There could be many reasons why Gillard and Shorten seem to anxious to highlight the ALP's links with unions, it might just be that they are short on friends at the moment, but it is a fascinating reversal of a long-term trend in the ALP's evolution as a political party.
With the declining relevance of blue collar unionism, and the decline in sectarianism, in the 1960s and 1970s, ALP luminaries from Whitlam to Rudd went out of their way to de-emphasise the importance of the ALP's union links and to re-position the party as a progressive, centre left or social democratic party - all terms that the current ALP leader explicitly rejects.
A labour party is usually defined as a party with strong, formal links (through affiliation) with unions, and which privileges those unions through its internal structures, policy and candidate selection processes.
The ALP has always been a labour party in this sense, although unions have never been affiliated to the ALP at a federal level. Unions 'control' the party through their 50 per cent representation at state conferences. This anomaly explains why the ALP has not been able to adopt a national structure, even though its federal politicians have always urged the adoption of national approaches in just about every area of policy. Whitam proposed a national structure in the 1960s, but this part of his efforts to reform the party was rejected. Federalism also explains why state union officials tend to end up in the Senate (where state branches control pre-selections and merit is less of an issue) and national officials tend to opt for the lower house.
Anyway, when the union movement was a powerful part of our national life, very few senior union officials would leave the union movement for the relative obscurity of a backbench or Opposition role. Hawke was the major exception but he went into politics to take over the leadership and become prime minister, something he did in about two and a half years. In those days, union officials tended to see Parliament as a retirement post. They looked down on most MPs as mere time-servers. But when union membership collapsed in the 1990s, senior national union officials started to head to Parliament in mid-career in far larger numbers.
I was talking to (Cabinet Minister) about this before the last election (2007), we were joking about it, Bill Shorten is probably the first federal secretary of the AWU who thought going into parliament was a move up.
(In the past) very few people at a senior level in the trade union movement saw parliament as a step up. People of my generation thought that being a union secretary was much more important.
All of a sudden in the 1990s you got this thing that the union movement was a stepping stone into Parliament.
Parliament had always been a way of you know what are we going to do with this bloke he’s too important to just knife but he’s hopeless at the job so we’ll put him in parliament.
My theory is that because these jobs are just too hard for a lot of people. Being a federal secretary is a job I love, but it’s a lot harder than it was. Everything is different.
That interview was conducted when Kevin Rudd and his government were soaring in the polls. Perhaps, in these electorally tougher times it is natural that some might look back in hope to the now relatively safer looking havens of the union movement.