CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Union backing puts Bill back on winners' list
, August 15, 2015
Much has been made of Bill Shorten’s “success” in having navigated the treacherous shoals of the 47th Australian Labor Party national conference.
Bill Shorten, right, is back in focus
after Labor’s annual national conference,
where Tania Plibersek’s star faded somewhat.
The reality is that Mr Shorten survived the conference with some flimsy policy advances, while his erstwhile competitor, Tania Plibersek, was diminished by the event.
Mr Shorten came out of the conference presiding over a party that is now dominated by the left, while he is personally and deeply indebted to left-wing unions for his long-term survival.
Certainly Mr Shorten performed better than expected and managed two big policy shifts – on asylum seeker boat tow-backs, and a step back from a carbon tax.
However, Labor’s true resolve of the first policy will be immediately tested by people smugglers should Labor win the next election. Labor’s record on border control policy has been so inconsistent that voters will remain sceptical, and large sections of the party believe the Abbott Government’s border control policies lack compassion even though they have prevented hundreds of deaths at sea.
The second policy breakthrough, that involves policies that step away from the electorally disastrous carbon tax but involve a goal of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, is a vague policy that if enacted would result in a huge impost on consumers.
Yet Mr Shorten can indeed boast that he has taken a step towards meeting middle Australia on asylum seekers, while also holding the left by showing his commitment to an “aspirational” climate-change goal.
Meanwhile, his deputy Tania Plibersek’s courage was found wanting after having dodged key debates, particularly on asylum seekers.
What is widely recognised as the fundamental question facing the Australian Labor Party – how to recast the power of the trade unions in the post-union era – did not happen at the party’s recent national conference.
Instead, Opposition Leader Mr Shorten was forced to rely again on the big unions to pass his most controversial policy changes. Mr Shorten’s pact with the unions will mean that, should he become prime minister, he will be as beholden to the unions as was his predecessor, Julia Gillard.
Still, his election prospects were actually enhanced by the postponing of the question on the future make-up of the Labor Party because unions will now repay him by backing him financially at the election and by providing the party with the foot soldiers for campaigning.
Union membership in Australia is now at a record low 12 per cent of the private sector workforce. Yet, despite the historic decline, and the hits unions have taken from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, unions are still financially strong institutions with deep roots into important sectors of the Australian economy.
In some sections of the community, teachers and public servants, they remain powerful forces. And, as recent experiences at the Victorian and Queensland state elections have shown, well-resourced and well-organised union campaigns can have major impacts on election results.
The conference showed that it was the powerful unions, including the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Maritime Union of Australia (which split from the left) together with the Electrical Trades Union, who came to Mr Shorten’s rescue during the “boats” debate. Other unions, including United Voice and the Australian Services Union, also came to Mr Shorten’s aid.
In exchange, for example, the CFMEU won a promise that a Labor government would rewrite sections of the China free trade agreement, particularly with respect to Australian jobs.
The Labor Party’s major conundrum in recent years is its inability to decide whether it is a left-wing “progressive” party (in competition, say, with the Greens) or a broader party that seeks to advance the lives and prospects of the vast majority of people who live in the suburbs and regions of Australia.
In reality, it has slowly and inexorably been drifting towards the left, and in theory the Left wing of the party now has the upper hand in the numbers on the floor of the national conference.
For example, from 2019 (two elections away) every member of the ALP will be bound to vote in favour of same-sex marriage. The conscience vote remains for now, but eventually all will be denied a conscience vote meaning that no conservative Labor person is welcome in the party long term.
Mr Shorten survived the conference, but his party remains a captive of the left, as will be his prime-ministership, should that eventuate.