James Paterson and Patrick Hannaford say Yes, but Mark Lennon says No.

YES says James Paterson and Patrick Hannaford

UNION control of the Australian Labor Party is a significant obstacle to economic reform and will remain so as long as unions enjoy special legal privileges which reinforce their political power.

The royal commission has brought to light the many questionable deals made by union leaders. But less examined is the main reason why these deals are made: to expand influence within the ALP.

The right to join a union is a fundamental principle in a free society. But it is unhealthy for an interest group representing a small and declining proportion of Australians to have such an unprecedented level of influence over policy.

Unions have always been an influential force in Australia. In 1990, union membership was at 41 per cent of the workforce, making them an important stakeholder for governments of all persuasions.

But as union membership has fallen to 17 per cent of the total workforce, unions have sought other means to maintain their political influence. The modern trade union ­leader is now often as much a factional powerbroker as an organiser for workers.

The most significant foundation of union control in the ALP is the requirement that 50 per cent of delegates to state conferences come from affiliated trade unions, which leads to a similar representation at national conferences.

This then extends throughout the organisational and parliamentary wings of the party. As a result, 19 of the 26 National Executive members are current or former union officials and half of all ALP MPs have held a paid position in a trade union. This includes 23 of 55 lower house MPs, and 17 of 25 senators. More than half the ALP front bench, 22 of 43, are former union officials.

In effect, unions have been handed a veto over any policies which threaten their interests, such as the sale of electricity assets or labour market liberalisation.

Perhaps most importantly, Labor has also allowed unions to gain special legal privileges not available to other civil ­organisations, such as extraordinarily broad rights to enter workplaces.

These powers make it easier for unions to recruit and retain members and thus exercise more votes within the ALP.

The internal structure of the ALP is a matter for them. However, the special privileges granted to unions which serve to entrench union power should be removed. 

James Paterson and Patrick Hannaford are the authors of the Institute of Public Affairs report Unions in Labor: A Handbrake on Reform.



No says Mark Lennon 

WHEN a right-wing think tank such as the Institute for Public ­Affairs claims something is a “significant obstacle to economic reform” it always pays to examine ­exactly what kind of “reform” they feel is being obstructed.

The typical laundry list? Getting rid of the minimum wage. Abolishing penalty rates. Dropping the pension rate and upping the eligibility age. ­Removing workplace rights. Getting rid of public holidays. Removing barriers to import foreign guest workers.

Once you unpack what they mean by “economic reform” it is much easier to understand why they are so hellbent on breaking the link between ­unions and the Australian Labor Party, because it is this link that has stopped their agenda from taking hold in Australia.

Unions oppose all of these “reforms” and so, too, does the Labor Party. This perspective is formed from dealing with working people on an everyday basis and understanding where they are coming from.

I can think of no better background for an ­effective and in-touch politician than experience in a trade union.

Throughout their working lives a unionist will have heard the broadest range of issues that crop up during the day-to-day operation of our economy. They will have listened to workers and understood how important decent pay, conditions and safety are. They will have sat with employers and understood their perspective.

If they are a good union leader, such as Bill Shorten during his time at the Australian Workers’ Union, they will have fought for the best possible agreement for members while also ensuring their place of employment remains viable.

You often hear people ­lamenting the lack of real world experience in our politicians. But where better to acquire such experience than on factory floors and around boardroom negotiation tables?

Do you get it as a journalist, like Tony Abbott was? Do you get it as a political staffer or rubbing shoulders with corporate lawyers at a big city firm?

If unions were an impediment to our economic interests then Australia would not have enjoyed 23 years of uninterrupted growth — growth that started with the Accord process, a historic co-operative ­effort between business, government and unions.

The Liberal Party and their friends are obsessed with breaking the nexus between unions and the ALP because it stubbornly holds every time they try to take power and wealth from working people.

Mark Lennon is secretary of Unions NSW.


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