Left behind: the faded labour narrative

Melbourne eight hour day march 1900

In August 1855, members of the Sydney Stonemakers’ Society working on the building site of the Holy Trinity church laid down their tools and called for the introduction of an eight-hour working day. The workers celebrated their victory at a dinner on 1 October, now known as Labour Day and recognised by a public holiday. The Stonemason’s victory pre-empted the call for an eight-hour day at the International Labour Congress in Paris in 1888, the outcome of which was May Day. The establishment of the eight hour day in 1855 was followed in other Australian states which now celebrate Labour Day at various times of the year. This weekend, the Labour Day public holiday is upon (some of) us and the people of NSW are out and about trying to make the best of their time off, if they have it, as the rain sweeps through Sydney, dampening barbecues and confining us to the great indoors. I doubt many are reflecting on the history of the labour movement.

In the October edition of The Monthly, political scientist Robert Manne provides a useful analysis of the electoral performance of the Greens. Manne argues that the Greens are the most successful third party in Australian politics since 1955 when the ALP split gave rise to the Democratic Labor Party, which resulted in successive wins to the Menzies government as a result of DLP preference flows. In the August federal election, the Greens won 11.7% of the primary vote – 0.7% higher than the previous benchmark set by the Democrats in 1990. Manne concludes that if the Greens’ 2010 performance were repeated at the next election, they would win 12 of the 80 seats in the Senate. They currently hold 6 Senate seats – the highest number ever won by a third-force party – and one in the House of Representatives, the first third-party seat won at a federal election. (Having been disendorsed by the Liberal Party in the lead up to the 1996 election, Pauline Hanson subsequently sat as an Independent, prior to the formation of One Nation.) Manne reads all this as an unexpected but perceptible shift to the Left in Australian politics. He goes on to make the point that the ALP is now more dependent on the Greens than the Greens are on the ALP and that the success of the Gillard minority government, and indeed the future of the federal Labor Party, is contingent upon the flow of Greens’ preferences.
Eight hours day banner

The Greens have undoubtedly come of age as a political force but the party has been aided by the failure of the ALP under Kevin Rudd to perform as a progressive counterbalance to the deep conservatism of the Howard years. Having reversed his position on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) after Copenhagen, Rudd lost the faith of progressive ALP voters, and some Liberals, who moved to support the Greens on climate change and refugees. They never came back. But it would be wrong, in my opinion, to equate this with Rudd’s ultimate demise. Having backed himself into a corner on climate change, Rudd parried with the Mining Super Profits Tax (MSPT). It was an ill-planned initiative that gained the support of the Greens but incited a vigorous public relations campaign from the resources lobby, one that the ALP could not withstand. Rudd could not afford to be seen to back down twice and so the ALP Right, at the behest of the mining corporations, moved on him and he was replaced by Gillard. The coup de grace was not poll driven, in my opinion. It was an act of pure political expediency opportunistically orchestrated by the forces of global capital. However, the happy but unexpected outcome for the Greens was to further consolidate their disenchanted progressive vote.

The Murdoch press moved very quickly to denounce the Greens, using the so-called alliance with the ALP as a first strike and following up with a virulent editorial that vowed to destroy the party at the ballot box. Implicit in this statement is Murdoch’s intention to wage a prolonged campaign against the Greens, and latterly the Independents who denied the Coalition government. The rhetoric of any such campaign will doubtless draw on stale Cold War scare tactics and attempts to portray the Greens as dangerous socialist/anarchist wreckers of all things Australian, especially the economy.

Robert Manne makes a good point when he suggests that a careful costing of Greens’ policies will assist in their defence against accusations of ratbaggery, so it is timely that part of the signed agreement with the minority government enables the costing of Greens’ policy initiatives by Treasury. How the Greens cope with their shiny new clout will be a measure of the party’s maturity, talent and resources but it will be in the interests of the ALP, much to its internal consternation, to shield their left of centre partners, at least in the medium term.

