RTBU submission to the ALP Committee of ReviewThe RTBU argued to the Hawke / Wran ALP Committee of Review that the ALP needed to learn from the trade union renewal processes, and strengthen its ties with the trade unions and community movements by recognising the errors of its economic rationalist policies, and allowing trade union affiliates, branch members and broader movements to have a real input to ALP policy.
The Rail Tram & Bus Union represents 30,000 workers in the rail, tram and bus industry across Australia. Until 1993, all of our members were in the public sector. Today, almost one third are in the private sector, the result of privatisation at the state and federal level since 1993. In 1993, the union had 42,000 members, and the decline since then can be explained almost completely by corporatisation in the public sector, and losses of jobs by privatisation and contracting out. About 75% of these jobs were lost in rural and regional Australia.
The RTBU has roots going back to the foundation of the ALP, and should be considered as a core supporter. The rail industry in particular has contributed a Labor Prime Minister, State Premiers and many MPs. This is not to say that the union, particularly its forbears, did not have sharp conflicts with Labor governments. These conflicts reflected the union's independence and determination to work for the benefit of the members taken broadly, and also reflected the strength of socialist views in the union. However, the union has always seen involvement in formal politics, and affiliation to the ALP, as a key aspect of its work for our members, and for the whole working class and for a better Australian society.
Despite the decline of railways, and rail tram and government bus employment, the RTBU continues to have important links with the ALP, through branches, conferences, policy committees and in election campaigns.
The RTBU overall pays approximately $125,000 in affiliation to the State Branches of the ALP each year along with other donations towards the party particularly at election time. In the 2001 federal election, the National Council contributed $10,000 directly to the ALP campaign.
However, the RTBU experience of Labor is marked by frustration, alienation and disappointment. For all our involvement, we have had only sporadic support in our struggle over privatisation during the 1990s, and we found the party debate on vital matters such as infrastructure investment and National Competition Policy to be narrowly focussed and the policies virtually indistinguishable from the Conservatives'.
1. The political situation of the ALP
Labor's failure in the 2001 federal election marked a new low for the party in terms of primary vote - the lowest since the defeat of the Scullin government in 1932. The 2001 failure had its own dynamic, but is part of a longer-term pattern of declining voter support for the Labor Party, and of declining voter support for the two major parties - Labor and the Coalition.
Before dealing with the six specific points of the review, the Rail Tram & Bus Union will discuss this wider context for the review from our perspective.
At the 1983 Federal Election victory, Labor worked to position itself as a long-term government, able to offer stable, progressive government without the crisis experienced by the Whitlam government in 1974-75. The key to the 1983 victory was the promise of consensus, and of recovery from the 1982 economic recession.
A powerful commitment to working Australians was embodied in the Prices and Incomes Accord, and many of its commitments were fulfilled in the first term of the Hawke government - including Medicare, full wage indexation, a national occupational health and safety agency, and the creation of important industry plans.
However, the shocks also came pretty fast. The uranium mining policy provoked the formation of the Nuclear Disarmament Party for the 1984 federal election, and the abandonment of the East Timorese independence struggle also damaged Labor's membership and its political standing.
When the 'no extra claims' aspect of the Accord was applied too harshly, some groups of trade union activists also became alienated from Labor, and from their unions. With the floating of the dollar in late 1983, Labor embraced 'economic rationalism' and the idea of 'letting the managers manage'. This led to the use of later versions of the Accord for moves towards the deregulation of the labour market. By 1991, centralised wage fixing was ended, except for residual 'safety net' movements for the unorganised or weakly organised workers.
Deregulation of the labour market was foreshadowed by the deregulation of the finance sector, and paralleled by the dismantling of industry policy, and accelerated trade liberalisation, with important decisions made in 1987 and then in 1991, despite the catastrophic economic boom-bust experienced with the market-based policies.
While the ALP, especially in parliament, claimed that this record was one of brave and vital reform which the Coalition would never have undertaken, this record badly damaged Labor's standing among its core voters, and only added to the cynical calculation of swinging voters. With this policy record, Labor no longer stood for better wages, for jobs and job security, for fairness. Instead, Labor stood for free-wheeling corporate power, higher productivity and economic growth, and made social justice depend on corporate success. This formula backfired - corporate boom and bust turned off Labor voters and encouraged Howard's assault on the social wage. Social justice is a big casualty.
a) Impacts on ALP dynamics
The RTBU wants to emphasise the effects of this experience. The economic upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s, with wave upon wave of 'rationalisation' and redundancy packages, disintegrated grassroots working class organisation and leadership. Today there are very few ALP members working in factories, shops and offices compared to the past. The solid, thinking leaders in the workplace are largely gone. Few ALP members are recruited at the workplace.
