It’s about now, after a spectacular Labor defeat, that this blog should be joining other “progressive” blogs to post a “whither Labor?” piece and opening up a forum for suggestions on how Labor can recover … going back to base … core values … party reform … more say for members … hum-te-dum-de-dum.

Actually this blog doesn’t care that much. From a democratic point of view, fretting about the decline of a political party rather misses the point. The only question of any interest is how people can get what they want – not how to revive an organisation that might no longer do the job. As Bob Katter showed, setting up a new political party on even the flakiest of premises is no big deal.

Starting from an electoral defeat doesn’t help much for understanding what is going on either. Some almost-as-progressive blogs have come in with a counter line saying basically, don’t worry about Queensland and NSW, we’ve been here before, it’s just a phase in the cycle.

One example is a piece by the ABC’s Antony Green cautioning against being too quick to write Labor off. His argument centres on a graph showing Labor’s share of state and federal seats across the country since 1969, saying that it shows that Labor’s current sharp decline is just part of the political cycle.

Labor seats in state and federal lower houses since the wall to wall Coalition governments in May 1969. (A Green ABC)

The first obvious point to make is that by starting in 1969, near the end of 23 years of Coalition federal rule, it makes it look as though such cycles are part of Australian politics. In fact for most of the 20th century, Australian politics was marked by long periods of continuous government (usually Coalition) and sporadic periods of Labor rule often ending in splits on the Labor side and a realignment of non-Labor parties. From this graph we can make the first profound observation that yes, Australian politics is cyclical – except of course when it isn’t.

Moreover, if we are meant to read the graph and conclude something about Australian politics, then it would suggest that Labor’s fortunes are getting better and better, with each trough less than before and each peak ascending even higher to the glory years of 2005-2006.

Somehow this intuitively doesn’t feel quite right.

There’s a good reason for that. If we look at actual votes Labor has received in both state and federal over the same time, we don’t get much of “cycle”. It’s more undulating decline.

ALP state and federal primary vote 1969 - 2012

In fact, going back further we see that in terms of votes, Labor’s “golden days” of 2005-6 were worse than even the slump during the DLP split of the 1950s (even before including the “non-Communist” Labor party) and was only beaten by the party splits during the Depression of the 1930s.

Labor’s lousy voting record in recent decades has generally not translated to seats mainly, of course, because of preferential voting, with Green preferences coming back to Labor (compared to the DLP days when they went away from Labor).

This is partly why the long-running decline in Labor’s primary vote tends to get ignored – except where it starts to get so bad that Labor falls behind the Greens or independents and loses what had been a core seat.

But it’s also possible to pick up an unwillingness to take the decline at face value. Commentary increasingly wants to ascribe meta-tactical reasons for voters not giving their first vote to Labor to “teach them a lesson” and “send a message” rather than Labor simply being no longer most voter’s first preference.

Even political parties can fall for such meta thinking – as we saw in Queensland when near the end of the election campaign Labor started asking voters not to give the LNP a too big majority – as though someone would go into a polling booth and cast opposite to how they were going to vote to offset those of other voters. Now we seem to also have an expectation that voters will balk at the size of the LNP majority and swing back to Labor in the coming by-election in Bligh’s seat – when the very opposite may happen.

But the decline of voting is one thing, yet this is not just any political party we are talking about. This is the Australian Labor Party, set up and run by the union leadership. Labor’s vote is not only in decline, but so is the social base that set it up.

The decline of union membership in Australia is well recorded. Andrew Leigh, who became Labor’s Member for Fraser at the last election, wrote an article in 2008 tracking the decline and looking at the reasons for it.

Leigh directly takes on what he sees as the “common explanations” for the decline of the unions – one being because workers became more sceptical about them. He argues this is wrong because when unions were rising, such as in the 1970s, Australians were more likely to have negative opinions about them and tell pollsters that they had “too much power” and less likely to think they were “good for Australia”.

But it is precisely when unions had some weight to throw about that obviously other sections of society would most object. It’s only when unions became powerless and a weak bargaining tool for its members that they would get a sympathy vote – something union leaders have been only too happy to play up in recent years, summed up by the Workchoices ad showing a worker crying on the phone to her mum, that everyone loved so much.

Leigh also takes up the other “common” reason given, the impact of the union accord with the Labor government in the 1980s. This should be a powerful argument given that it resulted in the biggest blow to Australian workers’ standards since the war. But Leigh says that this is unconvincing as well, since the sharpest declines happened in the 1990s after the accord was over.

Readers can judge from Leigh’s graph when the decline occurred, but its acceleration is fairly straightforward – for the same reason unions so rapidly formed – unity is strength. Once unions start to lose their bargaining mass there’s not much point being in them. It has to be said, for someone who has studied this, Leigh shows a surprising naivety of how collective action works, not only how unions throw their weight around but how others react when they do. But then, such naivety over the nature of social conflict is probably prerequisite these days for being in the Parliamentary Labor Party.

Leigh thinks the unions’ decline has little to do with what the unions actually did, but due to changes in the workplace. This is a favourite and uncontroversial reason, that is nobody’s fault and is based on a romantic view that in the past the Australian workforce were collectivised proletarians in the factories rather than the highly fragmented workforce (especially with a higher proportion of agricultural workers) that it actually was.

But at least Leigh addresses the causes that had actually to do with how the unions let down their members. Leigh says blaming worker disillusionment with unions, especially during the Hawke accord is “common”. It may be in academia, but it’s certainly rare in the media.

Indeed in the press you tend to read the opposite reason. George Megalogenis, for example, thinks the unions’, and Labor’s, decline happened because they were too successful for their members. This is understandable given that it would otherwise cast a poor light on his favourite period: the highly educative reform period of the Hawke/Keating years. Presumably having enough plasma TVs, workers decided they had more than enough money and no longer needed the unions for higher pay. Hmmm. It is possible people leave organisations because they are too successful. Although leaving organisations because they are not effective enough has also been heard of. The reader will obviously have to decide.

But the decline of Labor’s vote and its base in the unions is clear. So this leaves an important question: if, on any social criteria, Labor is clearly in decline, but commentators like Antony Green can still say Labor’s fortunes are just part of a “political cycle” what exactly do they mean by “political”?

What Green means by political in his piece is purely representation in the Parliament. Ironically the increasing cyclical nature of political representation, the way Labor’s seats can blow out and then implode, has much to do with the party’s decline in society and the loosening ties from its social base (especially in Queensland where the two party system is at its weakest and which is probably over-represented in Green’s graph). Commentators like saying that the electorate is becoming more “volatile”. But it’s not really swinging from one side to the other, but increasingly indifferent to either. In short, the cyclicality of parties in Parliament comes from the increasing detachment of society from what is going on in there.

So in a way, Green and others have a point. Politics is becoming more cyclical, but only because the nature of politics is changing from what it was in the 20th century. Then parties were formed because social groups in society wanted representation in Parliament – and based their loyalties accordingly. Now we have instead, parties looking for someone in society to represent.

That’s why, for example, we have state funding of political parties. Usually posed to prevent undue influence from sectional interests on political parties, it is really about the opposite. It’s the lack of interest by social groups in political parties and financing them which is why the state must step in.

Menzies’ Liberals were formed on the basis of translating the interests of metropolitan business interests to a broader audience in the middle class and some sections of the working class. Now politics is turned upside down. Instead of political parties trying to translate particular interests to a broader section of society, now we have parties eager to appear to be representing anybody in particular. So we have political leaders spending most of the election campaign bothering and getting photographed with “ordinary” voters to show how they can “connect” with real people.

As a perceptive piece in The Drum recently pointed out, yesterday’s political apparatchik is seen as a true son of Labor in the past, while today’s apparatchik is now something for the party to be defensive about, because they are in a party that no longer represents anything much.

Politics in the 21st century is now operating on the absence of any real connection in society, but politicians constantly needing to manufacture one. There is no sign that this detachment will reverse – even in countries that are now going through economic crisis, the detachment of the state from society is only consolidating.

If politics is now less about society seeking political representation than politicians seeking social representation, it also changes the nature of how the state is perceived – or, more accurately, commentators are now catching up with how the state is already widely perceived – as something to be avoided unless necessary and politics purely as a pursuit in its own terms.

This is getting reflected in a subtle differentiation emerging in commentary both in the mainstream press and the blogosphere – between those who still see politics as being driven directly by society and those who see it as more detached.

This is especially seen in the blogosphere where politics is now increasingly confused with policy. So, a “serious” political blog will show just how serious it is by having a long piece on, say, the NBN. Optic fibre or copper wiring with wireless? How on earth could anyone have an opinion on this or even care? Aren’t there experts paid to work out such things? What had been the real basis for interest in politics, as a forum for the competition of interests in society, is now missing from such high-minded “policy” discussions.

Or take the writers in The Australian, probably the largest single collection of political commentators in Australia. Compare Paul Kelly talk about government policy and popularity as though the two are related, with that of George Megalogenis who treats policy as something politicians need to educate the public on whether they like it or not. Or compare the way Shanahan will talk of the latest poll, desperately trying to relate it to whatever happened in politics over the last fortnight, with that of Peter Brent’s Mumble that tends to treat it happening under its own fairly vague laws, and therefore getting closer to the mark of what is going on.

So will Labor survive? That is a question that relies little on whether it can revive its “values” and reconnect in any meaningful way to the electorate. In reality the survival of either of the main parties depends on the opposite: how well can they adapt to operating with no social base? This is the real content to the discussion of party reform in Labor, a discussion that has, for the time being, been put on ice because Rudd threatens to take it to its logical conclusion. But whether the major parties will survive is one question – yet there is now a more important one. Why should anyone else care?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 8 April 2012.

Filed under Key posts, Media analysis, State of the parties

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Comments

31 responses to “The problem of the “political cycle””

  1. Jeff on 8th April 2012 10:19 am

    ” The real basis for interest in politics, as a forum for the competition of interests in society, is missing … ”

    It seems you’re right about this.

    So what are the interests that compete?

  2. Alex White on 8th April 2012 8:56 pm

    Cynically, the answer to your question “will Labor survive” is probably “yes”, simply because we have an established two-party system, backed by large institutional protection (ie. public funding, unions, business donations, existing party machines, etc). Would probably take an external crisis to shake the system up.

  3. David Jackmanson on 9th April 2012 9:02 am

    Yes, it’s worth wondering what are the current or potential competing interests in society that might spark real politics again.

    I have no idea where any spark might come from that would create a new workers’ movement until there is a serious economic downturn. In my experience in call centres, the workplace today is dull, dominated by mediocrity, conformism and petty authority, but I’ve generally been paid enough to live on, and on time, and haven’t risked my physical safety. I’ve never seen a workplace dispute inspire wide-enough discontent that wildcat action might be possible. And I’ve never known a manager to be afraid of a union.

    I expect if “austerity” becomes the ruling-class agenda in Australia, people’s mood will change and they would be a lot more likely to challenge their lot. I don’t know if or when that will happen here, but if it does happen, I’d say that would be the final sweeping-away of the ALP.

    Antony Green is far more limited than adoring fans give him credit for. He’s ultimately an insider, concentrating on process to the exclusion of how well that process serves people. And just because he built a computer system that can predict election results with only a few percent of the vote counted doesn’t make him an expert on other areas of politics.

    I think Marius Benson misses the point in the piece you link to. He says Keating’s criticism of the current ALP government are misplaced because Keating was sometimes opportunistic. The real reason Keating is out of line is that his strategy of neoliberalism is WHY the ALP no longer has a social base, and thus no strategy today!

  4. dedalus on 9th April 2012 1:42 pm

    You raise some interesting points here. One is your allusion to the apathy of union or ex-union members. There’s a native truth to the proposition that once the union movement has achieved its main purposes there’s far less reason for workers to join or remain. Most of what we take for granted in work place conditions is the result of past union action. Sadly, this shows that a large part of workers’ apathy is ingratitude.

    With respect to Labor’s perceived decline, I’m not so quick to agree with you. Speaking of “labor” and “liberal” vastly oversimplifies things. Far better would be to speak of “progressive” and “conservative”. And both sides are composed of coalitions in some sense. The conservatives, obviously, liberal and national. The progressives more recently separated into ALP, Greens and progressive independents.

    The main thing is that preferential voting smooths out the individual parties’ share of these two broad voting blocks.

  5. Riccardo on 10th April 2012 10:34 am

    http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/judge-us-on-policy-not-alp-brand/story-e6freoof-1226322410672

    Loved this article and its silliness.

    If the concept of ‘brand’ in marketing is to have any meaning, then the original political party idea, coming out of early 1700s England and France, was purely a marketing concept.

    There was no organisation as such. Little or no secretariat. No accounts to keep. No membership, except insofar as MPs chose to align themselves to it. If they broke with a party, well, they broke with a party. They might weigh up the risks of rewards with one, and retribution from the other.

    The ALP really created the idea of the mass movement parliamentary party (as opposed to the Communists, who wanted mass movement non-parliamentary organisations). The Parliamentary shell and its mass movement infrastructure is still there, but the mass movement has gone.

    It is time to follow St Kevin to our logical conclusion, and wind up the ALP. And the Libs, who, since Menzies, have only existed combat the ALP.

    The Nats are also drifting. The cocky with wheatgrass hanging from mouth is history, and the few remaining family farmers will quickly see how much more in common they will have with small and medium sized businesses, including the need to be globally relevant. An agrarian party based on peasant affiliation and mystical connection with the land is no longer required.

  6. Riccardo on 10th April 2012 10:39 am

    Also no knocking of Keating please! He saw how the festering mess that was the early 80s union movement had only one remaining function – to supervise its own destruction.