As the ALP lost sight of its role as the guardian of labour values, no new force emerged to take its place and this remains so today. However, the success of the Greens presents a unique and timely opportunity for progressive political forces in Australia. It is an opportunity to reignite the debate on the merits of the historical legacy of the Left, a legacy that the ALP has been neglectful of in its political campaigning. Since 1983, when Bob Hawke, in a stroke of false consensus politics, formed the Accord between government, business and trade unions, there has been an inexorable decline in the political mojo of what might be called traditional labour values. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall in the Reagan-Gorbachev years heralded the ‘end of history’ pronouncements of American neocon historian, Francis Fukuyama, who claimed that in the absence of a countervailing global enemy the forces of capitalism had triumphed and the era of the doctrine of historical materialism had finally come to a close.

The subsequent years have rendered the Left a largely impotent political force in Australian politics. This is not to suggest that the labour movement in Australia is inactive. The relative successes of the Your Rights at Work campaign during the 2007 election and the legislative changes that followed are indications that trade unions are still capable of effective campaigning. These achievements need to be seen within the historical frame established by the Accord. That is, they are reformist rather than revolutionary. What is missing, it seems to me, is a link between the forces of organised labour, traditionally assembled under the banner of the ALP, and the newly emergent forces represented by the Greens, which could perhaps be described as an urban, professional intelligentsia. If progressive politics in Australia is to advance beyond the current success of the Greens, it is likely that these two forces will need to find more common ground and, in doing so, develop a narrative which embraces both the historical achievements of the labour movement and the more recent achievements of the environmental movement. The meeting point for these two admittedly disparate and often conflicting forces is the gathering debate around climate change.

Bob BrownThe corporate media has, until recently, been very effective in silencing progressive voices in Australia. The establishment of the minority government has seen more microphones thrust at Bob Brown during the past month than in his entire political career prior to 28 August. Suddenly the Greens have a voice on the public stage and we can only expect that it will grow stronger as the party’s political fortunes rise. As progressive politics gains momentum, so too will the campaign against it as the corporate media and global business interests align to denigrate and undermine the new found influence of the Greens and advocacy groups like Getup! The imperative for all progressive interests will be to develop a narrative based on the historical achievements of both the labour and the environmental movements. The cultural challenge of this alignment cannot be ignored. These groups do not, at the moment, speak the same language. This must change.

Consider for a moment the track record of the labour movement in Australia dating back to first settlement: Convict rebellions against unfair work conditions, the establishment of trade unions, reduced working hours, women’s voting rights (a world first), basic wage, awards, annual leave, Indigenous labour and voting rights’ advocacy, work-related childcare, universal health cover, industry training schemes, OHS laws, workers’ compensation insurance, universal superannuation, maternity leave, penalty rates and paid public holidays, personal carers’ leave, repeal of Work Choices legislation. Admittedly, there have been setbacks and the union movement today is not as strong or as well organised as it was prior to the Accord. Nevertheless, the record of the Australian labour movement is impressive and its achievements form the cornerstone of the great Australian tradition of the ‘fair go’. The problem is that the ALP is failing to uphold that tradition and has, in fact, presided over a steady decrease in worker participation in trade unionism in deference to the wishes of global business interests. It seems remarkable, for example, that the ALP has lost the allegiance of the vast sections of the aspirational working class who defected first to One Nation and later to the Coalition in seats like Lindsay in Sydney’s outer western suburbs.

There is an opportunity here for the Greens and other progressive interests to move into the narrative space neglected by the ALP and, to a large extent, the ACTU and state labour councils. In NSW, the Sussex Street ALP is widely regarded as a foul ship, an opprobrium that would be very difficult to cast off if there was any desire to do, which there seems not to be. In fact, the NSW ALP appears to be benignly resigned to the approach of its electoral demise. There is a queue to jump ship into safer waters.

The Left should revive the best aspects of the labour movement’s legacy with a narrative that celebrates its achievements and communicates them to disenfranchised workers as part of a strategy to reengage with its historical base. Tentative moves by some unions to support the Greens are a good sign, as was evident in the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union donation to the Greens federal election campaign. Such alliances need to be strengthened and common ground consolidated and this, in large measure, will require the reclaiming of the labour narrative. The Murdoch media and its fellow travellers will seek to vilify the progressive side of politics during the term of the minority government. It is essential that any counter move should clearly and forcefully articulate the benefits that have accrued to workers, white and blue collar, as a result of centuries of progressive political campaigning.

