Too much power in too few hands
Labor and the Union Movement - can the Partnership work in the 21st Century?
This was first published as an opinion piece in the West Australian on 15 January 2011.
The union movement formed the Australian Labor Party in 1891 and unions have always fought the unreasonable use of power by autocratic bosses.
It is therefore ironic that 120 years later that the unreasonable use of power by bosses, faction bosses, is damaging the WA Labor brand. It is doubly ironic that these faction bosses are union secretaries who treat their unions internal ALP voting rights as if they are personal entitlements.
Specifically unions affiliated to Labor share 50% of the votes in key party internal ballots including pre-selections. The bigger the union the larger the share. WA’s two largest affiliated unions the LHMU (the Misso’s) and the SDA (the Shoppies) together control over half of the total union voting entitlements. I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that the State Secretaries of affiliated unions have the power to appoint and dismiss the delegates who exercise a vote on behalf of the union. And although Party rules specify that in pre-selection contests ‘State Executive members shall cast their vote by secret ballot’ the majority of ballot papers are handed over to trusted faction lieutenants who ensure there is no deviation from the factional directive. The factions have been able to flagrantly breach the rules preventing ‘show and tell’ because successive WA Party State Secretaries, responsible for running the ballot, have been chosen by them.
The concentration of power in the hands of a few union secretaries was in part an unforseen consequence of sensible union amalgamations in the 1980’s which delivered industrial benefits like fewer demarcation disputes. As a result effective control of over half the votes needed to determine important WA Labor ballots is in the hands of two men, the Shoppie’s Joe Bullock and the Misso’s Dave Kelly. This ensures that other smaller groups and ambitious individuals stick close. It also means that when the bosses ask some sitting members to jump, they instinctively reply ‘how high’.
Despite these problems some unions and their secretaries add value to WA Labor in other ways. For instance Dave Kelly is a very effective political advocate. He appropriately uses Misso resources to highlight the Barnett Government’s privatisation agenda and to protect the rights of low paid workers. He also legitimately lobbies parliamentary members on issues directly affecting Misso members.
With compromise I believe the partnership between WA Labor and the Unions can survive and thrive into the 21st Century. However, it won’t unless there is a more equitable and democratic distribution of power within WA Labor.
Other internal critics believe the way to achieve this is by decreasing the 50% voting entitlement of affiliated unions. I disagree. It is possible to have a true 50/50 partnership but only if the Union Secretaries allow their power to be shared amongst their rank and file union/ALP members.
I have suggested within party forums that dispersing each unions voting entitlements amongst its members who are also members of the party and ensuring true secret ballots would achieve this.
However, this reform is consistently portrayed by those with this autocratic power as an attack on unionism. This is self serving nonsense. It is a defence of unionism and an attack on the arbitrary abuse of power by bosses. However, these same bosses control the votes needed to change the rules and therein lies the problem.
I and others, including Alannah MacTiernan in her typically combative style, have advocated these types of changes within the party since 2007. It was Alannah’s honest refusal to abandon her commitment to reform that cost her the leadership after the 2008 state election. But for Alan Carpenter’s intervention my factional isolation and advocacy of reform would have cost me my seat in the last round of pre-selections.
Some of my caucus colleagues will be angry with me for airing Labor’s dirty laundry in public. But the truth is it will never get cleaned in private.
There is no perfect time for reform. Now is as good as any. Labor has a freshly endorsed leader with renewed authority and time to get our house in order before the next election. It’s time to ensure that WA Labor is a party of ‘true believers’ and not the decaying plaything of faction bosses.
Note: Along with former WA Labor Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, I led the now defunct Labor Reform Forum between 2007 and 2011. Labor Reform Forum argued unsuccessfully for rule changes including sharing the WA Labor internal voting entitlements currently controlled by the state secretaries of major unions amongst rank and file union members.
As predicted the reforms were ultimately blocked by factional leaders, who used their voting entitlements, to defeat any rule changes that would have reduced their voting entitlements. Nonetheless the case for reform of Labor’s internal power structures along the lines of those reforms identified by Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner in their 2010 report is stronger than ever.1
Martin delivers his Valedictorary speech in WA Parliament.
Read more about…
Like MartinWhitely.com on Facebook
Martin Whitely announces his pre-selection bid for the Senate.
To see more on Martin's work in the area of Mental Health and ADHD, see his blog