    As he said in the famous Tony Jones interview in 2007 – it is hard to see what role a union can have protecting people whose salaries of $75K or more are well above average. Below that you have the government agency that regulates pay for the low paid, above that the market can sort itself out.

    The ALP spent 100 years campaigning for centralised wage fixing and now they have it using statutory instruments for the low paid, there is no longer a need for an ALP.

  7. dedalus on 10th April 2012 8:02 pm

    Riccardo, what you say may be true to some extent, but your implied proposals, putting the ACTU and the ALP out to pasture, are just plain silly. The bottom line is that we have an electoral system, and even if some changes to it are surely inevitable, any change will also be slow in coming. For the foreseeable future – and you can substitute our lifetimes for that, and probably the lifetimes of our kids – the people will continue to cast their vote, and when they vote they’ll do so as they have always done, according to their innate progressive or conservative tendencies. All pairings of opposing human forces, such as altruism and greed, optimism and pessimism, backward looking and future looking, etc, etc, are non-political synonyms for these two main political tendencies.

    The one thing we can be sure of is that, whereever we go in the world, the names change to protect the usual suspects. But whether it be labor, social democrat, liberal, republican, greens, nationals – even the frigging nationalist socialist party in frigging naziland – behind all these pseudonyms lurk just two beasts.

    The froth and bubble over what we call them is no more than the evidence that most of us take words literally instead of contextually.

  8. James on 10th April 2012 8:22 pm

    I’m not sure why the Liberals are doing so well beyond the obvious problems Labor has. It’s not as if we’re a country of business owners. Is their appeal that they’re so anti the changed nature of society? Are we just a conservative society that can expect more long periods of conservative rule?
    Thank you for your blog and your ability to think and document outside the square. I hate to think what the country would look like under Conservative rule, especially when the boom ends.

  9. Riccardo on 11th April 2012 10:15 am

    Daedalus, if you supported left wing causes, you would definitely want the ALP put out to pasture, and new left representation in its place.

    You would not want:

    -organised labour organisations not actually representing the workforce in any substantive way

    -environmental issues traded off against legacy industries that don’t make the cut

    -heritary rule, with names like Ferguson and Crean and Beazley and so on turning up like bad pennies

    -parliamentary solidarity

    In short, you wouldnt want the ALP or ACTU.

    The reason the labels left and right struggle to mean anything any more is because there are no communities of interest between the educated and uneducated, the native-born and the immigrants, between the workers and non-workers, the income from salary vs income from investments, the people with good connections and family backgrounds and those without.

    The states no longer mean anything because Newtown has more in common with New Farm than it has with anywhere rural in NSW.

    The infrastructure is dated too. Too much regulation is done outside Parliament, and too much policy development outside the Executive, and people have access to desirable change (eg improvements to their own status) outside of the mechanism of government.

  10. Riccardo on 11th April 2012 10:20 am

    James, I don’t see things any better for the tories in the long run.

    Issues that cleave the left can just as easily cleave the right. We are seeing that right now with Sydney airport – business interests that would in the normal course of events support development having to side with Abbott who will say anything to get elected, including giving in to NIMBYs who, on an issue like airports, will appear in every district an airport can be built.

    The deeper issues will do that too. The touchstone religious issues like abortion.

    It may well be that while we are seeing the death of the organised Left in Australia, the organised Right in the US, the Republican Party, will be left to religious extremists and fanatics to run. Business know they can get good deals from both sides, and the Dems are less dependent on then unions than the ALP are.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 11th April 2012 11:12 pm

    James, I don’t think the Liberals business links are a plus, indeed they will probably run into problems as well, which Labor knows playing up Palmer and tobacco donations.

    Very much disagree that the unions’ decline came from getting its member what they wanted since you can trace its start to a time when they did exactly the opposite. It is their inability to be beneficial for their members that is the problem.

    Speculation on what will happen is not as interesting as what is happening now. The main thing is the inversion of politics that I don’t necessarily see reversing. It hasn’t where the economic crisis has already hit in Europe. If anything the gap between the state and society has widened.

    In that way Green’s assessment of Labor detached from what is happening in society has a point. The problem is that he has not made clear how very different that type of “politics” is from the past. As to which is “true” politics, well, I don’t know.

  12. Riccardo on 12th April 2012 6:07 pm

    Yes and no.

    Unions doing not what their members wanted? I’ve always believed unions should focus on wages and conditions. Join a union, get a pay rise, then you value the union.

    If the union goes off on other flights of fancy, or only exist to find ALP seats for their officials, clearly not valued by the membership.