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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  1. Great article Boris. I grew up in a SL ALP household and was aware of the ALP traditions from a young age and am saddened at what the ALP has become. My parent’s are in despair, have drafted long detailed letters of resignation, which wern’t sent and how don’t do much for the ALP as they feel betrayed. You’re so right,a link needs to be made between the…’forces of organised labour, traditionally assembled under the banner of the ALP, and the newly emergent forces represented by the Greens, which could perhaps be described as an urban, professional intelligentsia.’ It’s a big task though and some significant shifts will need to be made from both parties, certainly my experiences with unions or unionists that they are far more likely to abuse alt lefty greeny types than support them. I can remember being at S11 in Melb (The anti-WTO protest at Crown Casino not the twin towers) and unionists walking past and abusing the shit out of us, calling the women sluts and asking if they wanted a fuck and telling us to get a job and later seeing the CMFU march past us and the police beat the shit out of everyone else who were tring to stop the premier of WA getting into the Casino. He’s stupidly decided to drive through the protestors than go in the back way. There’s a long way to go yet.

  2. Agreed,Rohan. Your experience is evidence of the cultural divide I referred to. However, ALP membership is in rapid decline and it is very important that the new and old Left come to the table and begin to work through their differences. The initiative will need to come from the Greens,IMO. As you say, there is a very long way to go.

  3. Boris, as always enjoyed your analysis and while I agree with most of what you say, I wanted to raise a couple of points.

    The ALP while having a proud history of fighting for workers’ rights was also racist – the White Australia Policy – and misogynist – it largely ignored women. I’m not sure that this has changed all that much which explains ALP votes shifting to Hanson and the popularity the Howard government enjoyed not so long ago. It also explains why the ALP feel they can get away with their policies on refugees and the NT intervention. The ALP also didn’t (and don’t) accord cultural pursuits much value – reducing everything to the hip pocket nerve (and perhaps given the plight of the working class, there was good reason for that). Whitlam of course, the great exception.

    I agree with you and Robert Manne that the Greens have less need of the ALP than the ALP do of the Greens but only for the moment. I do hope that the Greens will rise and rise and assume more power but I think it unlikely. Those who vote Greens are a small minority of inner city late sipping – you know how it goes – Latham’s aspirational class, Howard’s battlers and Rudd’s working families – will not vote for the Greens in large numbers in the foreseeable future anyway. And while the great majority of Australians remain working class we do not recognise or unite as a class nor are we encouraged to by the ALP.

    And finally, while I completely agree that it’s important we stand up to the Murdoch media’s vilification of the left, Murdoch’s power and influence is almost absolute. He owns around 70 per cent of Australia’s newspapers (with most states in Australia only having a Murdoch paper to read), add in his global media interests and he has a stranglehold on the news that millions of us read every day.

    It’s going to be an interesting next few years.

  4. All good points, Trish.

    I concede there is a need to temper optimism at this point but I also believe there are reasons to be cheerful, to quote Ian Drury. The membership of the Greens party (of which I am not one, btw) stands at around 10,000. (Membership of Getup! at around 380,000, a telling stat) 1.5 million people voted for the Greens in the House of Reps with a swing of almost 4% being the biggest margin of any of the major/minor parties. It is, as you suggest, fair to say that a proportion of these votes were disaffected ALP voters (and some Libs) and whether these people stick with the Greens remains to be seen. State elections will give some indication and in NSW at least the trend to the Greens is looking quite strong. The ALP may find it very difficult to win these votes back without a significant shift in policy.

    As a tactical measure it makes sense for disaffected ALP voters to continue to give the Greens their primary vote in the knowledge that they can direct preferences to the ALP. In this way, key policy issues favoured by these voters can be leveraged by the Greens. The ALP may find some merit in ‘sub contracting’ Left advocacy to the Greens while remaining inside the Brown-Gillard agreement for this term of parliament, at least.

