The view from Billinudgel

Solidarity forever?
Bill Shorten does himself no favours by playing up his union past

Bill Shorten has announced that, if elected, he will govern like a trade unionist.

This is indeed a courageous decision – and less in the manner of Sir Humphrey Appleby than in the manner of a suicide bomber.

Shorten has every right to be proud of his union links, and even to parade them. He can claim that many of his unionist predecessors have been highly successful prime ministers: John Curtin, Ben Chifley and, more recently, Bob Hawke, spring immediately to mind. 

In historical terms, his boast can certainly stand up to scrutiny. But alas, in these unhappy times, it was not the right thing to say.

Already the letters columns of the conservative press have been berating him, their readers telling him that they could never vote for him after this shameful admission. