23/10/2007 - 22:00

Last roll of the dice for trade union movement

23/10/2007 - 22:00


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Whether or not Kevin Rudd – Kevin07 during the campaign – takes Labor into power on November 24, nobody will ever be able to take from him that he has managed to make a very average mob look like winners.

Last roll of the dice for trade union movement

Whether or not Kevin Rudd – Kevin07 during the campaign – takes Labor into power on November 24, nobody will ever be able to take from him that he has managed to make a very average mob look like winners.

For a long time he had the ever-centralising John Howard-led conservatives trailing 56 to 44 per cent in the polls.

Then, on the eve of the Howard-Rudd TV debate, as week two of the six-week campaign approached, a slide, even if only a small one, had emerged with Kevin07 leading by only 53 to 47.

Although certainly still a respectable and winning lead, it showed Labor was heading southwards, perhaps even towards defeat.


There seem to have been two reasons, one easily remedied the other less so, and only likely to ever be confronted if November 24 unexpectedly turns into a defeat.

Firstly, there was that inability to have ready a projected set of tax scales like Mr Howard and treasurer and prime minister-in-waiting, Peter Costello.

Why it took nearly a full working week to produce one is baffling. It should have been ready.

But, as expected, Kevin07 wheeled out his now over-used policy-Xeroxing machine and offered a tax program almost identical to the Howard-Costello one.

The eventual Rudd tax response included educational concessions that the coalition will undoubtedly match.

The second drawback stemmed from the coalition’s “look at all those union heavies behind Kevin07” advertising campaign.

To top matters off, the coalition’s saturation campaign highlighting the predominance of union bosses in Labor’s Canberra ranks gained a most welcome boost from goings on within Labor’s Victorian branch.

 “Mr Rudd encountered turbulence in Victoria yesterday when the dumped Labor member for Corio, Gavan O’Connor, announced he would run as an independent and lashed the party’s leadership as lacking ‘spine’,” one newspaper briefly reported.

Another further explained the tussle within the Corio seat that covers the Geelong area, so there’s little wonder Mr Howard gladly welcomed it.

Since Mr O’Connor announced he’d be standing as an independent, Mr Howard called on voters in the Geelong seat to get right behind Mr O’Connor, a former dairy and onion farmer, who’d been dumped so assistant ACTU secretary, Richard Marles, could run for Labor in Corio.

“You all get the spin, you get that beautiful spin that it was all about renewal in Victoria,” Mr O’Connor said.

“There ain’t no renewal if they’re all male, they’re all union officials-cum-lawyers-cum-factional hacks.”

Understandably also, Mr Howard promptly highlighted the fact that Mr O’Connor was Labor’s only MP with a farming background.

“And for his pains he’s been kicked out and replaced by somebody who holds a senior position in the ACTU,” Mr Howard said.

“This is the latest example of how former trade union officials have muscled aside long-serving Labor Party members.”

Mr Rudd’s response to a union boss getting the jump over former farming Mr O’Connor was predictable: “Gavan, I’ve known him a long time. I like him a lot but I disagree with his decision.

“Richard Marles, I think will be a first-class candidate and member for the seat. I support him 100 per cent.”

Mr Howard could easily have rubbed more salt into the wound by pointing out that the last person with farming credentials Labor permitted to rise through its ranks became one of Australia’s best-ever finance ministers.

State Scene refers, of course, to Western Australia’s now ex-senator Peter Walsh, also author of one of the most insightful post-war books  – Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister – on Labor’s Canberra-style political endeavours.

Whenever my leftist and rightist political pals and contacts hail Mark Latham’s sometimes insightful but generally quite vindictive and nasty book, The Latham Diaries, it’s difficult to resist the temptation not to say the Walsh book is at least equal, and probably superior.

Having recently re-read The Latham Diaries to recap what was written of then Labor frontbencher, Mr Rudd, I stick by that view.

Irrespective of the outcome of November 24, the O’Connor-Marles affair clearly demonstrated a major institutional candidature bias Labor may one day need to confront head on.

And that day will come soon if the coalition’s “too many union bosses in Labor’s parliamentary ranks” campaign is judged as having been the prime reason for a fifth Howard victory.

Last week, State Scene quoted from a recent Quadrant magazine comment piece by editor, Padraic McGuinness, titled ‘The Future of the Unions’.

When highlighting Mr McGuinness’ contentions it’s perhaps worth noting that Quadrant’s board of control is chaired by former Labor leader and onetime governor-general, Bill Hayden.

Amongst other things, Mr McGuinness wrote: “The reality is that despite the determination of the unions and their parliamentary party to restore the centrality of union power, it is too late.

“The structure of industry and the composition of the labour force are no longer amenable to old-fashioned centralism and the dictation of the content of labour contracts by union bosses.

“While there would be a temporary access of power to the unions, and possibly a good deal of damage inflicted on the economy by the resulting chaos, the medium to long-term result must still be an erosion of classical unionism.

“It has outlived its era.

“Then the important question will be, how will the triumph of the unionists in taking over the Labor Party in parliamentary as well as organisational terms affect not only their future but that of the party?

“Discounting the rhetoric about its origins, could the Labor Party survive for very long its conquest by the unions?

“So, paradoxically, a Labor victory at the election this year would probably sow the seeds for the eventual demise of both party and union movement in their familiar guise.

“The best prospect for Labor would be to distance itself from the unions as Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ did in Britain.

“While our union leaders, at least the best of them, are not nearly as stupid as British unionists, they would find themselves defending and shoring up obsolete structures.”

Clearly, if one is without a tax policy, a Xeroxing machine is all you need to produce one in a few days.

But unraveling a party’s longstanding organisational links with a largely outdated labor market organisational structure is something else.

This was well demonstrated in Mr Rudd’s two-part O’Connor-Marles statement on the Corio imbroglio about liking Mr O’Connor but backing Mr Marles “100 per cent”, and Mr O’Connor’s subsequent response.

Why back an ACTU official over a former farmer who is Corio’s sitting member?

Mr O’Connor’s preferred explaining it as Labor’s leadership lacking “spine”.

To make matters worse, this alleged lack of “spine”, which presumably included Mr Rudd, was raised while the coalition was lambasting Kevin07 for having so many unionists in his ranks.

Clearly, much more than a Xeroxing machine is required to overcome such a predicament.

What could all this lead to?

The McGuinness-postulated Blair ‘New Labour’ option, which was a drastic trimming of union voting power at party forums, may be closer to being realised than may be suspected.

For that to happen depends on whether Labor loses on November 24.

If it wins we’ll probably not hear of it again this side of 2015, perhaps much later.

However, if the unlikely happens and Labor loses, we can be confident that the man who made Labor look like a winner from December 2006 – when he replaced Kim Beazley – until the morning of November 24 2007 will move to revamp Australian Labor along Blair lines.

A fifth consecutive Labor defeat virtually guarantees that Labor would undergo a massive organisational shake-up, beginning November 25, since Kevin07 wouldn’t intend carrying the same burdensome disadvantage and being told he’s without a “spine” as Kevin10.


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