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Amidst the ongoing concern rightly being expressed about the composition of the Senate, there now seems to be almost universal agreement in the media (even the ABC) that Labor needs to reduce the role of unions. The Australian is thus no longer a lone voice in this regard.

Note in particular the article below by ALP stalwart Rodney Cavalier. But it is difficult to see how union influence within the ALP can be reduced, at least in the short term. In my view, although the Labor party will not recognise it, reducing union power within the ALP will depend importantly on reducing it under the regulatory arrangements applying to workplace relations. If that were to happen, there would be potential for the ALP to become a Social Democratic party

Even in the short term differences remain as to the extent of any reductions in influence. The proposal that party members can be allowed to come from those who are not union members amounts to nothing as that is already the case in practice. 

As to possible  resultant policy changes, there is no sign yet that there will be any, although some on the left are saying Labor should agree to repeal the mining tax. One would have thought that the carbon tax should go too – something which could be justified by the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers report on 31 March. This report seems to reflect a shift in thinking about the urgency of action needed to reduce emissions.

The favourable publicity given to the trade agreement with Japan seems to have been overdone – see McCrann article below – although it will help politically.



Support for Coalition at six-month high as Bill Shorten’s appeal sinks: Newspoll

Article by Des Dennis Shanahan, Political Editor published in The Australian, April 7, 2014

THE Abbott government is in its best electoral position in six months and Bill Shorten has his lowest personal support since becoming Labor leader in October.

Despite the Coalition facing a swing of more than five percentage points against it in the West Australian Senate re-run election, its primary support nation­ally has risen to its highest since November.

According to the latest Newspoll survey, taken exclusively for The Australian at the weekend when the WA Senate election was under way, the ­Coalition’s primary vote rose from 40 two weeks earlier to 43 per cent and Labor’s went from 36 to 34 per cent, its lowest since the first week of ­November.

Although the Greens had a six percentage point swing towards them in the West Australian Senate election on Saturday, the national survey shows primary support dropping from a 12-month high of 13 per cent two weeks ago to 11 per cent at the weekend. Primary vote support for “others’’, including the Palmer United Party, was virtually unchanged on 12 per cent.

The Coalition is now in front of Labor on a two-party-preferred basis, 51 to 49 per cent.

Labor had led the government on a two-party-preferred basis since the beginning of December as the Abbott government lost voter support sooner than any newly elected modern government except Julia Gillard’s.

Precious Little for Aus in Free Trade Farce

Article by Terry McCrann published in the Herald Sun, April 8, 2014

OH DEAR. First indications of the deal signed with Japan last night suggests that it will be struggling to justify even my “modified F” in the earlier Korean FTA.
That is to say, that honesty in politics would have it called just a TA — as in, Trade Agreement.

As I explained at the time of the Korean FTA signing, it is a total joke to call them Free Trade Agreements. At best they are Freer Trade Agreements.
A true F (Free) TA would be one page. All trade between Australia and, for example, Korea and now Japan, will in future be free of tariffs, quotas and other restrictions. Full stop.
Instead, they are all hundreds of closely detailed pages of carve-outs and exclusions. Free trade? Bunkum!
At least the Korean FTA (sic) did generally commit to cutting the restrictions on our key exports to Korea over time.
That trade would become significantly freer.
Now, I hadn’t seen the details of the Japan FTA (sic) when writing this, but media reports — fed by the Australian delegation in Tokyo — made it very clear this deal would be struggling to even justify the word “Freer”.
Of course our major exports to Japan are already “free”: coal, iron ore and LNG. They want them to feed Japan Inc, and Japan Inc ain’t going to pay any more for them than China makes them pay.

Where we want access is for our exports of meat, dairy, sugar and rice. But they’ve been excluded to protect other parts of Japan Inc — the politically powerful domestic rural lobbies.
And those early reports suggest they’ll continue to be excluded. That our pollies have signed off on purely symbolic concessions, just to claim an historic FTA.
If all Trade Minister Andrew Robb could trumpet was cheaper cars into Australia — that’s, us cutting no longer needed tariffs — it suggests he got precious little for our exporters.

Party reform must be Labor's priority

Editorial published in The Age, April 8, 2014
[Square brackets deleted by Ed]

However some Labor leaders might seek to interpret the results of West Australia's Senate election at the weekend, they must concede the bell has tolled. In just seven months, Labor has been defeated at the federal level, been comprehensively dumped in Tasmania's state elections, and scraped back into government in South Australia on a reduced margin. The latest results show only about one in five WA voters (21.8 per cent) support Labor's policies and its candidates.

Labor's parliamentary leader Bill Shorten is correct in saying the party faces more than an image or marketing problem. We say it is time for Labor's leaders to grasp the nettle and launch a comprehensive program of reform, one that encompasses every aspect of the party's structure and selection processes.

