Interview: Machine Man
Unions: Testing Times
Bad Boss: Freespirit Haunts Internet
Unions: Badge of Honour
National Focus: Noel's World
Economics: Safe Refuge
International: Global Abuse
History: The Honeypot
Review: Death And The Barbarians
Poetry: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
The Mouse That Roars
Justice For Victims Denied
Interview with Peter Lewis
You came out of the union movement originally. What was you experience of unions?
I actually became interested in the party through union activism and a strong belief in social justice. In my early twenties, I was working part time for a fast food restaurant and became involved in a dispute over an EBA. The full time workers were trying to give up most of our penalty rates in the agreement, as the part-time rep, I worked with other delegates and the LTU to defeat the agreement and preserve ou r conditions.
Before I started with the ALP I also worked as an Organiser with the Transport Workers Union, it was a great experience and some of the most challenging work I've experienced.
What do you see as the main differences then between the culture of working within the union movement and working within the ALP party structure?
There's probably a lot more in common than people would imagine. Both unions and the ALP deal with large memberships so really its about putting in place organising structures so that the members can play an activist role.
For a lot of people that read about the way that the machine controls the ALP that'd be a bit of a revelation saying that you are actually after member activism. How does one channel activism by people that actually want to change the world and translate that into political success?
Don't believe everything you read, the Party has the most active membership in the country, we're still the only party that can staff every polling booth in the state and we're committed to further empowering members through training, activities and the use of new technologies like email. These days in politics the electorate is very cynical, so every member and supporter is important in getting the message out about what the party stands for.
So is your view that the focus on polling has probably seen its high point? Are you saying that the days of purely opinion polling driven politics is not as effective as it once was?
No, research is extremely important in campaigning, but research isn't everything. What's important is that we are selling our ideals and beliefs to the electorate and each party member has a role to play.
One frustration of some active ALP members who are also union members is the perception that you turn up to ALP Conference every couple of years, argue really strenuously over different policy positions and then the government doesn?t actually implement the policy. Do you accept that policy should have a more significant impact on the way that the Government does its job?
By and large I think Governments do follow the directions of Conference. You only have to look back at some of the big debates that have happened over the last four of five years you see that the party, both at the Federal and State level take notice of and treat Conference decisions seriously. The problem that you have in managing a modern Government or being in Government, is that it's impossible for the Conference to provide for every contingency - it's like looking at a crystal ball. You can't see every possibility or every practicality.
The role of General Secretary is one that a lot of people don't really understand. From a union perspective, the Secretary sits between the industrial and the political wings of the labor movement. To what extent do you see your role advocating the union case on major policy issues?
One of the most important jobs of the General Secretary is to ensure that the Government hears the views of the union movement. I hope I can help to keep the relationship strong, of course there will be occasions when the government and unions disagree, that's where I can take a constructive role.
How do you test that? What is the point at which you say "we're not being taken seriously"? And do you think that's happened in the last few years?
There are regular meetings, consultation. I recognise it's impossible to get agreement on everything, but overall I think unions are in a much better position being affiliated to the party and being able to talk directly to Ministers and Members of Parliament, helping to formulate the party's policy agenda.
A couple of issues that have been of concern amongst union members. The increase in corporate donations to the ALP. What do you say to people that if we're going to take money off the corporate sector and the corporates are giving us more money than the unions then its not really a party for the unions anymore?
Trade unions are the industrial wing of the party, they formed the party and will always be an equal partner along with the ALP membership and our parliamentary wing. Unions represent 50 per cent of the Conference, which means 50 per cent of the party.
Are you concerned at the drift to the Greens by the traditional progressive and activist element and what can you as a General Secretary do to hold that?
The Greens pose a strong challenge, but its a positive challenge. They've become a lot more professional in the way they're going about their campaigning. It's not so much about the environment any more for them. The party has to take the challenge seriously and in some areas, work co-operatively with Greens candidates. In other areas we'll be fighting the Greens as our actual opponents.
Do you see them as an enemy or as fellow travelers who just push the envelope further?
The Greens and the ALP are on the same side of the ideological spectrum so we can sit down and talk to them. We share a lot of ideals, but theres some large differences of opinion. I think there is always going to be a sense of co-operation but a growing sense of competition. The real test for the Greens is how they approach the ALP, its clear that many Green members see the ALP not the Liberals as their main enemy. The real challenge for the Greens is when voters realise they are a political party not just a protest group. Now that Green candidates are being elected in positions outside of the Upper House and the Senate they face the test of delivering for all residents and their policies will face some real scrutiny, when they try and implement them.
Finally, what's your message to Union members and Union activists who may be disillusioned with the ALP. What's your message for them particularly with the lead up to the coming Federal election?
You look at the New South Wales Awards system and you know we've got the strongest awards in the country. Its only because we've got a Labor Government that keep those awards strong and keeps the protections in place that John Fahey and Nick Greiner took away prior to 1995. Go along to a party conference and you'll see how important the union movement is to the party. I went to an ETU dinner their 100th anniversary and they said one of the key achievements of their union was defeating privatisation proposals at the conference, which showed how important being affiliated really is.
There's a lot at stake in the next Federal election campaign, we all have to work together. John Howard has shown that his government would like nothing more than to destroy the union movement. Could you imagine what a fourth term Liberal Government if reelected, coupled with Howard facing retirement would do to unions ?
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