, have gone further down the reform path than other states, particularly Victoria, where the party has never ceased to be competitive.

The troubling corollary for federal Labor is that it may take a few more strokes of the electoral lash before it feels emboldened to take the measures necessary to ensure that its next spell in office will be less tumultuous than the last.

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3 thoughts on “Poll Bludger: Faulkner dares to take on the unions

  1. CML

    While I agree with your article, William, it has always amused me that people think the Labor Party is anything else but the political wing of the union movement. Now, you either accept that, or you don’t. Labor as a political party in Australia, grew out of the early union movement formed well over 100 years ago. It is not surprising that the unions do NOT want to relinquish power over the party that they indeed own.
    However, times change, and the biggest problem has become who runs the unions. Their influence is no longer benign, and they do enormous damage to the once great Labor Party. Inevitably, the union bosses will either have to listen to people like John Faulkner, or go their own way. Good luck with the latter alternative!
    Having said all that, after 60+ years, I am still a firm supporter of the Labor Party, because what alternative is there? They are still marginally better than the LNP, especially on social issues, and the Greens IMHO are not, and never will be, able to form government. They are mostly nuisance value and in the same stable as PUP, as far as I’m concerned.
    So, yes change would be good, but anyone who supports Labor and doesn’t know and accept where they come from are very poorly informed.

  2. GF50

    Totally with CML, in a nutshell.

  3. Luke Hellboy

    John Faulkner has talked about this publicly since at least 2010 (and probably longer than that behind closed doors.) It has growing problem for a lot longer than that with falling union membership and falling political party engagement more generally. Has anything substantive been done about it? Of course not, while the current beneficiaries of the ALP’s patronage system still control their ever shrinking fiefdoms and put forward only members that are within their control. So we get leaders who stay on the latest focus-group inspired script or are undermined more ruthlessly by their own side than any other political party possibly could. Meanwhile the LNP can do whatever the hell it wants to push arcane ideologies and reward business benefactors effectively unopposed. Until ALP HQ stops fighting over the silverware in a burning house, politics and democracy will continue its steady decline.