Don’t Blame Joe Bullock For Labor’s Flop

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The ALP must be counting its lucky stars. Because Joe Bullock’s bizarre speech to a conservative Christian group was hauled up out of the dirt file and published prior to the election, party reformists have a ready scapegoat for the dismal 21.8 percent primary vote Labor pulled at the weekend’s WA federal election redux.

Alannah MacTiernan, the Federal MP for Perth, is in The Australian today, laying into Bullock for costing the party votes. “There are booths that six months ago we were leading and now we’re coming third,” she said. “We need people who can sell the message; we need to make sure we have people capable of inspiring people.”

Former Senator Chris Evans joined her, telling the ABC that, regarding Bullock, “there’s no question that the Labor Party has a serious problem with its preselection processes, particularly in Western Australia”.

This is an old narrative of Labor decline: that the pure party, represented by spotless rank-and-file members, is compromised because of its affiliation with the dirty politics of trades unionism, especially those unions with a heavy Roman Catholic influence like the Shoppies, of which Bullock was assistant secretary.

But as Manning Clark wrote back in 1950, this view has always promoted “the illusion that there was a time when labour was pure, untainted by either the world, the flesh or the devil”. As far back as 1890 the Labor writer Vere Gordon Childe was playing this line, writing about Labor’s degeneration from “a band of inspired socialists … into a vast machine for the capture of political power.”

The ALP is not a fundamentally “progressive” party held back by a few singlet-wearing, conservative dinosaurs like Bullock. It has historically attempted to manage the tensions between the various expressions of Australian trades unionism in order to drive industrial and social reform for the benefit of workers — a project the Labor historian Bede Nairn called “civilising capitalism”.

To focus on Bullock as the conservative face of an out of touch party ignores the structural challenges faced by labour parties around the world. It also downplays the real political circumstances which allowed Bullock to get the number one slot on the WA Senate ticket to begin with. In short, the Left stuffed it up back in 2012 in the lead up to the WA state election.

In WA, Labor’s Left is split between the “soft” Left, aligned with United Voice, and the more militant blue-collar Left, aligned with the Maritime Union of Australia. According to a report last year from former Crikey journo Andrew Crook, the MUA tried to rumble Simone McGurk, former Unions WA secretary and the endorsed candidate for the State seat of Fremantle, and replace her with their own state deputy secretary.

The MUA bungled the putsch, and United Voice brokered a deal with the Shoppies to secure McGurk’s seat in exchange for Bullock’s number one spot on the Senate ticket. It also saw United Voice assistant national secretary Sue Lines parachute into WA from Sydney to fill Chris Evans’ Senate vacancy in 2013. The loser was Louise Pratt, a talented performer and ministerial hopeful whose political future is now in doubt.

But the unaligned critics of union horse trading aren’t rolling over to get new blood into the party either. MacTiernan, who is WA’s most persistent public voice against union influence and a constant voice for party reform, hedged out young Labor lawyer Matthew Keogh for Stephen Smith’s old seat of Perth in 2013 — even though she had already served a 17-year-long parliamentary career in State politics.

Playing the “independent” candidate against the grubby union-dominated party is an anti-political move mastered by Kevin Rudd. It’s not sustainable, and when Rudd’s second play against Gillard backfired, confidence in the party was destroyed, perhaps for good. Any honest assessment of the ALP should emphasise that it is actually kept alive by its umbilical link to the unions, in spite of the stifling effect many union officials have on party processes, and the recent corruption scandals in the HSU and elsewhere.

There are currently around 44,000 ALP members in Australia, and about 1.8 million trades unionists (according to the ABS this number has levelled out over the last few years). As far as we know from the latest round of federal political donations information, which doesn’t include information from the most recent federal election, the Shoppies are the largest lump sum donor to the party: $900,000.

Without union funding and support for campaigns like Your Rights At Work, there wouldn’t be a Labor Party worth speaking of. That’s why NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell attempted a High Court raid on union funding that drew support from political rivals in “blue-green” faction of the NSW Greens — in part because it also limited corporate donations from mining and gas companies.

In the wake of Labor’s poor showing in WA, Bill Shorten is tipped to remove the requirement that prospective Labor members must be unionists. The party’s problems aren’t just image problems, he was meant to say today in a speech to the Per Capita think-tank, before a family tragedy prevented him from appearing. “It’s more serious than this. We need to change ourselves. We need to change our party.”

The constant frustration unionists have with the ALP — at a time when they’re bearing the brunt of globalisation, attacks on labour rights, an impending Royal Commission, and deep structural changes in the economy — is that elected Labor parliamentarians join the Coalition in bashing unions, while at the same time relying on them for both financial and political clout. No wonder some of the more progressive unions, like the FBEU and NTEU, have begun supporting the Greens.

If, as former WA Premier Geoff Gallop said today, Labor is facing an “existential crisis” after the weekend’s election result, then reform is more urgent than ever. But it won’t be meaningful while the parliamentary party consistently trumpets its disdain for the union hierarchy that is its main structural support — including figures like Joe Bullock.

Adam Brereton

Adam Brereton is a journalist with New Matilda.

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