It must go beyond a review. It must result in action. This is not the time for excuses or retribution. If Labor's internal leaders do not start changing the dynamics by routing the dysfunction that handicaps the party and, among other things, dispense with the disproportionate weighting afforded to unions, then it will idle in the wilderness for years.

The outcome in Western Australia only underscores the problems that have been afflicting Labor for some years. The clearest evidence of the need to change the preselection process is the deal that was struck last year between union heavyweights which shoe-horned the right-wing unionist, Joe Bullock, into the top spot on Labor's WA Senate ticket. Mr Bullock is by no means representative of Labor or, for that matter, the labour movement. His personal views on women, abortion (against it) and same-sex marriage (against it) run counter to Labor's progressive ideals. While a diversity of views within a party can aid constructive debate, it is an indictment on the selection process that Mr Bullock, of all people, may emerge as the sole Labor senator for WA.

He may have been a Labor member for decades, but length of tenure should never be a free ride to a seat in parliament. Merit should be the ultimate factor. As Mr Bullock said last year, he was ''very fortunate'' to win preselection. That he was endorsed by the Labor machine under Mr Shorten's leadership is cause for some serious introspection.

Retiring WA Labor senator Mark Bishop on Monday said Labor's leadership had ''wilfully and continuously ignored'' the needs of voters in his home state. His criticism was more than a lament. It drove to the core of Labor's problems. ''We need to be a lot more open, we need to be a lot more democratic, and we need to have a greater range of people who volunteer to get involved in political life,'' Senator Bishop said.

Mr Shorten says for Labor to regain government, it needs to have ''an honest conversation'' about why it lost power. Yet the conversation began a long time ago, even before 2010 when the party commissioned Labor elders Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner to review the party's structure and propose a future path. There has been little in the way of genuine reform since then, other than the changed process of electing Labor's parliamentary party leader through a weighted ballot of members and caucus.

The first change must be the absurd and anachronistic requirement that, to be a member of the Labor Party, an individual must be a member of a union. The existing system excludes people who believe in Labor's policies but do not want to be union members, do not believe in union ideals or who, by virtue of what they do, cannot be union members. Then change the internal voting system that gifts Labor affiliated unions 50 per cent weighting in decisions about policy and preselection.

Make it genuinely democratic, Mr Shorten. Merely talking about the prospect of change does not bring it into effect. Make sure this is fundamental yet sustainable reform, and get it done.

Ending union control is what matters

Article by Rodney Cavalier published in The Australian, April 8, 2014

THE Senate election in Western Australia last weekend revealed the sorry state of the Labor Party. A ticket led by a union official who had revealed what he really thought of the ALP garnered less than 22 per cent of the vote.

If nothing else does, this should put beyond doubt that control of the ALP by its affiliated unions is indefensible by rational argument. That is not a problem for defenders of union control since rational argument counts for zero against a union bloc vote.

We hear empty statements about “modernisation” and “reform” but none of the weasel words on offer will end a rancid culture. Last week, on this page, Stephen Loosley said that the ALP should end binding resolutions at ALP conferences.

“At a single stroke,” he wrote, “it would eliminate any claim that parliamentary Labor is subject to the dictates of trade union affiliates.” It does no such thing and he knows it.

The Loosley plan ensures that unions will continue to control ALP conferences. Control of conference means control of preselections, party administration, discipline and the making of rules. Control conference and you are immune to change.

For parliamentary parties, conference resolutions rank in importance (if they rank at all) well behind focus groups, qualitative polling, anticipated media reaction, the views of the commentariat and the authority of the parliamentary leader, not to mention blind panic.

In the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd interlude, the Labor Party played almost no role. National and state conferences provided a backdrop, an audience, applause for announcements from above.

The irrelevance of the party was most evident in climate change — the greatest moral challenge of our times was abandoned without ceremony, then revived with an equal lack of notice by way of a carbon tax. The ALP in any of its guises played no role in any of that.

Since 1918, unions have never been less relevant. They have one remaining asset: the bloc vote at ALP conferences. What remains, though, is everything. The sliver of unions affiliated to the ALP, less than 15 per cent of the workforce, only 8 per cent of the electorate, have never enjoyed more power in the ALP.

Bill Shorten has weighed in with a proposal to remove a rule about union membership that has long since ceased to be enforced. This distraction is an attempt to disguise his first loyalty is to the unions. He is unable to conceive of the party with other than the structures that made his own rise possible. He will not take any action that breaks union control of the party.

Only one change matters: altering the proportion of union delegations at ALP conferences. All else is hot air.

Unless you reduce that proportion to less than 20 per cent, you are in favour of union control. Understand that and you understand the real position of parliamentary leaders: they do not trust the members of the Labor Party.

Dean Mighell, on this page, nailed what holding office in a union means to ALP operatives: a platform for the ambitious to build a profile and advance their careers.

