Bill Shorten gets serious, or does he?

Bill Shorten’s plans to reform the ALP were greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm by Mark Latham, a remarkable event in itself. Others have some reservations or are not so sure.

Laura Tingle pointed out (paywalled) that he actually proposes nothing about senate candidate selection, it’s a matter for the states. He asked the national ALP secretary to work with the National Executive and the WA state secretary “to recommend the best way of giving local party members a meaningful say in the selection of Senate candidates.”

Our work in Western Australia will be used to inform our other State branches in allowing local members to contribute to Senate pre-selection nationally.

Farr said that there would have been discussion within the ALP before Shorten went to press. Shorten is reasonably confident of his reforms getting up, he says. Farr described it as a “well-planned offensive”. Apparently NSW in July are going to consider the union membership link and introduce one-click joining facilities via the internet.

Count me confused. Here in Queensland last year before the election my wife, who is not currently a union member, went on the internet and had no difficulty in joining with one click for the princely sum of five dollars. (She has since made a more substantial donation.)

After the current publicity she rang the Qld office asking if her membership was OK. She had been a union member for years, acted as union rep etc, but is currently not a member. “You’re fine” she was told. Could she vote in a leadership ballot if Shorto gave up? “Certainly.”

Malcolm Farr pointed out on RN Drive that achieving rank and file input to senate selection would be the real prize. At present it can be a sinecure for party and union officials, a privilege they might be expected to relinquish reluctantly.

Shorten is recommending a 70:30 membership/central panel split in selecting candidates. He’s also recommending more primary-style selections, as successfully trialled in Western Sydney.

Shorten wants broader input in a review of Labor’s entire policy platform prior to the 2015 national conference.

He looks forward to a membership of 100,000. I believe it is 40,000 at present.

David Lockwood at New Matilda thinks the union link should remain, indeed should be strengthened and “democratised”.

Union delegates to ALP conferences should be elected by ordinary union members, not appointed by national secretaries. Furthermore, the selection of parliamentary candidates should be in the hands of rank-and-file members of the party and the affiliated unions…

Break the link with unions and the Labor Party

ceases to be an authentic voice for working people, it will lose its core meaning and become nothing more than a pale imitation of the conservative parties.

Lockwood sees Labor as representing working people, not Australians generally. He says there are 1.8 million union members, roughly 18% of the workforce. This has been stable for three years. He sees anti-union laws as an inhibitor of greater membership. This should change, he says.

Shorten said Abbott did not put Labor in Opposition, the Australian people did. It’s hard to see the Australian people handing over the government of the country to an overtly union-based party, however democratised.

Narelle Miragliotta, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Monash University, assembles a catalogue of negativity about the Shorten proposals. The Party is a victim of its own success. Nothing left to fight for, apparently.

Labor has addressed some of the worst excesses of societal disadvantage and inequality when in government. In doing so, it has transformed both the life opportunities but also the political and social expectations of Labor’s former working-class base.

This has left Labor bifurcated and fractured between a progressive and traditional cohort. Increased membership “is unlikely to bridge the policy and cultural divide that separates these voting segments.”

As to a faction-free Labor Party, the bigger it grows the more power aggregates around cliques.

With that sort of negativity we may as well hand over the game to our natural rulers, the Tories.

Most of my working life was spent inside government. I’m not a natural joiner. Now I work as a sole trader providing direct services to capitalists, pensioners, professionals and self-funded retirees. I can’t see a role for a union.

Shorten has a bit of the anti-politician about him. I might go look for that one-click entry portal.

15 thoughts on “Bill Shorten gets serious, or does he?”

  1. While non-union membership is a good move, the whole package of ‘reforms’ fall way short of what is needed to restore the electorate’s faith in Labor. For a long time they have been the lesser of two evils.
    As per Geoff Davies article over at IA, Labor needs to renounce market fundamentalism to become a truly progressive party and if they do that they will lose most of their corporate donations. I can’t see anyone in the upper echelons of Labor having the vision or the talent to carry that off.,6405

  2. Interesting, thanks SG, I missed that one.

    Ironically Labor still has as part of its platform (actually constitution, I think) the public ownership of the means of production.

