||Issue No. 136||17 May 2002|
Interview: Licking the Wounds
Industrial: The Accidental Tourist
Unions: Stars And Stripes
International: The Un-Promised Land
History: Mate Against Mate
Politics: Reith's Gong
Poetry: You've Got a Friend
Review: War on Terror: Now Showing
Satire: Burmese Regime Makes Genuine Commitment To Pretence Of Change
The Locker Room
Week in Review
More May Day Hate Mail
What Women Want
Chucking a Wobbly
Is Caustic Costello the Despot of Despair?
East Timor: Independent Or Mendicant?
Licking the Wounds
Interview with Peter Lewis
What's the most surprising thing you learnt during the review process?
I guess it was that although people at the Forums particularly expressed their disappointment, indeed their disillusionment, at the Federal Election results they were - despite their criticism, despite their disappointment and disillusionment - solid for the Party. In other words, there was plenty to grumble about but the membership, the rank and file, wanted to see the problems through and they wanted change.
One of the focuses of the report was the ALP's relationship with the union movement. Why do you think that particular debate is being raised so loudly at this point in time?
Well it's largely an issue that's been raised by our political opponents. Some of our colleagues were naïve enough to go for the baited hook, but it was really raised by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industrial Relations, Abbott. And of course, some of the unions have taken the stand that they want to hang on to what they've got. That's a fairly natural thing. But let me tell you that in the Forums I've been to throughout the lengths and breadth of Australia I find that there is absolutely no, or perhaps more accurately negligible, desire for the Labor Party to break its tie to the Unions.
I think most people recognise that no unions - no Labor Party. There are plenty of illustrations to which one can point where there are social democratic parties in various countries of the world that function quite well. But they aren't Labor Parties as we know the Labor Party in Australia. Let's face it: the Labor Party is the creature of the trade union movement. The Labor Party was created in the late part of the 19th Century to give working class people the right to representation in Parliament and once you separate the Union from the ordinary membership then you'll finish up with a different type of Party altogether, with different aspirations altogether and different objectives altogether.
And I repeat, I found no inclination from the part of the rank and file of the Labor Party to cut the unions adrift. If anything it was quite the opposite, there was a sense of indignation with the very small and negligible minority of people who were talking that way.
Doesn't that put Simon Crean in a difficult position in that he's almost tied his colours to altering the 60/40 rule?
No I don't think it's got anything to do with the 60/40 rule. That's the trap. I don't think the Unions deep down give a damn whether it's 60/40 or 50/50. That's a negligible aspect. If you start trying to argue the rights and wrongs of the issue from numbers then you can point to the fact that the numbers of trade unionists in this country have steadily shrunk over the last decade or so that the numbers in the union movement is something like 20%, where it used to be 60% and 70%. So if you start looking at numbers you can get almost any result you want to from it, if you apply the old adage "liars figure and figures lie" - that's not the way to approach it at all. What is needed is a fair and equitable partnership between the trade unions and the rank and file of the Labor Party and you need a proper balance between the two. But it seems to me that that doesn't depend upon the 60/40 or the 50/50 rule at all. I think that Simon Crean has a valid position from which to argue. May I say while I whole heartedly support the involvement of the Trade Unions, they have to smarten their game a bit too. It's not all on one side, this need for some change and some reform and I think we've all got to lift our game a bit. We've lost three Federal Elections on the trot and now's the time we want to put an end to that.
What is your evaluation of the state of the Union movement in Australia, both in terms of their policy settings and also the quality of the leadership within the movement?
Well, I wouldn't like to pass views about qualities of leadership; that's for other people to do. But the past changes that have taken place in the workforce, the switch from blue collar dominated trade union movement to white collar dominated industries, the move away from employment to self-employed and the very noticeable move from full-time permanent work to permanent-casual work, have all had a big effect on the composition and the numbers in the trade unions. I think all people interested in social issues and social advancement for the majority of people, have got to take some notice of that and the impact that it's having. Too frequently people are able to say that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
It's a tough life for lots of people. Sure, they may have their own house in the sense that they pay the deposit and got a big mortgage. Sure, their children are getting a decent education, but it's at the expense of mum and dad working and every cent that's earned being applied to the mortgage and the children's education and keeping up with the general cost of living.