The RTBU believes that these dynamics help explain the difficulty the ALP now has in finding candidates that can relate to the community, and the difficulty that current ALP leaders and policy makers have in relating to working people in particular.
b) National Competition Policy
The RTBU had particular experiences in the 1990s which demonstrate our concerns about the dominant policy direction of Labor. An important example is the development of National Competition Policy, with the Hilmer Report being released late in 1993, after the 'true believers' win of the Keating government in the March 1993 election. Right from the start, the RTBU recognised that the Hilmer Report meant privatisation of public transport, and that it meant a withdrawal of government investment in public transport infrastructure.
c) One Nation Rail and National Rail Corporation
Although the $454 million One Nation Rail Program took until 1995 to complete, and expressed the nation-building tradition of Labor, National Competition Policy meant the end of all that. The same point applies to the creation of the National Rail Corporation - a very important Labor initiative to modernise interstate rail freight transport - which has now met its demise through the 1995 switch in policy to NCP. This meant that private companies could run their own leased trains on the interstate network, ensuring that NRC could not move into profit, even though it eliminated the $320 million per year interstate rail freight deficit. Over the period 1993-2002, the 2002 sale of NRC was formally opposed by Labor in the federal parliament.
When NRC took most of the business from the Australian National Railways, the Labor government failed to meet its commitment to help restructure AN, thus laying the groundwork for more massive job losses in South Australia and the eventual privatisation of AN by the Howard government in 1997.
Despite a sustained union and community effort to explain the negative impact of NCP to the Federal ALP Caucus and the NSW State ALP Caucus in 1995-96, the policy was adopted with only the weakest of safeguards. The wrecking-ball of NCP is still working its way through the rail sector, with Queensland Rail - a successful, publicly-owned, integrated railway - the current focus.
When NCP was up for review in the leadup to the 2001 Federal Election, the RTBU found that the biggest fight was over which policy committee would deal with it and the substantive issues were not discussed. While there was an important shift in emphasis on NCP toward caution, the ALP leadership made sure that Labor still endorsed NCP. This ensured that Labor did not connect with potential voters, and further alienated the RTBU.
NCP remains a dead dingo in the Labor closet to this day.
d) Infrastructure spending
The last Labor budget - in 1995 - withdrew Federal government support for urban public transport investments, and promised only $350 million for interstate rail over four years.
By 2001, Labor was only willing to promise to spend $350 million from the sale of NRC on the interstate rail network. However, this collapsed down to $60 million in equity in the Australian Rail Track Corporation, just two days before the election, and this experience sums up how the ALP views its relationship with the RTBU, the party and party policies.
The RTBU's reasoned and well-researched case for more genuine commitment on these vital issues fell on ears only attuned to the financial markets, which strongly oppose public sector investment.
This is another way that Labor failed to connect to rail tram and bus workers, to rural communities, and to the large constituency in urban areas which wants a big improvement in public transport instead of more tollways.
e) Economic theory
The embracing of the 'market' wrong-footed Labor in a big way. All the good things done by Labor in government since 1983 -
Federal Labor's deep commitment to 'economic rationalism' is at the heart of the problems experienced by the RTBU, and by the labour movement generally with the ALP. Just recall the 'trilogy', the 'J-Curve' and the 'twin deficit theory'.
Only once has a Labor leader suggested that a serious mistake was made in the Hawke-Keating years. It was Paul Keating, in his brief interlude on the back bench in 1991, when he explained his effective support for the 'twin deficits' theory, which transferred $20 billion from the federal budget to the private sector, only to be wasted in speculation that led to the 1991 recession. At that point, Keating damned the 'twin deficits' theory as a failure, but Labor still supports it today.
There is no connection between a federal budget deficit and a national current account deficit. Yet this theory was used to cut off State funds, to justify privatisation, and to cut back on federal social spending. These spending cuts at the state and federal level in the 1980s and 1990s have greatly weakened the public health, public education, public housing and social security systems, and infrastructure, and exacerbated unemployment.
