By Steve Rogers
CANBERRA — The results of ACT and national by-elections in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) have thrown a scare into the ruling ALP faction. In the ACT, CPSU Challenge candidate Greg Adamson easily won the assistant branch secretary position. In the same ballot, National Challenge candidates Catherine Garvan and Derek Macpherson more than halved the majority of Progressive Caucus candidates.
The results reflect the deteriorating fortunes of Peter Robson and Wendy Caird's pro-ALP Progressive Caucus. While the CPSU is not affiliated to the ALP, Caird was a delegate to the last ALP national conference. Federal Labor attacks on jobs and conditions are causing widespread anger among public servants. The Challenge campaign has given union members an opportunity to oppose these attacks.
The latest vote shows that national officials have made no progress in turning back the hostility shown in the 1993 elections, when their candidates were defeated in three out of five states and were strongly challenged in the other two.
It also marks the failure of a key wing of the Labor Party "left" to sell the new industrial relations system of agency bargaining to public servants, a task that has been made difficult by the government's continuing attacks on the public sector in the form of job loss, outsourcing, threatened loss of job tenure and arbitrary funding cuts.
The coalition of activist groups which makes up Challenge nationally has been able to build on the broad hostility to the trade-offs involved in agency bargaining. The fight against agency bargaining originally led to the formation of CPSU Challenge in the ACT, and it was the success of this team in late 1993 which boosted the national opposition.
The by-elections resulted from the resignation of ACT Alliance member Celia Pollard in late 1994 to take up work with another union. The Alliance is the local Progressive Caucus affiliate. Pollard was elected as ACT assistant branch secretary in late 1993, at a time when most candidates associated with the previous leadership were voted out.
The Alliance declined to publicly endorse a candidate in the by-election. Endorsement was seen as guaranteeing defeat, a defeat which would mark it as a loser in any future election. Independent candidate Karen Mow, however, had been a leading Alliance activist and distributed material supporting agency bargaining and mildly opposing the Challenge branch leadership. Her 29% primary vote, in contrast to 45% for Adamson, was probably as low as her supporters had feared.
A third candidate from the Tax division, Mark Lott, ran third, with 26% of the vote, and his preferences flowed to Adamson.
Adamson's win gives Challenge all three full-time elected positions in the branch for the first time. It marks a strong endorsement within the ACT of the Challenge branch leadership.
In the contest for deputy national president, ACT branch secretary Cath Garvan scored 43% against SA branch secretary Margaret Sexton. While Sexton is one of the best-known and most competent of the Progressive Caucus supporters, she was unable to stem the swell of disgust against the national officials. This was despite an all-members mail-out by the Progressive Caucus, which Challenge supporters were unable to match in most states.
Victorian national council member Derek Macpherson scored a strong 44% against low profile Tax division official Abbie Piper.
In a surprise move, joint national president Peter Robson resigned prior to the election result being declared. Twelve months ago, the national Robson-Caird team was comfortably returned, winning around 60% of the vote for most positions. Since then there has been a swing of around 8% against them. This has led to a high priority being placed on union restructuring to remove funding and power from the branches.