    HOWEVER, if the combined union-ALP complex has delivered:

    -statutory wage fixing
    -non-wage and condition type benefits through government action such as Medicare or improved education
    -real increases in standard of living (note: standard of living, not wages)

    then said members/potential members have got all the benefits of a combined union-ALP complex, no more benefits are forthcoming so they give up on being members.

    This is the reality. You don’t need to join a union to benefit from 2012 first world Australia. Nor do you need to vote ALP.

    You can indulge your passions for Alan Jones, turning back boats, middle class welfare AND not vote ALP and yet your statutory wages, healthcare and so on are protected. If any Lib foolishly threatens the above, like Howard, they are turfed out.

    But you don’t need an ALP to keep these things, nor be a member of a union.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 12th April 2012 7:16 pm

    Don’t know how you’re measuring standard of living but real wages fell during the Hawke/union accord years when the unions’ decline started.

    Don’t think the “social benefits” made up for it, especially when longer hours worked, reintroduction of tertiary fees, housing costs are also considered.

    The problem is now that being based on collectivity, there is a dynamic that is hard to reverse. The political closeness to Labor that led to the unions agreeing to the accord is even tighter now. It’s their last place of refuge. No amount of bank-bashing by Howes and co. will restore their credibility.

    I also don’t get this idea that employees are somehow ‘sated’. Leaving aside who doesn’t want higher living standards, the lack of job security is something real that the anti-Workchoices campaign tapped into.

  14. dedalus on 13th April 2012 9:04 am

    Piping, saying that the unions have the “inability to be beneficial for their members” is an outrageous statement. Riccardo compounds this by slightly more subtle union-bashing.

    Almost every benefit working people enjoy today is the result of past union action. Unless you believe they’re the result of the generosity of capitalism and the market.

    So the benefits are won. Mainly, yes. So piss off unions. And while we’re at it, piss ON the unions.

    We’re all right Jack.

    Undoubtedly we are a nation of forgetful and selfish whingers.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 13th April 2012 7:10 pm

    Hang on a sec. Anything the unions achieved was only due to the social weight of its members. It’s not a case of employees being “grateful” to the unions but getting what they want through them.

    Unions are just a tool for employees to get what they want, when they don’t, they go – leaving the union leaders little more than the mouthy super fund managers they are now.

  16. dedalus on 14th April 2012 4:15 pm

    Hang on a sec back at ya.

    All the weight of the members is effective only presupposing they ARE members to begin with. In other words, without representation they HAVE no weight. And this is not a mere semantic point. It’s the actual organisation of workers into unions that is the key, not the fact that workers have “weight”. That latter property is just a vague mass of gripes which need to be prioritized and given focus through structural organisation. Enter unions.

    Workers don’t USE unions as they use tools such as hammers and nails. That idea gives workers far too much credit for being intelligent and acting with a common purpose. On the contrary, many if not most workers pay their dues and bellyache about doing so. Workers did not, nor do they, spontaneously unionise. Unions were, are, formed by a minority of workers – ie individuals acting from various motives including, in some cases no doubt, altruistic ones.

    Workers who don’t join unions, or leave them, and then indulge in union-bashing, are indeed reprehensible and ungrateful types with no knowledge of history. This I truly believe.

    I also find it incredibly disheartening when bloggers of the left, who should know better, ally themselves with the right in perpetuating this anti-union propaganda.

    To your point about union leaders – even if they WERE fund managers, then so what, that would only be one of their functions. It may be hard for a cynical commentator to admit, but union leaders can walk and chew gum. In any case, where is it a given that super fund managing is necessarily a bad thing? It does not prevent them from being “little more” than that, and certainly it does not make them “mouthy”. The real mouthiness is using language like “mouthy”, which I’d expect more from Bolt or Kroger.

  17. Dr_Tad on 14th April 2012 7:00 pm

    dedalus,

    I differ from TPS on the union leaders somewhat, but it is hard not to take seriously his assessment of where they are at right now in political terms. Their subcontracting of politics to the ALP carried with it the responsibility to attack their own members’ wages and working conditions in the 1980s. This in turn left them unable to respond to the concrete effects of decentralisation and trade-offs under enterprise bargaining thereafter. It is true that in raw $$ values some sections of better paid workers may have caught up a bit under Howard and Rudd, but as Mike Beggs argues in his recent Overland essay on inequality ( http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-206/feature-mike-beggs/ ), the headline figures disguise what are mostly stagnant or worsening living standards.

    This compares very unfavourably with the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Australian workers organised in unions — very often against the wishes of their leaders — to win things like real and substantial wage rises, shorter hours, better conditions and equal pay. I’m not making a case that Australian workers were uniformly highly politicised and/or revolutionary, but the unions looked a whole lot different to the piss-weak, top-down, ineffectual organisations those leaders have successfully fashioned since the 1980s.