The same failed theories stand behind the 'trilogy' of the 1987 Hawke government - no increased taxation as a share of GDP, no increase in government spending as a share of GDP, no increase in government debt. This was a trilogy of promises to big business and big finance in particular, when Labor was only promising bitter medicine - job losses, job insecurity and enterprise level bargaining - to the workers. The trilogy was about the small-taxing, small government vision that Labor largely shares with the Coalition.
The aversion to appropriate levels of corporate and personal taxation, and to appropriate levels of government spending, that Labor adopted at that time is now a fundamental tenet of Federal Labor and explains the high level leadership resistance to any significant policy initiative that costs money (apart from Defence). Labor's economic policy sets it against its constituency by crushing multiple policy initiatives, yet cannot deliver the big picture - a secure, fair and prosperous society - in exchange for the sacrifice.
The RTBU does not have a simple faith in higher taxes and higher government spending. The global capitalist system has not demonstrated any easy path to the light on the hill. If anything, the clash between the demands of capital for growth and profits and the needs of ordinary citizens is growing sharper. Sustained high unemployment cannot be supported by adequate social security because capitalists refuse to pay the necessary taxes - yet no policy tried since 1974 can get even the artificial official unemployment rate below 6%.
To advance, Labor must choose the side of the citizens, the working people, and fight for a policy mix that regulates the markets and empowers the people.
2. Committee of Review Matters
a) Procedures to ensure the ALP attracts and pre-selects the best possible candidates to contest federal seats.
There is no simple solution to the perceived problem of not having the best candidates in federal elections. Some changes to pre-selection procedures will not fix things.
For instance, the recruitment of 'stars' to be candidates from outside the Labor Party is no answer. David Hill is one example of this. Peter Beattie had an emergency in early 2001 and could impose candidates directly for the Queensland election, which Labor won so well. But this cannot become a rule, because it is undemocratic and relies on one or two people 'knowing everything'.
Better candidates will come out of a better Labor Party. The RTBU, like the entire trade union movement, has been asking similar questions to those posed for the Committee of Review, as it has grappled with falling membership and repeated setbacks in the 1990s. In broad terms, the union movement and the RTBU have adopted the 'organising model' as the strategic response.
The 'organising model' entails:
(Source: unions@work, Report of ACTU Overseas Delegation August 1999, the challenge for unions in creating a JUST and FAIR society)
While the union movement still considers that it is early days in the adoption of the 'organising model', there are already important achievements from the adoption of this strategic direction. Union membership has stabilised, new workplaces are being organised, and unions are renewing themselves with a new generation of activists more clearly committed to democratic, grassroots processes.
There are important lessons for the ALP in this experience of the trade union movement.
First, there must be a frank recognition of a crisis. The current ALP review processes are part of this, and the review committees can choose to make this recognition the starting point for their recommendations.
Second, the path to renewal involves education and training of the front-line activists, and the transfer to them of significant decision-making power and responsibilities.
Third, renewal means that the members themselves, not only the activists, have better communications and more opportunities to participate in the important decisions.
At present, there is very little to hold a new Labor Party member to a branch, because the Branch has so little input into decisions, yet the member has to defend a stream of unexplainable and indefensible policies. And they have to front up for the election campaign and do the hard work.
It was even harder in 2001 because there were no policies to support until the last week or so of the campaign.
Two notable cases of campaign desertion by the members were on the November 1999 Republic Referendum, and in the 2001 Federal Election campaign following Labor's support for stopping the landing of asylum seekers from the Tampa.
Even the best of candidates cannot overcome poor strategy and / or policy decisions by the leadership in the heat of an election campaign.
A lesson from union experience is that the best candidates have to be well-trained by the party, and they have to emerge from an active party organisation. Creating an activist Labor Party with a real life in the electorate is the first step to solving the problem of the quality of candidates.
Above all, members must be involved in choosing candidates. Therefore there should be no retreat from democratic processes in choosing candidates.
The RTBU proposes that a proportion of union affiliation fees be spent on building the ALP among union members.
b) Mechanisms to secure the best input to the party's policy review and development processes.
The RTBU's experience of the policy process has been largely negative. Before the 2001 federal election, the RTBU could not win a place on the Transport Policy Committee. Moreover, we submitted detailed proposals which were not responded to. As far as we know, the Transport Policy Committee did not actually meet. This meant that the policy was in fact made by the Shadow Minister and his staff. Repeated calls to the Shadow Minister indicated that there could be no substantial policy initiatives because of the fiscal constraint accepted by the Federal Leader and his staff.
