Labor straddles a fatal faultline

Australia’s national government has a century-old tradition of representing the labour movement: the trades unions that gave the ‘working man’ some power to withstand the might of the capitalist bosses. The Australian Labor Party has left an indelible imprint on the fabric of our society yet it today teeters on the brink of demise. How could it come to this?

The short answer is that times change and things that don’t keep pace get left behind. While utterly true that hardly does justice to one of the formative pillars of modern Australia, now potentially in its death-throes.

Paradoxically it is Labor’s raison d’etre – the union movement – that is its greatest threat. Much of contemporary society has moved on from the days of class warfare and the left-right divide between capital and labour.

While one could argue persuasively that the quintessential differences between these two opposing forces have changed little over the past century, evidence abounds that things really have changed. We need look no further than that the unions today control members’ superannuation funds worth hundreds of billions of dollars largely invested in stocks, shares, infrastructure and other private sector activities.

Reflecting the determination of their activist forebears to achieve financial independence, workers’ collectives today have become substantial pillars of the capitalist economy. It is a supreme irony because, in the process of this transformation, labour has to a large extent metamorphosed into its arch-enemy.

A prime consequence of this – and the much broader transformation of society which has helped occasion it – is that union membership has declined dramatically. The unions still have a strong hold in the public sector but they represent only 13% of workers in the private sector.

Which creates a huge quandary for the Australian Labor Party. It is trying to serve two masters and it can please neither satisfactorily.

The left wants to continue its ideological war against capitalism while the right wants to emulate those who have made it; those who have it good financially.

The aspirationals in Labor are torn between their long-term emotional home and the heart-string tuggers banded together as the Australian Greens. They are attracted to the soft left ideals of environmental protection but recoil from the hard left stridency of class warfare. The Greens have been messing with their heads for years and now the unions are increasing the tempo of their own siren songs as they fight for relevancy.

The smart ALP Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating managed to keep both camps reasonably content, albeit society was quite different two decades ago.

Today’s Labor PM, Julia Gillard has not got a clue. She appeals to neither side but knows that union muscle delivered her the nation’s top elected job in a coup and she in unwilling to offend them. That key Labor identities like Bill Shorten are now also sucking-up to the unions is leaving many middle of the road ALP members bemused.

What Bill’s mother-in-law, the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, thinks of this is anyone’s guess. But it’s fun speculating.

The other Labor/labour powerbroker of the moment, Australian Workers’ Union boss Paul Howes, is delighting himself with his 1950s class warfare rhetoric. He must practice in front of a mirror.

And then there’s the poor old Deputy PM and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, who similarly beats his immaculately-suited chest (bought with his fabulous annual pay and perks package) while denouncing billionaires as the enemies of all people.

As a collective, they’re crazier than the love child of Bob Katter and Aiden McLindon (or, if you don’t know who they are, think of a love child produced by Prince Charles and Prince Philip – yes, it is a hideous notion and is meant to be so).

The result of all this is that the ALP’s vote is languishing at historically low levels and the party appears doomed to an electoral rout of biblical proportions come polling day in September.

What might happen then is anybody’s guess but, given the party has split along fault lines before, don’t be surprised if these two disparate and increasingly irreconcilable camps go their own ways.

And anybody who thinks Kevin Rudd could heal this breach or re-connect with mainstream Australia is part of the problem.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch.