The Health Services Union scandal and Labor’s unhappy political marriage

The union scandal surrounding Labor MP Craig Thompson shows just why the Labor party should re-consider its relationship with the unions. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The Health Services Union’s scandal continues with calls for its national president to resign and moves to remove Kathy Jackson, the whistleblower who first revealed claims of credit card misuse, from the national executive.

This comes after Fair Work Australia (FWA) referred its investigation into potential fraud and corruption in the HSU to the Commonwealth DPP, and the suspension of the union by the ACTU.

The debacle could have serious negative political consequences for the Gillard government with Labor MP Craig Thomson at the centre of the scandal.

The Labor party is ignoring it for the moment, but the scandal has highlighted the effects of a close relationship between unions and the Labor party. It’s time to acknowledge that this relationship needs some serious re-thinking.

Political marriages

For political parties, structure is destiny. The ALP can’t walk away from the fact that it is dominated by unions, especially by blue collar unions and the conservative catholic led Shop, Distributive and Allied union (SDA). And equally, the union movement can’t hide from the fact that it is married to the ALP.

When one side stuffs up, the other side cops the flack too.

Many of today’s union leaders still blame the Accord, and Keating’s “recession we had to have”, for the collapse in union densities in the 1990s that almost saw the Australian union movement go backwards.

Modern Labor leaders, on the other hand, like to refer to their “partnership” with the great union movement. Talk of partnerships tends to suggest an arms-length, independent relationship.

Such talk is misleading; union officials dominate party conferences and ALP caucuses. If anything, union influence has strengthened with the collapse of the party’s branch structure.

Many in the trade union movement, and in the ALP, would have you believe that the links between some unions and the ALP don’t matter. That they’re just an historical legacy, the voters don’t care how the sausage is made.

That’s called psychological denial.

Modernise or perish

The structure of the ALP has changed very little in the past century. The ALP’s structure is a horse and buggy artifact in an internet age.

The Labor party maintains an antiquated federal structure, even though its political leaders have been pushing for national approaches right across the public policy spectrum for generations on everything from transport and trade recognition to health and education.

The ALP was established by blue-collar unions. The blue-collar workforce has been in decline for more than 50 years. The first federal ALP caucus had just one member with a university degree (in theology), now just about the whole caucus and the whole of the ACTU leadership has been to university.

With historically low union density rates (the proportion of employees in unions) today’s big powerful unions represent middle-class, university trained employees in health and education.

These unions are not, for the most part, ever going to affiliate to the ALP. They value their independence and they know that campaigning is the key to recruiting and retaining members.

The campaign trail

For more than a decade, the ACTU has been urging its affiliate to transform themselves into campaigning organisations.

Campaigning generates enthusiasm for unionism. That’s why the union movement’s campaign against Workchoices gave it a much needed shot in the arm.

But campaigning requires political independence. That’s why the ACTU couldn’t replicate the magic of 2007 in 2010.

The insider politics played by senior union officials during the Rudd and Gillard governments curbed the enthusiasm. Suddenly the t-shirts, rallies and badges seemed less glorious.

So far this has been a destiny postponed.

The Whitlam generation covered over the problem with some middle-class radicalism. The Carr and Beattie generation of state leaders combined severely curtailed policy ambitions with slick media management.

Both these approaches were roundly rejected by the electorate after the gloss wore off. Indeed, the attempt by Rudd and Gillard to import the Carr/Beattie model to Canberra has been the source of much of federal Labor’s recent travails.

Divided they stand

The ALP’s date with a modern destiny can’t be postponed any longer.

It is time to end the dominance of union officials, and rebuild a broad-based party with new, modern structures.

Independence, after the initial period of withdrawal pains, will be good for both sides.

Until then, both sides of this old relationship will have to suffer through the ignominy of each other’s poor performances.