    My difference with TPS (maybe it’s just one of emphasis) is that when workers do start to expect more from their officials then union organisation and activity can be rebuilt despite the crap politics of the officials. My partner was involved in a protracted industrial campaign at a university, involving both academic and clerical staff, which won despite the problematic politics of the bureaucrats. Although, notably, the campaign was run through a union (the NTEU) that is not ALP-affiliated. The better work by the officials reflected the fact that a layer of them had needed to appeal to staff anger and discontent at a bullying management in order to retain the support of the members, and so they simply couldn’t just shut up shop. To everyone’s surprise the bosses eventually backed down in a war of attrition.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 14th April 2012 11:49 pm

    dedalus, I think it would be useful first to get the moralism out of this issue as it just confuses things. The decline in real wages during the Hawke-union accord is in the ABS statistics (by 3-8% depending on the measure by my reading). Longer working hours during the period is also recorded as is a thumping rise in real house prices. Now it might be argued that social benefits at the time, like the reintroduction of a watered down Medibank offset this, but I doubt it.

    Real wages recovered under Keating and Howard (despite the unions’ rapid decline. How come?) but working hours did not, and housing certainly hasn’t. It is clear that the average employee working a 40 hour week has never again found housing as affordable as they did when Hawke came in. Bloggers like Possum like showing how much cheaper relative to wages things like washing machines and fridges have become – as long as you don’t want a house to put them in. That the abandonment of the commitment to housing affordability by both major parties is not more of a political issue can only be because it is hard to imagine these days they ever had it.

    Now I think the decline in living standards during the Hawke union accord and the simultaneous commencement of the long term decline in union membership and Labor’s vote are related. You may not. Like Leigh, you might think it just a coincidence. But to argue that the decline in Labor and the unions is a result of the opposite, i.e. too high living standards, is really too much of an ask. Furthermore, it shifts the blame from colluding union leaders, to “selfish” and “ungrateful” employees. I have no problem which side I’m on.

    But it is not the whole story. It is not true that the impact on employee living standards from Labor’s accord totally accounted for the subsequent decline of Labor and the unions. If so, both would have died long ago. Delivering the unions (and their members) into any austerity measures has long been central to the Labor case for government, as it was during the Depression and World War II. The difference this time, I think, was the political environment that prevented both the unions and Labor recovering from what would be their last big sell-out.

    So what happens next? I don’t know. But it is possible to say a couple of things now. First collective action is really no big deal to think of and certainly doesn’t require any special intervention from politically sophisticated operators. Facing an employer or any authority alone is uncomfortable and getting others to join in requires no great political input (although tactics to win might require a bit of expertise). I’m not surprised that sporadic actions will still occur, though the question comes what happens when it starts to become a social issue.

    Looking at Leigh’s graph (and Labor’s vote follows a similar trajectory) suggests that what will happen is unlikely to be similar to what has happened in the last 100 years. And I can also think of factors that make it very unlikely to repeat what happened when the Labor/union cycle started. One important one is that attitude to politics is very different right across society to what is was back then and that will probably influence the shape of any response. As I say in this post, what is clear is the way politics has inverted and come to mean something very different than what it was 100 years ago.

    But I think commentators should best just keep an open mind and just try and state clearly as possible what is actually happening rather than what they would like to think is happening. Dropping moral outrage would be a good start.

  19. dedalus on 15th April 2012 8:06 pm

    Piping, that’s a good response. I agree that it’s better to choose one’s words carefully. I note with irony however that somewhere in your response my tone had morphed from moralism to moral outrage. Let me tell you that casting nouns to adjectives is a doity trick.

    As usual, the subject is complex and we’re probably arguing at cross purposes. My ire is directed to intemperate language used to describe unions. It’s a noble ire and carries more weight to my mind than your’s or Dr Tad’s ire. (Peace, I joke.) However, laying that aside, I acknowledge that your own points are more about the relationship with unions to the ALP, the future of that party, and political parties in general. Seperate though not unconnected issues, no?

    To hammer home my own poor point, let me use a sporting analogy (which Dr Tad is sure to find interesting). Usain Bolt holds the world record for the 100 and 200m, and obviously trains very hard. But however hard he trains, it’s unlikely he’ll ever run much faster, if indeed as fast. But that is no reason for Usain to skip training, for if he doesn’t continue to train hard we can be assured he’ll run much slower.