In other words, there was virtually no policy process at all, and all policy was dominated by the Leader and a few people around him.
Unless there is a genuinely different process, the RTBU will have no confidence in the current policy review. The RTBU welcomes the idea of a total new look at the policies. We will believe it when there is a series of open meetings organised in every state and in the regions, at which both policy experts, party members, union members and interested citizens who are not party members can have an input.
This requires commitment of resources, and a process where the consultation leads to more refined proposals and eventually to a policy recommendation for Branch and National Conferences. There needs to be greater policy coordination between Branch and National Conferences. Urban Public Transport is a policy area that requires a coordinated state-federal policy.
The RTBU recently launched a booklet, Rail and urban public transport - a new policy for a new century, calling for a break with Australian government paralysis, which demonstrates our historic commitment to develop policy. The union is always ready to explain its ideas to the ALP Shadow Ministers, Caucus, Policy Committees and conferences.
As explained earlier, taxation and spending policies are a major constraint on all other ALP policy. The RTBU believes that a fairer tax system can be created, involving the abolition of the GST, a change in the mix of indirect taxes, and a firmer corporate tax and personal income tax regime where the rich pay their fair share - according to the ability to pay.
Further spending capacity is available through modification of the ultra-tight government debt reduction program, because Australia's public sector debt is very low by world standards. The funds thus made available can be invested in much needed infrastructure, including hospitals, public schools and public housing, as well as public transport and communications.
c) Relationships between the ALP and the trade unions and other significant community and interest groups.
The Labor Party was formed by the trade unions over 110 years ago, when the unions were a much smaller part of the work force than they are today. At that time, the Labor Party was a broad social coalition encompassing workers, small business, small farmers and professions.
While economic and social developments have changed Australian society over the last century, the Labor Party still has the potential to reach out to many social groups while keeping the workers' movement at its heart.
The recent calls for diluting the links between the ALP and the trade unions, and of the Socialist Objective do not reflect a widespread feeling among ALP members or among trade unionists. Rather, it is the call of the hard-line neo-liberal or economic rationalist ideologues in the ALP leadership, generally speaking through Mark Latham.
This call, coming soon after the November 2001 election defeat, only caused longtime Labor supporters to doubt the character of the leadership even more. There has been a re-bound effect, with union activists asking out loud, out of frustration: just what is the point of staying with Labor. While the 60 / 40 rule for union votes is part of the problem of factions, it is only part of the ALP - union relationship.
The RTBU provides campaign workers for Labor's marginal seat campaigns in state and federal elections, and other unions do the same.
If the ALP link with its union affiliates is broken, the ALP will definitely lose this flesh-and-blood campaign force which fills the gaps of weak and even non-existent branches. As well, the ALP will lose the funds provided by unions in fees, and in campaign donations.
In other words, the ALP would not only change symbols, its identity would really change, and its capacity to reach people would be diminish. It would no longer be the Labor Party. Those ALP leaders who hanker after the US Democratic Party would be happy, but the pragmatists among them should start calculating how many seats in parliament they want to lose.
If Labor further dilutes its links with the unions, the RTBU predicts a more rapid decline in Labor's vote than we have seen until now, and an extended period of Coalition government until some new progressive political alliance can re-occupy the ground once held by Labor, with the trade unions at its core.
The RTBU, with its limited resources, tries to build coalitions with other community groups to advance the goals of workers' rights, fair and accessible public transport, a modern effective interstate transport system, and ecological sustainability. We find no contradiction between our industrial goals and these broader objectives.
The Labor Party must take the step of cementing positive relationships with progressive social movements, instead of carrot-and-stick bargaining over elections.
In the Labor Party there are already structures for women and youth, though these are strangled by factional dynamics, and authoritarian leadership.
The RTBU opposes any change to the 60 / 40 rule for union affiliates, until there is a better proposal put forward that achieves the same objectives.
The RTBU proposes the creation of new structures in the ALP for the environment, multiculturalism, and indigenous Australians, similar to those now existing for Young Labor and the Labor Women's Conference.
Each of these bodies should receive enhanced representation at the National Conference and at the National Executive, to ensure that their policy development work impacts on the Party.
The ALP should now commit itself to the target of women being preselected for 50% of winnable seats, and should adopt targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and for people of non-english speaking background. The RTBU notes that the ACTU Executive achieved 50% representation by women by positive discrimination methods some years ago, and that this is part of the advances made by the union movement in recent years in demonstrating its relevance to working people.