  3. Further to that, I heard a program of an interview with one of British Labour’s advisors where he was recommending a form of stakeholder capitalism with ideas influenced by the modern German polity and Catholic thinking on a collective rather than an individual view of human nature, although he was from memory Jewish. I lost track of him when I had a computer glitch and haven’t found him again.

  4. The unions are an important part of the problem. They unions grew lazy and arrogant under compulsory unionism and, in places like the Pilbara treated their workers in a way that mine management would never have been willing to do.
    In addition, their democracy was flawed. For example, votes re industrial action were made by the raising of hands rather than secret ballots which, under some circumstances, would have put pressure on members to vote in particular ways.
    The union voting systems were all about the welfare of those with a job, not the unemployed. For example, the productivity agreements of the Hawke era were decided by the vote of the workers on site for deals that gave better conditions for those staying on, compensation for those accepting redundancies

    and no compensation for unemployed people who can’t get a job because they have to compete with the experienced workers who accepted redundancies.
    The unions also became lazy because of the free ride their officials got into the Labor party. The Labor party would be a lot healthier if the union influence came from union members who joined the party.
    Right now most employees do not have access to effective unions. These workers desperately need a real Labor party that will work for the welfare of all employees, contractors etc.

  5. History will be a lot kinder to the Gillard government than the current crop of commentators. We have to go back to the Whitlam government to find a government that made a bigger difference.
    The real problem with Gillard was that she didn’t have the courage to challenge the unsustainable tax cuts for the rich made by Howard in his last term of government.

  6. Brian, yes they still claim to be social democrats. A quick read of their latest constitution makes me think Labor has a lot of talent for writing out aspirations and ideals but no talent for delivering them.
    Stakeholder capitalism is a new term to me and promises some interesting reading. I may be wrong because I was quite young at the time, but was there anything much wrong with capitalism before we got the predatory, transnational super-capitalism which we have now?

  7. Salient Green,
    I hope I’m not teaching you to suck eggs, but read Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England or any good social history of the Great Depression.
    The post-war prosperity c. 1949- c. 1973 (under which you presumably grew up) was an anomaly. Usually it was frantic boom and devastating bust, until the application of that dreadful socialist Keynes’s theories (which, surprise, surprise, still worked when Rudd applied them to Oz in the GFC.)
    Hockey and company, and I don’t just mean in Australia, seem to be applying a variant of the balanced budget theories that brought us the Great Depression, the causes of which we still don’t really understand (Unless there’s been an advance in knowledge since I studied it at uni years ago.)

  8. SG: I started working for BHP when I left school in 1960. Looking back I would say that some things better then and some things like environmental management and OH&S are much better now.
    The perspective of my coal mining father in law on the times was a lot harsher than mine. Having to leave school and go down pit at 14 because his father was sick then working through the depression in a struggling pit that killed a lot of his friends might colour his perspective.
    To some extent how companies behaved then and now depends on the pressures they are under, the nature of the business and the individuals in positions of power.
    In 1960 the behaviour of management and governments was influenced by their experience of WW2, the depression and a real fear of communism. Wages were a far greater share of the GDP than they are now and the minimum wage was far closer to the average wage. It was a period when people like me thought that things were getting better.
    Protectionism also helped. It meant companies could be pressured into investing in Australia if they wanted to sell in Australia. Unemployment was less than 2%.
    The other thing that strikes me is that companies like BHP had a much longer term perspective. This was partly because shareholders tended to be people who could afford to think long term – Not superannuation managers whose bonus depended on next months share price.

  9. Thanks Paul and John. The message I take away from your posts is that the people must constantly struggle to rein in Capitalism. There seems to be a predator vs prey thing happening.
    The predators/capitalists ahead of the game ATM while the people/prey have been dulled into complacence by TV, sport, easy credit and a growth fetish which has leveraged the future.
    Are we locked into a death spiral of unsustainability or can something like stakeholder capital emerge to save both sides.

  10. SG it’s not my field, but I’ll venture a few comments. I think capitalism has always had a tendency to be oppressive. It’s a matter of scale and degree.