Why should non-Labor voters be imprisoned by a decision of the union executive to commit their funds and material support to a party they do not vote for? Let members decide if they want to be part of the ALP. Most rank-and-file members will opt out of affiliation, given the choice.

The ALP leadership needs to recognise that work has changed and its social organisation. Most employees do not belong to union­s, not because they cannot but because they do not want to.

We are entering an endgame. Jim Macken, a unionist since his teens, a former union official and judge, advocates the end of a union presence on the floor of conference, qualified by the right to submit agenda items and argue for them. One-time beneficiaries of union control whisper 0 per cent of voting rights. Paul Howes has proclaimed it openly. I feel like a moderate sticking with 8 per cent.

The Labor primary vote struggles to rise above the 30s. Given this, the party can only ever form minority government. There are few seats it can win without Greens and other preferences.

Union control is toxic. The parliamentary leadership knows that, so does the party machine. Their concern is not about an absence of internal democracy or the poor quality of MPs, which would occasion a most unwelcome self-examination. The concern is that two-thirds of Australians are not voting Labor. In WA, it is four-fifths.

The reasons are many but union control is the underlying one that explains why Labor is so much less than it might be.

In the absence of reform, expect more gimmicks and distractions. However many ALP members there are, the means by which they are admitted do not matter if they lack a meaningful say in their party.

Rodney Cavalier is an ALP historian and a former NSW Labor minister.

Palmer and Greens united by opportunistic politics

Editorial by published in The Australian, 8 April, 2014

LABOR is in denial about its abysmal showing in the West Australian Senate re-election. That the opposition could energetically contest what amounted to a statewide federal by-election, see the government lose considerable ground yet lose almost as much support itself is unacceptable by usual political standards. That the ALP could attract a primary vote of barely one in five voters is almost unthinkable. Yet, instead of examining its stubborn adherence to failed stands on the carbon and mining taxes or rethinking its opposition to measures designed to rectify the budget crisis it created, Labor is looking for excuses. Many are blaming Joe Bullock, its No 1 candidate, whose conservative union background is out of fashion in Labor ranks.

Yet if ALP members and media commentators think the second candidate, former student politician and gay and lesbian rights activist Louise Pratt, would have won over more mainstream voters then they misunderstand the problem. To paraphrase the Clinton-era mantra: It’s the policies, stupid.

In this campaign, the candidates didn’t get much of a look-in. Mr Bullock was almost invisible and the Palmer United Party doubled its vote from last year, catapulting Zhenya Wang into the Senate despite hiding him behind the profligate visage of founder Clive Palmer. Inane FM radio stunts and up to $5 million in advertising (as much as the major parties combined) delivered another Senate spot for PUP despite most West Australians knowing little about Mr Wang or, for that matter, Mr Palmer. This is a businessman whose empire, as revealed by The Australian’s Hedley Thomas, is perilously poised, who floats bizarre conspiracy theories including that Rupert Murdoch’s former wife Wendi Deng is a Chinese spy, and who since being elected last September (as we report today) has been less than diligent about his parliamentary duties. That the cash and bravado of such a man could lead to the election of a largely unknown surrogate says something about how democracy is functioning in this age of Twitter-fuelled attention spans and breakfast-TV politics. We know Mr Palmer stands for himself — his demands for a refund on his carbon tax payments are testament to that — yet we know little else of his agenda. Open borders, large ships and an unhealthy paranoia about our incompetent electoral commission seem to be the sum of it. We trust this is the high-water mark for PUP electorally, but his three senators and one Motoring Enthusiast Party ring-in will occupy the red leather for six years to come.

If that is not disturbing enough, we only have to look at Scott Ludlam, the Greens senator whose career seemed doomed in September. He has used the re-election to regurgitate a hateful rant against Tony Abbott, resurrecting his career on the back of bitterness and resentment. Denouncing the Prime Minister, without justification, as homophobic, racist and heartless, Senator Ludlam has appealed to the darker angels of the disaffected to keep himself in a job. The hypocrisy of spreading such bile while defending draconian laws against hateful speech would be lost on him. After all, this is a man, as we have read, who sat on a taxpayer-funded business-class flight sipping a glass of wine while penning spiteful words about Mr Abbott’s “taxpayer-funded travel entitlements”.

Come July 1, the Greens will surrender their balance-of-power status and pass it to a grab-bag of senators including the PUP. That the fate of legislation crucial for the nation rests in such unpredictable and unimpressive hands is worrying. The best interests of the sensible and plentiful mainstream will be traded off against the wishes and whims of the extraneous extremes. Compulsory voting, money, proportional representation and indolent media have all played a role and warrant consideration. Yet the major parties shouldn’t hide from the ability they have to correct this shambles. Because every time Labor and the Coalition accept mandates and compromises to agree on legislation, they can prevail and render the misfits irrelevant.

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