Beyond the 60/40 rule, what other mechanisms are there to mediate that relationship between the political and industrial wings of the Labor movement?
Well, quite frankly I don't think that there's all that much in dispute between the industrial and the political wings of the Labor movement. I think the unions get a fair share of the representative opportunities that the Labor Party presents. There are any number of people who've attained high office in trade unions who are in very responsible positions in the Parliament, in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as, of course, the State Legislatures and I think really what's needed most is just more communication between the political and industrial wings of the Party. The two sometimes seem to treat each other as belonging to separate identities, where in fact we belong to the one identity, that is the identity that's concerned with equality of opportunity, social justice and humanitarianism. A fair go for everybody. So I don't think the remedy for what ails us is simple. But then I don't think it's all that difficult either.
One of the concrete recommendations, is the requirement that MPs, Ministers and Shadows, should have consultative processes in place with relevant trade unions and trade unionists. Is this a recognition that members of parliament have lost touch with the union perspective?
Whether they have or whether they haven't, that's the perception amongst many trade union leaders and many trade unionists. Indeed it goes further than that; it's a perception amongst the rank and file of the Party. Many of them of course are trade unionists and that was a constant complaint that emerged from our Forum; that is that the politicians have lost touch with their membership. We either don't see them, or they don't reply to our letters, they are disengaged from the membership, they don't report to us - this sort of thing. And that's something that's not hard to attend to, it's not hard to remedy, as long as people get off their backsides and do their job.
After all, a member of Parliament has two duties really: he's got his primary duty to the electorate which put him into Parliament and then he's got his other duty to the Party that pre-selected him and the members of that Party. And it's not some privilege that the members have of having a report from their local member, it's an obligation on the part of the local members to perform that role.
Have you got any ideas on how that process should work?
Just turn up at Branch meetings. Turn up at SEC, FEC meetings. Every so often go around the workshops in your electorate. People are hungry for information. You know, I spent some time in Parliament myself and you go to a workshop, the boys might give you a bit of a going over to start with, it's like being a referee in a football match - you usually get booed to begin with but it's all good natured and then when you get down to the real business of explaining what particular policy of the day is of interest and how it came about and what its objective is, you find you can have a fruitful discussion. And I think there should be more of that.
After all politics is also largely about people and I think that's where the problem has emerged. I think the electronic age - although what I'm saying may finish up on a screen on the Internet - has taken away some of the deep down human qualities you get in a face to face meeting or confrontation. People never quite feel that they've had the satisfactory encounter, certainly not as satisfactory as they would get at a meeting.
It is accepted that it is one of the priorities of the union movement is to see Labor in government. Do you think that there should be more of a focus amongst Labor politicians to see an increase in trade union density?
Definitely and I think, to be fair to the Labor politicians, they do not think otherwise. I think everybody's aware of the general framework of the Labor movement and its components of industrial and political; it's just that in recent years maybe there's just not been enough attention given in a world in which everybody has got too much to do. There's not enough attention given to the need for communication between the politicians on the one hand and the membership (which includes trade union affiliates) on the other.
How did you use to manage your relationship with the Union movement when you were Premier?
I was lucky in that I had a few big groupings of Trade Unions like the Chullora Railway Workshops, the Abattoirs, the Eveleigh Workshop, the Ford Motor Company on Parramatta Road. You could get several hundred of the boys at lunch and you provided the entertainment for them. You'd tell them what you were there for and what you'd come to discuss and they'd soon tell you what they wanted to discuss and you could have an all in debate. I found that very helpful. I've always taken the view that there's a lot of hidden talents and ideas that spring from working people and you can do worse than to listen.
And how did you use to get on with the Labor Council?
I had no problems with the Labor Council. Occasionally I had problems with the Officers of the Labor Council - but they were pushing their case and if I thought they were trying to roll me over I'd stand my ground. But we had plenty of red-blooded discussions, but we were always sensible enough to know that we're on the same side and the old "united we stand, divided we fall" rule was as valid then as it was when it was first espoused in the 19th Century.
One of the sections of your report looks at the breakdown of class, but it specifically rejects this 'aspirational' tag that's been floating around. What do you see as a more useful way of understanding the changing demographic?
