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Take a deep breath, Labor

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3 May 2012

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth
Dr Nick Dyrenfurth

By Dr Nick Dyrenfurth

Dumping Gillard or severing union ties will not solve the ALP's deeper problems.

There are, so the cliche goes, two certainties in life: death and taxes. Politically speaking, we ought to add a third and fourth surety. Governments will always collect taxes and inexorably pass away, but, as certain as night follows day, someone somewhere will argue that Labor and the union movement must cut the apron strings. Minutes later they will demand that Julia Gillard ''must go''.

During the past week normally sensible commentators have aligned with huff-and-puff conservatives to demand as much. This paper's Michelle Grattan called for Gillard to consider ''falling on her sword''. Writing in The Australian, former Liberal Party staffer Niki Savva echoed her call. ''Gillard must ask for a new election if she wants to be seen acting decisively,'' bellowed The Daily Telegraph's Piers Akerman.

The appalling Health Services Union scandal has also brought out the apron string cutters. Mark Latham has made this case in The Australian Financial Review three times in as many weeks: Gillard must ''liberate'' Labor ''from the curse of union … control''. This is projection on an epic scale. Latham has severed virtually every political friendship he ever enjoyed - knee-jerk, cut-and-run reactions are his speciality.

Granted, true believers have every reason to feel despondent. Within 12 months two state Labor governments have experienced electoral Armageddon. NSW and Queensland each suffered savage statewide swings of some 16 per cent in two-party terms. Labor's heartland issued political divorce papers, with the party's primary vote mired catastrophically in the mid-20s. Current polling shows Gillard Labor headed for a similar fate.

Yet knee-jerk responses will only kneecap Labor and demoralise supporters. First, to the cries that Gillard must go. Most of those urging for a leadership change are disingenuous in the extreme. Even if Labor heeded their advice, the same folks would immediately crow that the party was in chaos and contemptuous of the democratic right of voters to choose their prime minister. Beware of Tories bearing gifts.

Moreover, the political quick fix of changing leaders - with scant regard for policy substance - will not solve modern Labor's deeper structural and cultural problems. If Gillard was replaced, my bet is that her successor would probably enjoy a honeymoon in the polls before inevitably crashing back to earth. A ballot-box hiding to match the fate of recent state Labor governments would ensue.

Practically speaking, there is no real alternative to Gillard. An unlikely Rudd redux would make Labor look like a rabble as senior ministers marched to the backbench in disgust or, worse, immediately bring down the government. One somewhat feasible alternative, elevating Bill Shorten, might see Labor save its parliamentary furniture at the next election but, in the process, destroy its best long-term leadership hope.

Likewise, a knee-jerk severing of union ties would be an act of folly. The ALP's historic partnership with unions has long proved problematic. In 1948, 65 per cent of a largely blue-collar workforce was unionised. Today, that figure is less than 20 per cent. Affiliated unions still supply much of Labor's financial support, and wield 50 per cent of conference floor votes, yet largely hail from an ever-dwindling ''old economy''.

Thus unionist influence over Labor has appeared ever more incongruous. One of its chief critics, former NSW Labor minister Rodney Cavalier, estimates that less than 10 per cent of Australian wage earners belong to unions affiliated with Labor. In his opinion, affiliated unions should exercise a vote commensurate with their workforce coverage.

Cavalier is not the first to call for a cutting of ties. In the aftermath of Labor's narrow 1961 federal election loss, its leader, Arthur Calwell, was informed by ''candid friends'' that Labor should sever its links. He rejected their advice because Labor ''could no more flourish separately than a flower can bloom if severed from its stem''.

We are inclined to forget that Australia would be a different place without a union-backed party. Historian Robin Archer argues that if the US had followed our lead, it is ''likely that business interests would have had less influence over public policy, that income and wealth would have been more equally distributed, that unions would have been stronger and that a more comprehensive welfare state would have developed''.

Quite apart from valuable funds and organisational muscle, an army of unionist foot soldiers has always been essential to Laborite electioneering. Indeed, when Labor emerged as a political force at the beginning of the 20th century, it did so largely courtesy of the unions. Strong unions ensured Labor's survival across the 20th century.

Recently, Labor's ''Kevin 07'' victory owed much to the hard-slog campaigning of unionists in marginal seats. As former ministerial adviser-cum-academic Trevor Cook notes: ''The union relationship, at its best, gives the ALP a direct connection with thousands of activists, hundreds of community organisations and, potentially, millions of voters. Even in an era of professional politics … this organic connection with the electorate can be highly potent.''

Labor's obituarists have been wrong before. In 1931, a NSW Labor insider bemoaned: ''I feel utterly hopeless regarding the future of Labor.'' Yet a decade later John Curtin took office. He led Australia through World War II and, with his successor Ben Chifley, laid the foundations of the post-war boom. Curtin had lost both the 1937 and 1940 elections. Imagine what the knee-jerkers would have said then.

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth is a lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

This article has appeared in the The Age.

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