    When I was reading about Prussian history, there was a great deal of pressure on workers during early industrialisation in the first part of the 19th century. For example weavers in Silesia, where my mob came from, under pressure from mechanisation in England, trashed a couple of country estates with cloth manufacturing operations. The uprising was brutally put down by the army.

    Guilds were under pressure and there was much concern about ‘the social question’ before Marx and Engels came along. I gather labour didn’t get organised until after 1850.

    In Prussia kids between the age of 5 and 13 were in school from 1762 when Frederick the Great introduced compulsory education, but compulsory education did not come in England before 1870. Up till then there was widespread child labour exploitation. In the US of course there was slavery.

    There is a book, film and website called The Corporation. I read the book some years ago. I recall emphasis that in the 19th century corporations were mainly put together for a purpose with a limited time, say to build a bridge. Then came the modern stockholding corporation where growth is a perpetual expectation, at rates that are basically unsustainable. International trade agreements came from the lobbying of US and European multinationals which wanted to expand into new markets.

    Along the way an American supreme court judge (one of three on the case) noted in a judgement about something else that corporations had the same standing in law as real persons. It’s been holy writ ever since and has been carried into trade agreements, so that foreign corporations now effectively have rights not accorded to citizens.

    Moreover, Immanuel Wallerstein, who spent his life studying capitalism within the ‘world system’ reckons there was a Krondatieff A cycle until about 1968-70 when growth came easily. Now we are in a Krondatieff B where it’s hard. Capitalists have used all sorts of strategies – offshoring to cheap labour, financialisation, Ponzi schemes, squeezing more ‘productivity’ out of their workers etc. In the 1970s we had stagflation, then Reagan, Thatcher and neoliberalism.

    But PB is right about the postwar years. In the 1930s Galbraith said they honestly thought capitalism was busted and people were casting about for a different system. I grew up in the best of times when we had hope, apart, that is from the definite expectation that the world would end with a nuclear holocaust.

    End of rant.

  11. Are we locked into a death spiral of unsustainability or can something like stakeholder capital emerge to save both sides.

    SG FWIW Wallerstein says that after 500 years of capitalism we are in a transition period which will last 30 to 40 years. A new system will emerge, but it won’t necessarily be better than what we have now. He would warn that the people who meet at Davos every year probably do not have your interests at heart.

    I’m not sure ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is the right term. I think that actual term has a bad odour amongst the boffins after Tony Blair and the Third Way. I think in Germany worker representation on company management is mandatory, and local and state governments often have a golden share in substantial companies. There is a general commitment that freedom consists mainly of the state seeing that everyone has the opportunity to make something out of themselves. The emphasis is on social support rather than individual liberty, which is also maintained by equal access to justice. Solve the freedom problem and you solve the equality problem and have social cohesion.

    End of second rant.

  12. Thanks for those very interesting posts Brian. You’ve given me some more reading to do.

  13. You seem like such a Labor person, Brian, and I don’t quite see why. Inevitably it seems Labor will fragment into those who agree with Greens and those who support the Coalition. It would be better if green Labor people came over in a bloc as they would then have more power to support the social justice agenda, which at least some Labor people still understand better than some Greens.

  14. Val: I don’t think it is inevitable that Labor will fragment or fade away.
    The party I see most at risk at the moment is the LNP. The transition of the party from conservative party to Tea party may have got the temporary support of many working class people by playing the refugee card etc. but it seems incapable of acting in the interests of the working class. A hockey budget that makes life harder for the poor while protecting what the rich see as their entitlements ain’t going to help. To make matters worse the behaviour of the Tea Party isn’t going to be all that attractive to many real conservatives. (The most attractive party for real conservatives may turn out to be the Greens,)

  15. If the ALP wants to do the things that it claims it wants to do then there is a need for the tax increases to pay for them. It doesn’t matter whether they are called debt levies, carbon taxes, the ETS or whatever.
    So it is disappointing to see Bowen rabbiting on about broken promises and playing politics instead of coming out and supporting the levy that the country needs.
    The media too should be having a hard look at itself. Rob Burges of Business Spectator says that part of the problem is the way the media reports and comments on tax reform. They are too fond of conflict and excitement and chronically unable to have a serious conversation re what is good for the country.

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