Can Labor govern for workers?

November 24, 2006

Kim Beazley's speech to the Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) Congress on October 25 illustrated the limitations of the Labor Party today regardless of who ends up being its federal leader. Beazley told the delegates that he will "govern in the interests of all Australians, never just for the vested interests of a few". This is the same sort of language that PM John Howard uses, but what exactly does it mean?

Most would interpret Beazley's comments as a promise that a future Labor government would prioritise the interests of the millions of working class Australians — the overwhelming majority — over narrow sectional interests.

However, this is not what Beazley meant — as he made clear later when he identified unions and workers as "sectional interests". He did say that their views needed to be taken into account, but implied that they did not represent the "national interest".

Later on, Beazley said: "Unlike John Howard, I won't fix all the rules to favour one side. I believe in a fair balance in the roles of employers and employees. Some would want us to tilt all the rules the other way. But I won't make that mistake. Because what Australians want is a balanced system: not extreme ideology; not a government that just looks after one side."

By the end of his address the message was clear: a Labor government wouldn't implement a consistently pro-union, pro-worker agenda because that would be "extremist". Beazley's line was reinforced by ACTU secretary Greg Combet who reiterated: "To win government, and legitimately represent the Australian people, you must not just represent sectional interests".

Beazley also said that a Labor government would ensure a "fair day's pay for a fair day's work", and that it would develop an industrial relations system "based on Australian values".

But who decides what is "fair"? For bosses, it means paying workers as little as they can get away with to ensure profit margins remain as high as possible. Whose side is Beazley going to take in a dispute over what constitutes a "fair" day's pay? Don't forget that Beazley was part of the Hawke Labor government, which in the 1980s, deregistered the Builders Labourers' Federation and the pilots' union because it didn't think it was "fair" for these two unions to campaign for higher wages.

And what exactly is an industrial relations' system based on "Australian values"? Perhaps Beazley means "a fair go"? But "a fair go" for employers is not "a fair go" for workers. Whose "values" is Labor going to protect? Not until the third big nationwide union protest against Work Choices did Beazley decide that individual contracts were not fair.

The so-called "good faith bargaining" IR system being touted by the ACTU aims to both discipline "rogue" unions, that might consider ambitious claims to advance the interests of their members, and warn off employers who might want to strip all workers' rights.

Beazley was at pains to tell ACTU delegates that "my [industrial relations] system will ensure [that both sides] bargain fairly". He added: "You must act in good faith — whether you're an employee or employer, an industry association or a union".

So, under Labor, you'll be treated the same way as the bosses? Not exactly. In his outline of how to determine bargaining in good faith, one indicator is whether both sides answer certain questions. But, the ALP is prepared to allow the bosses a way out: they are allowed to withhold information during the bargaining process to "protect their legitimate commercial interests". This means that Labor's "good faith bargaining" is definitely not fair if employers can hide behind commercial in confidence provisions, while unions are forced to answer any question the boss throws at them.

Beazley's promise to unionists that he'll "listen" and "work" with them, just as he'll "work with those in business, experts and everyone else who'll put a shoulder to the wheel to build a modern, competitive economy" is hardly reassuring. It demonstrates why the ALP can never be reformed into a workers' party.

While it's certainly preferable to have Labor in government if only to try and hold it to its IR promises, the record of Labor state governments makes clear that the party will not prioritise workers' interests above the tiny minority who own and control the corporations.

Labor has already told big capitalists, such as Rio Tinto, that in government they will have privileged access to cabinet, and will be able to join a special business advisory council. Why the special treatment for this "sectional interest"? Because, ultimately the ALP is a capitalist party: therefore its main concern in government is to rule for the capitalist class. This is why it has used anti-union laws against workers, why it will not promise to abolish the GST, and why it supports cuts to the corporate tax rate.

It's also why Beazley and the federal ALP didn't come out strongly against Howard's anti-worker laws until the second mass union protest in 2005 forced it to respond.

This should tell us something: mass pressure from outside the party is the only effective way Labor can be kept to its promises to workers. The mass union protests in 2005 and 2006 have had more influence on the ALP's industrial relations policy than the hundreds of union activists who have been instructed by their unions to join the party.

Working people need a party that unashamedly sides with the great majority, against the narrow, sectional interests of the rich elite. Labor has made it pretty clear that it is not this party.

[Sue Bolton is the convener of the Socialist Alliance national trade union committee.]

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