Shorten must break the union stranglehold

Labor is on the nose and Bill Shorten has a plan to appeal to the middle ground. But as with Labor leaders before him, he will need to confront the unions if he hopes to make a change.

There’s no way to put a gloss on it: the Labor Party is on the nose with voters.

The Liberals and Labor both suffered swings of about 5 per cent against them in the weekend’s Western Australia Senate election re-run. But given the chance to protest against the Abbott Government for its litany of flaws and failures, voters chose to flock to the bombastic Clive Palmer and Greens social media hero Scott Ludlam instead of Labor’s alternative prime minister, Bill Shorten.

Shorten didn’t really need the rejection to know he has a problem. The unwillingness of some Labor supporters to choose either the gay marriage advocate Louise Pratt or the Neanderthal Joe Bullock likely reinforced his existing view that the ALP needs to reconnect with voters in the middle ground in order to survive.

The Labor Leader foreshadowed this last month at the National Press Club when he announced that he wanted to mainstream the Labor Party by opening it up to non-traditional party members and “modernise” Labor’s relationship with the union movement. By integrating middle Australia into the party’s ranks, Shorten clearly hopes Labor will better reflect the needs and aspirations of the broader political centre and thereby secure their elusive votes.

Shorten was expected to announce his proposed reforms today.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the anticipated changes will be resisted more by the unions: those that affect their ability to influence Labor’s policies or those that curb their right to gift seats in Parliament.

Both powers are responsible for driving voters away.

The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), for example, continues to influence its faction members’ position on same-sex marriage, ensuring that even a conscience vote on the matter would not produce a majority of supportive Labor MPs. Meanwhile the CFMEU has no qualms about whipping up xenophobia to further its campaign against 457 visas for foreign workers, giving little regard to how that exacerbates community prejudice against asylum seekers.

Equally alienating for centrist voters is the ALP’s all-too-common practice of relegating high quality candidates to tenuous positions on Senate tickets or unwinnable House of Representatives seats while lesser quality candidates are given safe positions as a reward for their time served in the union movement.

It seems nothing was learned in 2012 when the faceless man, SDA member and factional heavyweight, Don Farrell, gained and then gave up the number one Senate spot in South Australia to then Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The practice continued in 2013 when right-wing unions muscled in longtime SDA official Joe Bullock as the number one WA Senate candidate for the upcoming federal election. They did so again for last weekend’s Senate election re-run, both times consigning the more politically prospective but left-wing Louise Pratt to the challenging second position on the ticket and possible defeat.

Granted, Senate sinecures are not the sole province of Labor; the Liberals are also good at slotting former party operatives into winnable senate positions. But in the case of Senator-elect Joe Bullock, who cruelly ridiculed his running mate and called all Labor members crazy, this may well have been the last straw for Western Australian Labor supporters on polling day.

In a perverse way, the poor Senate result may be just what Shorten needs to take the edge off resistance to his proposed weakening of the unions’ hold on the party.

Following last month’s Press Club address the Labor Leader has reportedly been calling party officials and union leaders to talk them through his proposal. Trusted others such as Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek and former Senate leader Chris Evans have been singing the same tune. And today’s announcement is the next step in creating a sense of momentum and inevitability for the changes.

Yet if he is to succeed, Shorten will need something that evaded the two previous Labor leaders who tried to sever the nexus between the ALP and its labour roots.

He will need unions to be willing supporters of the reforms, or at the very least for them not to plot against him as they did with Crean and Rudd. Thanks to Rudd’s antipathy for the unions and the rules he imposed to make it harder to change the party leader, it will at least be much harder for recalcitrant unions to remove Shorten before he attempts to save his party from future electoral oblivion.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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