    A similar story goes for unions. Unionisation of workers has achieved many goals for its members. But, however hard they try, it’s not likely they’ll achieve a great deal more, certainly not anything like the milestones they achieved in the past. As many cynics have observed, all those milestones have been passed. But that is no reason for Paul Howes to skip meetings. If he and the comrades don’t continue to try hard, they might become totally piss-weak, top-down and ineffectual (source: Dr Tad). Then they may as well bugger off, and we can be assured that the workers will be even less happy than they are today.

    And let me tell you they are not very happy. Ask Dr Tad. Dr Tad’s partner would have been less happy. But fortunately for Dr Tad’s partner the union came through. Good ol’ NTEU. Bunch of corrupt wankers though. (source: the press). Still, but. Credit where due. You would think it would stop the workers whingeing though, right? Wrong. They will whinge to the last gasp of their SUVs. Oops, sorry, most have left the union.(ed.- not a moral point.)

    Except the professional and business classes. Unionised to a (wo)man. National farmers’ federation, AMA, lawyer’s assoc., journo’s union, airline pilot’s union, business council, parliamentarians union (themselves).

  20. The Piping Shrike on 15th April 2012 8:54 pm

    I agree that the unions are exhausted, but because they can no longer manage the balancing act between their members’ and others’ interests. I don’t see it because the “milestones” have all been reached.

    Take a very basic milestone on which the unions were formed – job security. Job security in the workplace is clearly less than it was 30 years ago. One of the reasons employers never took up Howard’s IR reforms to any extent was that after Hawke/Keating they already had sufficient flexibility in hiring and firing (that insecurity was ironically why the anti-Workchoices campaign had a resonance despite AWAs being a minor part of the scene). If that increases, there are already indications that the unions’ response will be inadequate. Look at Howes’s response to the Alcoa shut-down in Victoria.

    The right will always demand their pound of flesh and attack the unions from their perspective – but certainly not because they are ineffective. By ignoring the failings of the unions that led to members leaving, it just seems to me to give their anti-union agenda a greater credibility than it deserves.

  21. dedalus on 15th April 2012 11:06 pm

    Pipe, I think we’re both lost causes over this. Thirty years have brought big changes, you’re not wrong, but I’d hardly blame unions for the vulnerability of workers. I’d blame the whole shebang. The thirty years itself. Change per se. (And I’ll include unions in that if you’ll include capitalism.)

    Here’s one big reason that union membership has declined: it’s no longer compulsory. Obvious but true. The moral: only people don’t change.

    Anyway there’s unions and unions. Are the professional and business classes fully unionised? Yes, if you take union in its sensible sense. No, if you insist on quoting the Murdoch’s Oxford.

    But the right is cleverer than the left in conning the middle into taking everything literally. Unions. Tax. Lie. Terms which could mean anything. So meaning nothing. The right intuits the subtle power of sloganspeak. The left is left pondering its abstractions. I’m sounding like a wonky record so I’ll leave it at that.

  22. The Greens after Bob Brown: ‘Replacing the bastards’ or just joining them? – - Left FlankLeft Flank on 17th April 2012 8:34 am

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  23. dedalus on 17th April 2012 10:13 pm

    Dr Tad in his above-linked piece repeats an assertion he made earlier on this blog that worker’s wages and conditions were eroded by the Hawke-Keating accord. That assertion partly explains his slightly anti-union bias. Without checking back, I have a vague feeling that yourself, Piping, is in general agreement with this idea.

    Exactly in which ways would this be so? I really think Tad should spell out the specifics. After all, unemployment is currently quite low, conditions are reasonably good, and wages are pretty high, especially compared to the US.

    Is Tad confusing ‘conditions’ with ‘dissatisfaction’? The latter is a general state of mind caused by multiple factors. Traffic gridlock for example. In particular, the uncertainty of employment tenure is a result of the ways management operates in the current environment. That environment is surely the result of capitalism’s almost complete triumph over more benign democratic systems, itself a situation that is very difficult for any government or union to exert meaningful influence over. (Even such a piddly thing like the mining tax sends the market mouthpieces into a lather.)

  24. Dr_Tad on 18th April 2012 2:55 pm

    OK, despite it being a celebration of this process, the new Megalogenis books spells it out well. Real wage cuts under the Accord in the second half of the 1980s, followed by further real declines in living standards for many due to very high interest rates (for which the govt took credit). Then a nasty recession with a “jobless recovery” that lasted many years (F/T male employment only got back to 1989 levels in 1998).

    Plus Keating used the recession as a lever to get the union officials to accept enterprise bargaining with a very weak award safety net, which exacerbated inequalities between better and worse organised workers, while still only delivering partial relief for better organised workers because “trade-offs” were a central part of the deal with enterprise-level negotiations. This has led to much greater insecurity at work, with higher levels of casualisation (although I don’t want to overstate this).