    As for the Greens’ ability to reach across the cultural and class divide into the ‘aspirational’ seats, well, this was the main point of my post and the great challenge facing the party in the medium term. IMO, the key to this is the building of strategic alliances with trade unions, as evidenced in the support of Adam Bandt by the ETU. Of course, this won’t be easy. But neither has it been easy for the Greens to gain traction in the regions, and they have managed to make small but significant gains there.

    As you say, we live in interesting times. Thanks for taking the time.

  5. Many thanks for starting the conversation.

    I agree, the ETU’s support of the Greens was heartening when most of the union movement have gone along (at least publically) with ALP policies that have not been in their members best interest. Indeed, it seems to me that the union movement have been part of the problem.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this too. Given the white collar, semi-unionised base of the Greens, maybe they need to run a unionising campaign.

      1. Hi Jack. Mmmm, I’m not exactly sure how it should be done but it certainly needs doing. I see Janet Albrechtsen in The Australia today calling for a local version of the Tea Party. Lord help us. We have a sort of Gramscian interregnum at the moment and if the Left doesn’t act to gain ground the neocons certainly will.

  6. A re-invigorated union movement that is not afraid to stand up to the ALP, publically calling it to account on policies such as a watered-down version of Work Choices, could change the whole political landscape. A strong membership base could also mean that unions not just improve workers’ conditions but give it the clout it needs to fight for changes in hospitals, education, the community sector and more broadly. It could bring to public attention shocking conditions in youth detention centres such as we are seeing in Victoria and refuse to provide services that support the detention of refugees. The ALP have certainly distanced themselves from the union movement, perhaps it’s now time for the union movement to be completely independent of the ALP.

  7. It’s like the ACTU reads the Overland blog:

    ACTU chief warns Labor on future union support

    NEW ACTU president Ged Kearney has warned the Labor Party that the union body will seek support from any political party in the era of minority government, where ”so much public policy is contestable”.

    In her first National Press Club address, Ms Kearney said the ”Labor Party has shifted ground” and had ”confused and even alienated parts of its base” with its refugee and climate change policies. ”Our impact has to be on all MPs – Labor, Green, Coalition or independent,” she said.

    She later conceded it was unlikely the ACTU would ever side with the Coalition. An attack by Liberal backbenchers on Tony Abbott’s pledge to leave industrial relations policy unchanged had justified the recent WorkChoices scare campaign during the election and showed the Coalition could not be trusted on IR, she said.

    Ms Kearney, whose former union, the Australian Nursing Federation, is not affiliated with the ALP, identified asylum policy and the abolition of the building industry regulator as two areas where the ACTU would work with the Greens.

  8. Ha! They should.

    I do remember reading this piece in the weekend papers and was pleasantly surprised. However, still little or no criticism of ALP’s Work Choices Lite but great to see ACTU indicating a willingness to abolish building industry regulator.

    Ms Kearney hails from one of the most conservative unions. The ANF have done a very poor job of challenging reforms that are ruining public hospitals (and the aged care sector) and killing the nurses who slave away in them.

  9. The CFMEU has also, I think, made noises about supporting the Greens.
    I am, however, pretty sceptical about whether widespread union defections to the Greens will take place soon, largely because people in the union bureaucracy are so enmeshed in the internal shenanigans in the ALP, so much so that it would be hard to function as a union leader without a Labor ticket (that is, it would be hard to function as the kind of leaders we have now — it would, in all probability, be much easier to function as a militant leader).
    I also wonder how the Greens would react to an influx of union militants. I know some Greens would welcome it but I suspect there are others who would be significantly less keen.

    1. I’m also wondering to what extent there is a class and ideological difference between actual Green members and activists and their voting base. I’m assuming they captured the vote of a large number of left social democrats who would have normally held their nose and voted ALP but couldn’t bring themselves to do so this time.

  10. During the protests against WorkChoices, and going even further back to the WTO protests, the Greens and the union movement made for (visually, at least) uncomfortable bedfellows.

    1. Yes. There’s no reason why unions couldn’t affiliate with the Greens — certainly their IR policies are much better than Labor — but there’s a lot of obstacles in the way. It’s noteworthy, for instance, that Adam Bandt, the Greens candidate who has been most successful in getting union support, worked as an industrial lawyer for many years, and so was much more comfortable with the culture.

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