The Union Boss Who Went Straight To The Top

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Former South Australian union boss Alex Gallacher comes to the Senate after 15 years as the secretary, treasurer and more recently president, of the South Australian/Northern Territory branch of the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

With the help of backers in the ALP Right, Gallacher secured the top spot on the Labor party’s Senate ticket in South Australia after Senator Annette Hurley decided not to seek re-election. When he did so, he pipped incumbents Anne McEwen and Dana Wortley for the position. This was bad news for Wortley, who missed out altogether when Labor secured only two South Australian seats in the upper house, as opposed to the three they had won in the earlier election.

Gallacher has 15 years experience at the top of the South Australian union movement and was a labourer and truck drive himself. It doesn’t look like he’s going to stop trucking now that he’s moved to Canberra. He’d barely taken his seat before he voiced his concern about what the new carbon tax would mean for self-employed drivers in South Australia and across the country. Fully Loaded, a transport industry news site, noted with approval Gallacher’s calls for drivers to be compensated for any new costs dished up by the carbon tax.

At the TWU, Gallacher was a vocal advocate for his members. Whether it was Adelaide bus drivers taking industrial action, or the effect budget airlines have on interstate coach travel, and more recently, Mike Rann’s big ideas about collective bargaining and workers’ entitlements, Gallacher has had something to say. His constituency may have shifted but it’s unlikely his rhetoric will.

There are some similarities between Gallacher and fellow incoming Labor Senator Matt Thistlethwaite, profiled last week by NM. They both arrive in Canberra courtesy of their Right faction allegiances and the powerful relationships between certain unions and Labor.

Gallacher enters the Senate with organising experience, and a base in the Right of the Labor party. More importantly he comes with a power base. This is a man who epitomises the influence held by unions within Labor. And while unlike Thistlethwaite, Gallacher hasn’t done his time within the party machine, his background means he’ll see some old friends in the new Senate; for starters, he’ll be able to buddy up with another former TWU official, WA Senator Glenn Sterle.

Gallacher has warned against Labor becoming "captive to a new Green agenda", saying that the Gillard government he joins will focus on "common sense" instead. This kind of commentary underscores the nature of the predicament in which Labor finds itself. And in SA this is only too clear, with only two Labor senators elected at the last election to the Liberals three, and the Greens one.

Gallacher has vowed not to be typecast as a former union boss but his background and lack of career diversification leaves him vulnerable to just that accusation. The path trodden by the former union heavyweight to Canberra is a familiar trajectory in Australian politics. What we’ve heard so far from Gallacher shows that he certainly hasn’t forgotten about his former constituents in the transport sector. What he’ll do for the rest of South Australia remains to be seen.

 

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