Wed, 15 Feb 2017 - 14:36
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Modern Labor a Shrunken Relic of its Former Self

The recent release of the 1992 cabinet papers is a reminder of the scale of economic reform during the Hawke and Keating years.

Of course many of those reforms were only possible thanks to support from the Liberal and National Parties, particularly under Opposition Leaders John Howard and John Hewson.

The Hawke government made significant tariff cuts in 1988 and 1991, with the aim of making the Australian economy more internationally competitive.

Labor politicians took such actions in the face of strong opposition from unions; indeed the 1983 ‘Accord’ between the ACTU and the Hawke Government stated that ‘there is no economic sense in reducing protection levels…’

The reforms of the eighties and nineties have been vindicated by the economic growth Australians have enjoyed.

The Hawke Government was prepared to take on rogue unions such as the notorious Builders’ Labourers Federation, passing legislation to deregister the union after its long record of aggressive industrial action, violence and damage to property.

Sadly it is impossible to imagine today’s Labor Party politicians acting decisively in the national interest. The Australian Labor Party of 2017 is a shrunken relic of its former self.

Its popular support has dropped sharply. At the 1987 federal election Labor secured 41.8% of first preference votes; in 2016 it was 34.7%.

At the same time modern Labor is more a captive of the union movement than ever before. In 1971 24 % of ALP federal MPs had been union officials or political staffers immediately before entering Parliament; by 2005 it was 67 per cent.

An Institute of Public Affairs analysis in 2015 found that half of all Labor federal politicians had previously held a paid position in a trade union.

There is a paradox here: Labor is more tightly bound than ever into the union movement, when unions are less representative of Australian society than ever before.

Union membership has been falling steadily for many years. Today only twelve per cent of private sector employees belong to a union.

It is an obvious problem for our democracy that Labor and the union movement are increasingly unrepresentative of mainstream Australia.

The problem is made worse because of the criminality and corruption which taints significant elements of the union movement.

There is the Health Services Union: former national secretary and Labor MP Craig Thompson, former NSW President Michael Williamson and former national secretary Kathy Jackson have all been found by the courts to have misappropriated money from the union and its members.

There is the Australian Workers Union: the Trade Union Royal Commission recommended that the Victorian police and DPP consider charging former Victorian secretary Cesar Melham for corrupt commission and false accounting offences.

There is the notoriously militant CFMEU: at one point last year there were some 55 court cases against the CFMEU brought by the Fair Work Building and Construction Commission, involving some 80 union officials.

Yet far from standing up to such unions, the modern Labor Party protects them, accepts donations from them and chooses its parliamentarians from them.

Last year former HSU official Kimberly Kitching was selected by Victorian Labor, reportedly with with Bill Shorten’s support, to fill a vacant Victorian Senate spot. 

This happened after the Trade Union Royal Commission recommended that she be charged and prosecuted for her conduct in sitting right of entry tests on behalf of other union officials. 

But most troubling of all is that today’s Labor Party cravenly accepts policy direction from the CFMEU and other unions.

In 2015 the Coalition Government secured a free trade agreement with China - offering Australian businesses unprecedented opportunities to sell into the massive Chinese market, in turn generating jobs and prosperity for Australians.

Bob Hawke told The Australian that he supported the agreement and talk of opposing it was against Australia’s best interests.

But the CFMEU campaigned relentlessly against it, running the protectionist line that it would cost Australian jobs.

Remarkably, Labor leader Bill Shorten joined with the CFMEU and said the free trade agreement was a ‘bad agreement.’

Some years ago Labor MP Andrew Leigh wrote an article praising the Labor Party of Hawke and Keating for reducing trade barriers.

Perhaps it is time for him to write another to set the record straight – and admit how far today’s Labor Party has fallen.