A key part of the argument in my doctoral thesis is that senior people in both the ALP and the union movement know (or at least act in ways that suggest they know) that the unions-ALP relationship must change. To help demonstrate this awareness, I compared the 2002 and 2010 ALP National Reviews and found a stark difference in the way the two reviews describe and discuss the ALP-unions relationship. The prime difference is a desire to re-position the ALP as a community based and engaged party.
Julia Gillard's recent rejection of 'progressive' as a descriptor of the modern ALP is a flat contradiction of the 2010 review, which eschewed 'social democratic', probably because it has an historical association with union-based parties.
The following is an excerpt from my thesis:
Two National Reviews of the ALP were conducted during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Just eight years apart, their treatments of the unions-ALP relationship are markedly different in analysis, tone and prescription.
These Reports provide useful insights into the way the ALP seeks to present itself, and therefore to the challenges it perceives as its most important. They were conducted by senior, and popular, ALP figures. Former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and former NSW Premier, Neville Wran, in 2002 and Senator John Faulkner, former NSW Premier, Bob Carr, and former Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks in 2010. They both included extensive consultation processes.
Between 2002 and 2010, there was a significant shift in emphasis away from unions and towards community and community organisations.
One indication of this shift is the amount of space devoted to each. Community is used 54 times in 2010 in a 32-page report, whereas ‘unions’ was used 18 times. In 2002, ‘unions’ was used 28 times in a 32-page report and ‘community’ was used 30 times. A more significant indicator is that the 2010 report, in Recommendation 31, opens the door to affiliation to the party of organisations “in addition to industrial unions”. The 2002 report was focused on better consultation with communities and community organisations; in the 2010 report this has been upgraded to a desire for engagement.
Moreover, there has been a significant shift in the interpretation of the relationship between unions and the ALP. The 2002 report refers to a partnership (14 times) between the ALP and unions. It is variously described as an “enduring partnership” and an “equal partnership”. The word partnership was not used at all in 2010. Instead, the report speaks more vaguely in terms of ‘connections’ and ‘links’ with unions. The 2010 Review also speaks of ‘connections’ with community organisations. A use of language which tends to place unions and community organisations on a more equal footing in terms of their relationships with the ALP.
Unions in 2010 are also called the ‘bedrock’ of the ALP, a word that is consistent with the Report’s ambitions to extend affiliation to organisations other than unions. The positioning of unions as ‘bedrock’ was welcomed by the ACTU, though it could also be interpreted as a further diminution of the status of unions within the ALP and to reflect a desire the extent to which affiliated unions are privileged in comparison to other community organisations.
In 2010, the ALP is no longer self-described as a social democratic, or even labor, party, but as a progressive party. Progressive is used 29 times in the 2010 Report, compared with 5 times in 2002.
Bongiorno (2011) argues that ‘progressive’, after being used briefly at the end of the nineteenth century, “might not have been widely applied to the Labor Party again until it was picked up by Australian admirers of Tony Blair and the Third Way in the late 1990s.”
In 2010, the ALP is presented as a community-based movement established by working people (rather than unions) to ensure a fair go for working people.
These marked changes suggest the ALP is attempting to move further away from its origins as the political wing of the labour movement by extending its formal connections with groups outside the union movement, and by de-emphasising the importance of affiliation.
Despite these changes, the 2010 Review does not contain any proposals to reduce directly the significance of union representation within the party.