You have to understand that everybody is aspirational; everybody wants to do the best they can for their families. Everybody wants a reasonable health system; if the wife or children get ill, everybody wants to see their children given a fair go in terms of education and the right to move from school into universities and TAFE colleges. These are the things that never change in politics. Politicians might change but the essential ingredients of policies don't change. How you provide the services, how you plan a visionary way for the future, all that can naturally change with circumstances but families need housing, they need transport, they need schools, they need hospitals and they need security. And if you can attend to those issues then you're really looking after people's aspirations. After all, politics is about hope and we all have that from the moment we're born. We have the hope of better things ahead and it's the Labor Party's role, as I see it, as I've always seen it, to look after the majority of people and to give them a chance to realise their hopes.
That lack of security was obviously something that was tapped into by the Howard Government during the election. Are you concerned that Labor is now critically exposed on these wedge issues such as immigration and race?
Well immigration and race are very difficult issues for a Party with compassion. It's much easier to generate hatred in relation to so-called asylum seekers than it is to generate compassion. It was a very dishonest campaign that the Coalition ran on the asylum seekers, but the fact is that the majority of Australians fell for the Border Protection lie that was introduced as another way of saying "we don't want these sort of people coming into Australia".
But Labor was basically dead once that started. How can Labor insulate itself from that happening again? Indeed, is it possible?
Of course it's not impossible,. A very similar thing happened during the Vietnam War and there the public was dead set against the Labor Party, dead set against the Labor Party's view that the War was immoral, that Australia shouldn't be there and people in the Labor Party were called cowards, yellow-bellies, they were spat on, the overwhelming majority of Australians were against the Labor Party. But finally, the Labor Party succeeded and its principled stand was adopted and was proven to be correct and the Labor Party emerged from those few years of horror in relation to the Vietnam War with its head high and with dignity and with its principle intact.
The difference is, that this time was Labor didn't really hold the line at the last election, do you see that as being a mistake?
Do you think it would have been better, even knowing it wouldn't have been a certain defeat, to have taken a more principled stand?
The real issue is - what's a more principled stand? And I just think that we were overcome by the enormity of events and we could have done better.
You were someone who was drafted into leadership of the ALP from outside the rigid factional structure. Could you see this happening to an individual in the current climate?
It would be much more difficult. There were factions of course when I became the leader in NSW. But the factions now have been honed to be works of art. There are not only factions, but sub-factions and sub-sub-factions and quite frankly the more the Party's opened up and the more democratic the internal workings of the Party become, then the weaker the factions will be because the factions keep the rank and file out of the policy making process. The factions centralise power and it means that the ordinary rank and file foot soldier of the Labor Party doesn't get a fair go to express his or her view. The sooner the factions are put in their place the better.
But the people who run the factions, run the Party. How do you actually convince them to weaken their own power base?
You will never convince them; you will only succeed if the Party restructures itself and gives the rank and file a proper voice within the various structures of the Party.
Can you see a way of doing that?
It'll happen. The conferences of the Party will push that view and people controlling the Party can't just ignore the rank and file forever, otherwise they'll just end up with no Party.
What constructive role do you think the unions can play in assisting that process?
Well, they're affiliates. They've got their view. But let's face it; the unions are riddled with factions too. I must say, the Labor Party isn't Robinson Crusoe - the Liberals have got their factions, the wets and the dries, even the Nats - god help us-- have got factions as well. So whilst I deplore the factions running the Labor Party in the way in which they do, I think you've got to recognise that some of these things become almost a fact of life. If you really want to do something about it you can, but you've got to take it head on.
Finally, you were someone who was pretty successful at winning elections, what is the single piece of advice you would give Labor federally if they want to start winning again?
Federal Labor is very close to success. Remember that we hold every Government - State and Territory -- in the Commonwealth and we only just lost the last election; notwithstanding Tampa, notwithstanding September 11, notwithstanding some of the tactical errors (in hindsight that we may have made). So we're on the brink of real success. The problem at the moment is that the morale of the Party has fallen because this loss was the third Federal Election loss on the trot. And our people are starting to get a bit depressed with the lack of success. But it will come. And I would say the single biggest thing that the Federal Party can do is listen to the rank and file, get to really know the rank and file of the Party and get those policies on all the basic issues that I mentioned like - Housing, Health, Transport, Security, Education. Get those policies out early so people know who we are and what we stand for.
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