'Renewal' ALP-style

[Green Left Weekly, #659, March 8, 2006]

The ALP is undergoing a process of "renewal" as a clutch of ambitious right-wing trade union officials seek preselection against Victorian sitting federal MPs.

In the Melbourne seat of Maribyrnong Labor shadow frontbencher Bob Sercombe has already conceded defeat to Bill Shorten, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union and Victorian ALP state president. In Hotham, National Union of Workers secretary Martin Pakula is odds-on to win preselection over former federal Labor leader Simon Crean, who is also from the NUW. And other challenges are proceeding across Melbourne.

Shorten argues that's it’s all a natural process of change: "If you had a team that had lost four grand finals, you wouldn’t keep putting up the same team." However, any idea that perhaps the party’s bankrupt neo-liberal pro-big-business approach is the fundamental reason for Labor's decline is implicitly rejected.

Indeed, union leader Shorten has been a vociferous advocate of tax cuts — for the rich. He calls for lowering the already low top marginal rate to 30%, albeit covering himself by calling for an end to business rorts and handouts. Perhaps this plays well with a thin layer of highly skilled and highly paid workers in his own union but it fits right in with the capitalist neo-liberal assault against the working class as a whole.

The labour movement and its leaders should be fighting for a steeply progressive income tax scale to fund the quality public services and infrastructure that is needed to radically improve the quality of life of the mass of ordinary people. Rather than yet more tax cuts for the rich, what about raising the tax-free threshold to $30,000, increasing the top tax rate to 60% and raising company tax rates to the same level — and putting an end to tax avoidance by the wealthy and their corporations.

Of course, any number of corporate leaders and their paid hacks and ideologues will scream that this sort of program is socialism, that is is impossible, that the world will come to an end if greed is not encouraged and suitably rewarded. The truth, however, is that the world will indeed come to an end if we do not succeed in eliminating corporate power and greed from economic and public life in this country and around the world.

Union officials like Shorten are an absolute disgrace to the labour movement. An anecdote in the The Latham Diaries of former federal ALP leader Mark Latham says it all:

Went to the AWU annual ball at Crown Casino tonight [July 2004]. Little Billy [Shorten] sitting on my right, Big Bill [Ludwig] on my left — the things you do in this job …

Little Billy was in my ear about the [free trade agreement], telling me the party has to support it. I said I thought both he and his union were against it, to which he responded, 'That's just for the members. We need to say that sort of thing when they reckon their jobs are under threat. I want it to go through. The US alliance is too important to do otherwise. Politically, you have no choice.'

Great, the two faces of Little Billy Shorten: Public Shorten against the FTA; Private Billy in favour of it. Is this why he's being groomed for one of the top slots in the corporation? Political courage is not his long suit. Not a bad night otherwise. It's a long way from the shearing sheds, but the AWU puts on a good show.

No, what is going on with the push by Shorten, Pakula et al is not "renewal" in the sense of an attempt to push for pro-worker policies in the ALP, but a further lurch to the right by the ALP and a rush for the trough of public office by a gaggle of pro-business trade union misleaders.

In their heyday before and during World War I, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) scathingly lampooned such officials — especially those from the AWU, even then a bastion of right-wing Laborism. The song 'Bump Me into Parliament' (sung to the tune of 'Yankee Doodle') remains apposite:

Come listen, all kind friends of mine,
I want to move a motion,
To build an El Dorado here,
I’ve got a bonzer notion.

Bump me into parliament,
Bounce me any way,
Bang me into parliament,
On next election day.

Some very wealthy friends I know
Declare I am most clever,
While some may talk for an hour or so
Why, I can talk for ever.

And so on. Almost a century later, in the essence of the matter, very little has changed. The ALP is still the main strategic roadblock to the workers' struggle for emancipation and trying build a viable alternative to it remains the burning task of the day for militants and socialists.