Monday, 7 May 2012
So far the Australian Labor Party has been resistant to thoroughgoing reform. The problem here isn’t ideology — the ALP has never been an ideological party — it’s power.
Bruce Hawker The Australian 26 April 2012
The shenanigans at the HSU may be in extremis, but they highlight several things that go beyond just one union. It’s worth pointing out that the timing of the “actions” taken by the union leadership, the ACTU and the ALP, is driven less by what is happening at the HSU, which appears to have been going on for years, but more due to factors closer to home; faction fights both within the union and the party and the need by the government to cling on to its position in Parliament.
It also is a reminder that the problems of the union movement might not lie in the fact that we live in a post-industrial era, as Latham thinks, nor because everyone is so well off, as Megalogenis seems to think. It is hard to think of a growing section of the workforce that would be more in need for an effective response to generally lousy conditions – and yet so badly served by the organisation that claims to act on their behalf.
At the root of the schmozzle is the members’ lack of control over this “union”, not only shown by the rorting of members’ funds, but the way the police have been called in to fix it. From this angle, the police solution is highly unsatisfactory. First, because there is likely to be a world of difference between what is acceptable to the police for the leadership’s use of funds within the strict letter of the law, and what would be acceptable to the low-paid members who actually financed them. Secondly, because if the intention is to get the union to be accountable to its members, surely cleaning up the mess in the HSU would have been a very incentivising place to start. Kathy Jackson might talk about giving the union back to its members, but handing over control to a third party seems an odd way of going about it.
But of course Jackson is not talking about members regaining control of the union, but “democratising” it – something that we are starting to see are two very different things.
This difference is coming up in that other talk about ‘democratising’ going on right now, the reform of the ALP. In response to the Cabinet having raised the stakes by threatening a walk-out on a Rudd come-back, Bruce Hawker has responded in kind by upping the ante with a call for wide-scale reform of the Labor party in a piece in The Australian. Hawker’s piece accompanies a growing call for reform from those in and around Labor, but is perhaps more interesting because one, it implicitly makes clear its link to the Rudd challenge and so what is currently the most likely way any reform will actually happen, and two, in doing so becomes more explicit on what this reform is actually about.
Hawker’s argument hinges on the quote above, which is true (although to be correct, ALP positions like the White Australia Policy were fairly ideological, but you sort of get Hawker’s point) – the ALP was a largely a pragmatic response by the union leadership to pursue its interests in the political sphere.
At the core of leadership tussle between Gillard and Rudd is a power struggle over how the party should run now that the unions that built it have lost their social role. This is why, although Rudd was rejected because he was “impossible to work with”, his strongest, almost unanimous, rejection came from a union leadership that wouldn’t especially be dealing with Rudd on a day-to-day basis. Not because of any difference in policy between Gillard and Rudd towards their members (nor all the other issues that those like Howes claim are so important to them, like asylum seekers) but because of the different attitude between Rudd and Gillard to the influence of union bosses in the ALP.
As Hawker says, there is no ideological position, but just one for power’s sake – something Howes confirmed with the utter emptiness of his reasons for keeping Gillard that he gave on the weekend. But Hawker’s point does raise an interesting question: if those power brokers are clinging on for no other reason than power, for what reason do those like Hawker want to take it away?
As with Rudd, Hawker pins his case on electoral viability. Rather optimistically, perhaps, Hawker hopes the success of the French Socialist candidate yesterday might be a trigger for a shake-up in the ALP. Hawker points out how the Socialists revived their fortunes by opening up the choosing of their Presidential candidate to any voter and this ‘democratising’ of the party revived public interest in the party that has carried on to election day.
Let’s leave aside the question of how much Hollande’s success was due to the revival of the Socialists, and how much due to the deep unpopularity of the first President of the Fifth Republic to fail to lead on the first round. Like Kathy Jackson’s ‘democratising’ of the HSU, there is a meaning of democracy that is not how it’s usually understood, at least in Australia for the last 100 years.
The Australian political system has been based on social groups coming together and forming political parties to represent them. This type of democracy, probably best called ‘representative democracy’ runs counter to the type of party democracy Hawker is talking about. Since these parties represent the interests of particular groups, they are naturally closed to those particular groups. The ALP required union membership and the Liberals had a more informal exclusion that, well, let’s just say, roughly equates to the one in society.
By its very openness, Hawker’s party democracy assumes, that this sort of ‘representative democracy’ is dead. If a political party is open to anyone, then it represents no one in particular at all. This is not ‘representative democracy’ where social groups put their desired candidate in Parliament by broadening their appeal to other groups – such as Labor would do with state spending to appeal to some sections of the middle class.
What Hawker proposes is more like ‘X-factor democracy’ where a relatively passive support base chooses the most appealing candidate given to them. In France, where politics is a national sport, viewing figures for candidate debates can indeed outstrip Masterchef, as Hawker notes in a rather unfortunate comparison.
The level of participation in the primaries was remarkable: nearly 2.9 million people voted in them. Furthermore, more than five million people watched the televised debate between the candidates for the Socialist Party’s nomination. The debate even beat the popular French show Master Chef on a rival network, no mean feat in a nation of gourmands.
In Australia, Gary, George and Matt might just be able to hold their own.
It would be important not to counter-pose the two too strongly. In Australian politics, there has always been an element of both social groups putting forward their interests, and then being forced to choose from something else entirely. The great schisms in the ALP, especially over conscription and the Depression, were based on this split between Labor members in Parliament and the social base that sent them there. This party reform just removes the need for a social base altogether.
For the ALP, opening it to anyone presumably includes those who not only have little to do with unions but those who think unions have no real role to play in Australian society at all. Indeed there might even come a day when Labor is run by one. Maybe that’s why there is an air of inevitability to it – didn’t we already have a trial run?
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 May 2012.Filed under State of the parties