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On 7 December I forwarded a highly important article by Paul Kelly on the extent to which unions are now controlling the Labor Party. A copy of that article, entitled Clueless, leaderless and blind, is on my web site

Below is an article in similar vein by former Labor leader, Mark Latham, entitled Labor: running on empty. Latham refers to Kelly's perception. These "exposures" come at a time of reports of increasingly aggressive industrial action by unions based on the Fair Work Australia legislation and the union-stacked tribunal that administers it.

Given the enormous power unions are able to exercise under legislation compiled by someone who is now Prime Minister, who has given no sign of recognising the problem, and who has in any event now lost authority to adopt any reform program, Australia now faces a major crisis in the labour market. Upwards revisions of forecast levels of unemployment to the high 5s are already being made because of deteriorating economic conditions overseas and in most parts of the Australian economy. It may not be long before the 5s are replaced by 6s.

Des Moore

Labor: running on empty

(Article published in AFR, 15 Dec 2011)
By Mark Latham

When people think of the great Labor splits, they think of 1916, 1931 and 1955, when a significant number of federal MPs defected from the party. Now a new split, with a new series of defections, is under way. It has not captured media headlines or directly threatened Labor's parliamentary numbers.

For this is a different kind of schism, played out in a different sphere of politics. It is, however, no less debilitating than its three predecessors. Labor's rank and file membership is deserting the party, repulsed by the heavy hand of factional control.

Due to the embarrassment it brings, Labor has tried to keep the nature of the split hidden from public view. The full details of its membership records and internal ballots are secret. Recently, however, two valuable pieces of research have exposed the truth of the party's grassroots disintegration.

Kevin Rudd's former speech writer, Troy Bramston, has chronicled the long-term decline in Labor's national membership: from 150,000 in the 1930s, to 50,000 in the 1990s, to just 11,665 members who voted in the ballot for the national presidency last month. Also of assistance, former NSW party official Luke Foley has broken down the state records by membership category.

Only 16 per cent of ALP members in NSW belong to trade unions affiliated to the party. By far the biggest category (55 per cent) is concessional membership - that is, people outside the workforce.

When extrapolated to the presidency ballot, Foley's figures expose the emptiness of Labor's structure. Of the party's 11,665 active members, only 1860 (16 per cent of the total) are likely to belong to an affiliated union. This represents, on average, just 12 Labor unionists in each federal electorate - not enough for a footy team.

The notion of Labor as a trade-union based party, a grassroots organisation of Australian workers, is a myth. When Labor MPs say they represent working people in this country, they are mouthing a fraud. They have only a handful of union members active in their local branches.

In practice, union power is exercised through centralised control: union secretaries donating money and staff to marginal seats and rounding up the numbers at Labor Party conferences.

This process has institutionalised Labor's split. As the power of union-based factionalism has increased, branch members have left the party. Out in the suburbs, working people and young families have had no reason to maintain their involvement.

Compared with rival community organisations, the return on ALP membership is minimal. Campaign groups such as GetUp! have benefited from this shortcoming.

The union secretaries have actively encouraged the marginalisation of Labor's membership. Let me give two examples. When he was the head of Unions NSW, John Robertson openly declared branch meetings to be a waste of time. Now he's the leader of the NSW Parliamentary Labor Party. More recently, Right-wing factional boss Paul Howes heavily criticised his local branches, saying he couldn't be bothered attending their meetings.

The paradox is scarifying. Union officials who eschew Labor locally are able to wield substantial power inside the party at a state and national level.

Make no mistake: this has been a deliberate strategy to split the ALP, turning it into an oligarchy of union officials. None of the decisions at the recent national conference will reverse this pattern. How could they? The union leaders- cum-factional-chiefs in control of the numbers are not about to cut their own throats.

Never forget the key number: 12 trade unionists per electorate. Everything else is Labor-inspired spin to convince the media that the party is still a legitimate grassroots force.

In large part, this spin has worked. Among the scores of journalists in Canberra, only Paul Kelly from The Australian writes about Labor through the prism of its organisational schism. This is one of the biggest stories in Australian politics but the press gallery (sans Kelly) remains mute. In 2005, I was the first senior figure to catalogue the nature of Labor's dysfunction when I published my diaries.

"The bastard's gone mad," the party's spin doctors whispered. "None of it can be as bad as he claims." In fact, it was bad and getting worse, as the subsequent period has demonstrated.

A dozen unionists in each seat - that's the real madness of what the Australian Labor Party has become.

Mark Latham is a former Labor leader.

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