The RTBU calls for a reverse of the 1999 ALP National Conference decision which allowed the Federal Parliamentary Leader and the Caucus the discretion to depart from ALP policy. This would make the participation of unions and other important social groups in ALP structures more than a token recognition by a non-accountable leadership.
d) Strategies to increase the ALP's primary vote at federal elections
The ALP's primary vote will only recover when the leadership abandons its dance of death with economic rationalism and reasserts democracy and social justice and commits itself to ecological sustainability as its primary values. That means challenging corporate power and greed. This is a sharp break from the last 20 years. Such a dramatic move will communicate a real change to Labor's constituency and will need to be supported by consistent internal and public practices to overcome the deep scepticism about Labor among ordinary people.
The RTBU recognises the natural competition between all parties in the parliament, but urges Labor to express a cooperative approach to the small progressive parties now in the parliament in the effort to defeat the Liberal - National Coalition.
e) Measures to broaden and increase the membership of the party and the involvement of the members in party activity.
The RTBU believes that many of the ideas put forward already in this submission will attract disgruntled former ALP members back into the party, and attract new members from among workers and the middle classes.
f) Examination of internal processes within the ALP
Factionalism is a big feature of the ALP internal processes blamed for many of its woes. The RTBU finds the practice of branch-stacking for factional objectives in pre-selections to be a major problem in the life of ALP Branches.
Factions on both the right and the left are dominated by just a few individuals from the parliament, the unions and the party machine. They inhibit policy work, and impose unwelcome candidates on electorates, in order to advance their own ambitions, which are today largely devoid of any apparent principled basis.
Factions can be put into a more positive role of helping to organise debate and decision-making in a large organisation, by enhancing non-faction processes.
Factional leaders can quash creative dissent as well as negative disorder, and can ignore complaints of genuine abuse. Where normal Administrative Committee and National Executive processes fail to satisfy a member or branch or affiliated union, an appeal to an independent Complaints Committee should be made available. The decisions of the Complaints Committee should be binding.
ii) Policy processes
The policy process advocated earlier in this submission is an important aspect of this re-balancing of the internal life of the ALP. Policy Committees have to meet and consult widely, and they must be resourced to do so. Ministers and Shadow Ministers must attend the Policy Committee meetings. Key program innovations must be discussed with the policy committees. There must be a conscious effort to coordinate policy between the federal and state sections of the party and community organisations.
Policy committees should report in writing to Conferences, in conjunction with Ministers and Shadow Ministers, on how policy was implemented. National Conference policy decisions should be subject to ratification by a similar vote of members of 12 months standing.
The National President should be elected by all members of 12 months standing, rather than selected by the faction leaders.
Pre-selection could be done by ballot of a "primaries" process in each electorate. This would give registered Labor supporters a say and reduce the value of branch stacking, while enhancing the rapport between candidates and their communities. Yet it would avoid the US-style of primaries because it would not be used for a nation-wide selection of just one presidential candidate.
The staff of MPs and Senators should be barred from contesting pre-selections in the held seat for a period of two years from the retirement or defeat of the MP or the Senator for whom they previously worked, or their resignation from that employment.
All sitting ALP members should be required to hold monthly forums in their electorates to have a real dialogue with members and supporters. The RTBU urges the adoption of a regular report by MPs to all affiliated union members in their electorates, at least three per year. This should also apply to Senators who could hold three such forums around their states each year.
MPs and Candidates should constructively engage with workers in their electorates and support workers involved in industrial disputes. The party should discuss with unions and Trades & Labor Councils about how to take this idea forward.
Branches need to be places of genuine debate of political affairs, with strong links to the local community, and able to develop new talent and ensure accountability of Local, State and Federal MPs. This requires funding, and a proportion of union affiliation fees should be allocated to Branch activity, consistent with the rules, policies and objectives of the ALP.
v) Election Campaign Spending
Corporate funding of Labor election campaigns is now so overwhelming that it can explain the unwillingness of Labor politicians to speak out on working class issues. The RTBU notes that the campaign donations from the roads lobby are a significant factor.
This corporate influence in elections has not diminished with the introduction of public election funding. Labor needs to develop and project a policy for a new law to limit election campaign spending to more modest levels, consistent with the right of free speech. This should be part of a serious look at the Australian Constitution and its failure to spell out democratic principles.
http://www.rtbu.asn.au/233.html - printed 26/5/2013