|Issue No 29
|03 September 1999
Loosening Laborís Links?
By John Passant
Is Labor under Kim Beazley fundamentally changing its social appeal and turning itself into the Australian equivalent of Bill Clinton's Democrats?
It's a question many in the Party and the trade union movement are asking after the ALP decided to support John Howard's youth wage.
There are two aspects to the decision. First, it is bad policy. With Peter Reith's move to individual contracts and his ultimate aim of destroying awards looking as if it may become a reality, the wage rates of older workers will be under pressure from youth rates.
A person about to turn 21 could be offered the choice of the sack or a job with their junior rates. Once they accept such a deal, other workers will be pressured to do the same thing.
The ALP will say that it won a role for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in overseeing the implementation, continuation or removal of youth wages from awards in particular industries. First, how much longer will awards exist to provide legal (but not practical) protection to workers? And second, given the present industrial and political climate, the AIRC will not be removing any cut price salaries from awards.
There is also no guarantee that youth wages will produce anything other than more profit for employers at the expense of workers' living standards. A controversial study in the US appears to show that low paid youth jobs have little or no effect on youth employment levels.
Arguably Labor have voted for a policy whose effect is to transfer income from young working people to employers without any benefits for the workers involved or workers generally.
Labor has argued that the majority of working people favour youth wages. It is unfortunate that policy is now determined by polls and not principle.
Labor could have successfully opposed the Government's proposals - the Democrats were united in their opposition - and then begun the process of patiently explaining to working people why they opposed youth wages. Instead of trying to convince workers of the merits of this opposition, they took the knee-jerk option of support.
But the decision to support youth wages is not only bad policy. It shows that the ALP is edging towards ditching its historic links with the union movement and turning itself into something less specifically identified with the working class.
One senior ALP politician justified the change by commenting that the ALP was not a party of union bosses. Actually, historically it is. Union leaders mediate between workers and bosses over the terms of capitalist exploitation, and that world view has reflected itself in the politics of the party those leaders created - the ALP.
The ALP is the second eleven of the economic elite. It is committed to the system but has working class "imperfections" which make it less reliable to the rich than the Coalition parties.
Some in the ALP now want to turn the party into an alternative first eleven for capital. This involves getting rid of the party's present links to the trade union movement.
In the US there are two specifically pro-capitalist major parties. This means that the capitalist class can debate issues without the fear of contamination from working people and their aspirations for a better life.
That is the model some in the ALP such as Mark Latham now aspire to.
These third wayists have been extolling the virtues of New Labour in Britain. The party there has cut the influence of the trade unions and retained and implemented Thatcherite policies.
To what effect? In regional elections in Scotland and Wales in May this year many working people responded to Blair's Thatcherism by voting for the nationalists. The SNP has been debating whether it should swing to the hard Left to take Labour's natural constituency.
Even worse, in the European elections in June New Labor lost half its seats and the Tories under the hapless William Hague scored their first victory.
With figures like these, New Labour is hardly a political role model for the ALP.
The turn around on youth wages was done without any consultation with the unions. It is one step in the process of turning the ALP into an organisation no longer based on the working class, or a substratum of that class, namely trade union leaders
The third wayists in Australia know the significance of the decision to support youth wages. It has moved the boundaries of policy debate even further to the Right and shifted the balance in the ALP in favour of those who would de-class the party.
Mark Latham, who calls the youth wages decision "sensible", could in time end up as Australia's first Bill Clinton.
The Left and the trade unions must fight this abomination, or seriously begin to consider setting up a political party giving expression to their ideas.
John Passant is a Canberra based writer
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