If John Howard beats Kevin Rudd at the coming federal election, unions may never again be determining players in Australian political life, writes Joseph Poprzeczny.
The reason federal Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, left last week’s ALP national conference with virtually all he wanted is easily explained.
Love or hate Rudd, the sizeable cohort of union and former union delegates present knew they had an extra special interest for ensuring this year’s national conference ran smoothly.
All knew the very survival of unionism, as Australians have known it since at least 1927 – the year the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was created – depends on the outcome of the federal election, likely well before Christmas.
It’s worth recalling that the ACTU was created in response to a proposed major overhaul of industrial relations legislation by the 1923-29 Stanley Bruce-led Nationalist Government.
Widespread union opposition to Bruce was rewarded in spades with Labor not only winning the 1929 election but Bruce actually losing his seat.
No prime minister before or since the historic Depression eve election has lost his seat.
There’s little doubt that this welcomed extra to the greatest ever union-backed victory prompted Rudd to urge his personal media minder and former ABC television presenter, Maxine McKew, to challenge Prime Minister John Howard as a Labor candidate in his marginal seat of Bennelong.
McKew’s husband, Bob Hogg, a former ALP national secretary and now a part-time political consultant, retains considerable sway over Labor strategic planning.
Both Rudd and Hogg dearly wish to see Howard subjected to an encore Bruce-style electoral defeat over labor relations, not only nationally but in the prime ministerial seat.
They know that, even if Howard isn’t toppled, high-profile McKew’s challenge means he must spend more time on home turf campaigning and consequently less in marginal seats.
Union and former union national conference delegates know that if Howard is victorious, they’ll be rolling up knapsacks and will need to become accustomed to no longer being determining players in Australian political life.
Rudd and his deputy, former industrial lawyer Julia Gillard, know unionists see the coming election as a last ditch stand. Howard knows this too.
Indeed, if he’s ever had a single great political mission beyond seeing his name high in Australian political history, it’s been to scrap the privileged workplace position that Australian union officials have gained from Labor Government-initiated legislation.
Howard, son of a Sydney suburban garage proprietor, believes there’s no place for such privileges for unionism in relations between employees and employers.
That’s been, remains, and will forever be, his stance on unionism, and it forms the basis of his controversial WorkChoices legislation and Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA), which are so despised by union leaders and which Rudd plans to destroy.
Failure to grasp this means failure to understand that the election will be a choice between, on the one hand, a continuation of Howardism and, on the other hand, the emergence of Ruddism that will seek to restore to unions their traditional privileged role in workforce oversight.
As well as the survival of Australia’s more than a century-old union movement there’s the question of the nature of the ALP itself if Howardism continues to triumph.
Fifty-one per cent (205 of 400) of the delegates at the ALP’s national conference are current or former union officials. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent, or 287 of 400) of the delegates are current or former union officials, members of parliament or parliamentary staffers.
Almost 70 per cent (27 of 40) of current Labor frontbenchers are former union officials. And 55 percent (48 of 88) of Labor’s Caucus are former union officials.
Also not to be overlooked is the fact that the union movement has donated some $50 million to the ALP since Howard became prime minister in 1996 and $100 million so far outlaid in the anti-AWA campaign aimed at ensuring Rudd becomes prime minister.
Nationally, one-in-five employees (1.8 million) were union members in August 2006 – a 6.6 per cent fall from 1.9 million over the previous 12-months.
There’s no better example than Western Australia – the hub of Australia’s export-oriented resources boom – to suggest that the Howard-style workplace reforms would probably continue if Rudd fails to win.
WA’s union leaders know this, since the state’s labour market has had several more years offering workers the opportunity to unhitch from unions than elsewhere across Australia.
Since 1993, immediately before the Richard Court Liberal Government enacted Howard-style workplace reforms, WA union membership has fallen from 218,300 to 142,200 – a massive 76,100 fall, or 35 per cent.
As a proportion of WA’s workforce, union membership has therefore dropped from 28.1 to 13.2 percent since 1993.
Moreover, WA employees have also recorded the highest AWA take-up.
Consequently, the state’s peak union body, Unions WA, is planning a major “warts-and-all” get-together to assess its, and its members’, futures – something unions nationwide will emulate if Rudd fails to topple Howard.
– Joseph Poprzeczny.