    Increased working hours for full-time workers rose continuously until the late 1990s (when we reached some of the longest working hours of any rich country), with much of the extra overtime unpaid.

    Plus Australia has become progressively more unequal in this whole period, in part due to the massive redistribution of wealth upwards. That inequality drives a sense of injustice yet by and large the unions have had no strategy to deal with it.

  25. dedalus on 19th April 2012 2:32 pm

    Tad, your last paragraph I agree with. Wealth redistribution upwards is a major factor, but the reason that government and unions have difficulty in preventing it (although conservative governments can exacerbate it), is that its genesis is the human condition. People are inherently exploiters and exploited. Therefore, the strategy for dealing with inequality cannot be top-down (except for ameleoration). Rather, some sort of social engineering is the best that can be done.

    This unfortunately has been coded by conservative extremists as “nanny-state”. That is a very unfair rap. The real social engineering is culture, or in its widest sense, civilisation. That is why I believe that any valid government intervention should have a philosophica/ethical base, rather than an economic one alone.

  26. Dr_Tad on 19th April 2012 3:10 pm

    Do you disagree with the first three paragraphs, then?

  27. Riccardo on 20th April 2012 10:19 am

    Workers of the world unite!

    Nope, not gonna happen. The impulses for worker unity were a product of early stage industrialisation, just as peasant revolts at the beginning of the modern era were products of economic pressures in agriculture. Marx understood his times, unfortunately he couldn’t predict the future with great certainty, just as we can’t.

    The Industrial project in Australia was a bizarre thing in some ways. Australia has always been a resource economy and one for which protectionism, whether labour or capital, should never have worked.

    The Australian Settlement was never an economic thing, but a political thing. It shored up the power of certain interests (at the expense of the average citizen) and its most reprehensible feature, the White Australia policy, kept Australia in Lee Kuan Yew’s famous words, the white trash of Asia.

    The snake was in the garden from the start and Adam and Eve could never enjoy paradise while racism, protectionism and nationalism enjoyed such prominence.

    I’m not sure if many more revolutions are ahead. Just as peasants fought for, and secured, the freedom of their labour and as industrial workers fought for wages and conditions, the fight ahead is freedom from arbitrary government, the fight for information freedom and freedom from bigotry.

    The conservatives will always bear the truth of their label by fighting to maintain bigotry, secrecy and arbitrary behaviour. These things are in their DNA, the idea that certain people are inherently better than others by birth or station.

    We always have the whack-a-mole problem, the same conservative impulse pops out of the ground as racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance or the entrenched rights of the rich and powerful. The left should never lose the desire to whack them back down again.

    If Australia is to become Blake’s Jerusalem, you would not build it around the satanic mills that some of the unreconstructed Left might push or some agrarian fantasy of the loony Right. It would be built around cities, around human intercourse and information exchange, around material adequacy and environmental sustainabilty, and respect for choice and difference.

  28. No Crap App: w/b 16 Apr 2012 « No Crap App on 21st April 2012 11:41 am

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  29. dedalus on 25th April 2012 10:37 am

    Tad, it’s not that I disagree OR agree with what you say. You enumerate trends and events. These we can all see. The issue I have with your (and Pipe’s) analysis is the emphasis you place on the political nature of causes.

    Ricardo’s last post (20 April) expresses more my view. We both point to more basic, primal causes of the overall problem. It’s a problem which transcends all historical periods and political systems.

    In a nutshell, it devolves to the notions of injustice and inequality, and involves our inherent human failings (which of course balance against our basic human positive qualities – I’m not a complete pessimist).

    According to this fundamental analysis, the majority of people are gullible, easily manipulated, apathetic, short-sighted etc, while a small minority possess the opposite traits. Consequently, the minority are smarter than the majority.

    Both segments are selfish (me first, then the kids, then the parents, then the spouse, then the friends ..), but the critical difference is that the smartness of the minority enables it to exploit the majority.

    This is now completely out of control, ever since the smart people banded together into quasi-unions of smart people. The sun-kings and the parliaments have been overtaken by the corporations and the manipulators of the sullen masses.

  30. David Jackmanson on 29th April 2012 12:14 am

    “Now we seem to also have an expectation that voters will balk at the size of the LNP majority and swing back to Labor in the coming by-election in Bligh’s seat – when the very opposite may happen.”

    And indeed it did. The ALP 2PP vote in South Brisbane in the general election was 55.58%, and at the by-election it’s sitting on 52.85 on election night (so not all votes have been counted, but it still looks like a swing away from the ALP)

  31. Australian election reveals anti-politics attitude » Precarious Climate on 27th October 2013 9:08 pm

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