Shades of the split

STONE the crows! Suddenly it’s 1916, 1931 and 1955 with the political and industrial arms of the Labor movement angry at each other. Of course it’s not about issues of high principle this time, like conscription, dealing with the Depression or communist infiltration of the ALP. No, now it’s something really serious – public service pay – that, and who runs the party and gives its parliamentarians their riding orders.

In Queensland, the Electrical Trades Union wants Anna Bligh banished because she is selling Queensland Rail.[i] Over in Adelaide, South Australia Unions boss Janet Giles wants Premier Mike Rann and Treasurer Kevin Foley gone because of cuts to government workers’ conditions.[ii]

But in NSW there’s no need for unseemly stoushes. Premier Kristina Keneally seems on-song with whatever the unions want, regardless of the impact on everybody else.

Last Christmas Keneally decided to keep Sydney Ferries in public hands. This pleased the unionised workforce but it probably puzzled the Auditor General who had pointed out the ferry service is under-performing. Keneally also ignored an independent inquiry’s suggestion she sell the failing fleet to the private sector, if anybody was interested.[iii]

Now Keneally is ratting on a national health and safety reform plan. In a fine display of provincial pique, Western Australia is also holding out. But in NSW the premier’s position is more about sectional than state interest. The new national deal has upset the NSW unions because it ends a local perk, which allows them to launch safety prosecutions and collect a share of any fines.

That the onus of proof is on NSW employers to show that they are innocent of any OH and S wrong doing, rather than for the prosecution to convince a court a boss is guilty shows why union officials are loathe to lose this nice little earner[iv].

Fair enough, union officials are in business to advance their members’ interests, especially in the public sector where unionised workers are concentrated. Some 46 per cent of government employees are union members, compared to 14 per cent in the private sector.[v]

The problem for Labor governments is when affiliated unions expect ministers to put the interests of their comrades, who are also their workforces, above those of the taxpayer when it comes to setting wages and conditions.

As South Australia Police Minister Michael Wright (he used to have the industrial relations portfolio) put it when he came out in support of his boss, “there was a lot of upside to the worker in regard to enterprise bargaining negotiations, not always the same upside to government and, I suspect, employers.” [vi]

Unions who want to protect public service pay and conditions and to hell with what Treasury assesses as affordable, is not much of a problem for Labor at a national level, where the public service only employees 160,000 people and does not provide the front-line public services people rely on (the rest of the government sector has 1.6 million workers). [vii]

Perhaps that, and an economically literate leadership, is why the national peak unions allowed the Hawke-Keating Government to erode the authority of the arbitration system, which kept the ACTU centre stage in the 1980s and 1990s.

But union leaders can still create serious strife for state Labor ministers. They always have. The union officials present at the creation of state parties were suspicious that MPs might acquire ideas above their station and not do what they were told. So in NSW they ensured state conference, dominated by union delegates, made party policy.

The potential for problems was always obvious but with the enormous exceptions of the splits of WWI, the Depression and Cold War pragmatists in the industrial and political wings of the party always ensured everybody got along.

As one time minister and party-player Rod Cavalier puts it;

The machine will back the government on decisions made in Cabinet, including the backing of Cabinet against Caucus. The government will acquiesce in control of the party by unions so long as unions delivered what the government wanted – including what was not in the interest of union members. The practical working out of this incompatibility relied upon a common-sense awareness that everyone was on the same side: the consequences of electoral defeat were too horrible to contemplate, so together you worked out a way forward that everyone could live with.[viii]

The problem for the Labor Party is this pragmatic approach is putrefying, with union officials and ministers not much interested in doing deals anymore. Morris Iemma was overthrown because state conference put the preference of a few thousand power workers who wanted to stay on the public payroll above the need to fund infrastructure by privatizing the power system.

And in South Australia some unions want to over-throw a premier who has just won an election, albeit not by much, because his efforts to shore up the state’s finances will hurt their members.

Union officials have a luxury Labor MPs and ministers lack. The comrades only have to worry about their members and can legitimately work with whoever will help the cause. And if that excludes Labor so be it.

As ACTU president Ged Kearney put it on Wednesday:

The traditional ties with Labor will remain, for some unions more closely than others, but unions will work with elected representatives who show a genuine commitment to enhancing workers’ rights and of taking a long-term view to improving our members’ lives.[ix]

Which generally means the Greens. In Victoria, the Electrical Trades Union backed them in the House of Representatives seat they took from Labor in the federal election.[x] But union officials focused on their members’ interests are not above alliances of convenience with the conservatives.

In 2005 nursing union candidates at the WA state election preferenced Labor last and their state secretary made positive noises about the Liberal opposition’s hospital policy. [xi]

Simon Benson explained how such one-off arrangements can lead to institutionalised opposition within Labor when he described how NSW unions ignored ancient but increasingly irrelevant factional allegiances to act as a united opposition to the Iemma government over power privatisation:

Without the ballast of the right-wing faction stabilising it, the industrial wing of the NSW Labor Party began to see itself as not just separate from the political wing but actively opposed to it over certain issues.[xii]

This is not a problem in NSW anymore where Premier Keneally has rolled over. But in Queensland and South Australia the official oppositions are irrelevant as Labor ministers and their erstwhile union allies slug it out over the question first asked in the 1890s and never definitively decided  – do Labor governments owe their primary allegiance, even obedience to the unions or the electors?

[i] Michael Stutchbury, “Get rail freight off Bligh’s accounts,” The Australian, October 16

[ii] Michael McGuire and Daniel Wills, “Power plays” The Advertiser, October 13

[iii] Brian Robins and Andrew West, “Keneally keeps public at the helm of ferries,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 23 2009

[iv] Matthew Franklin and Imre Salusinszky, “PM Julia Gillard fires up workplace war” The Australian, October 15, Phillip Coorey, “I’m not clashing with PM – Keneally”, Sydney Morning Herald, October 14

[v] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia, August 2009 @ recovered on October 15

[vi] Michael Owen, “Enterprise bargaining favours workers ahead of employers, says South Australian minister,” The Australian, October 15

[vii] Australian Public Service Commission, “State of the service report 2008-2009” @ recovered on October 16, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book 2008-2009 @ recovered on October 16

[viii] Rod Cavalier, Power crisis: the self-destruction of a state Labor party (Cambridge University Press, 2010) 21

[ix] Ged Kearney, “The ALP must show a respect for its trade union base”, The Australian, October 13

[x] “ETU gets it right on the night” @ recovered on October 16

[xi] “WA nurses plan to vote against Labor government”, ABC Radio AM, February 17 2005, @ recovered on October 16

[xii] Simon Benson, Betrayal: the underbelly of Australian Labor (Pantera Press, 2010), 19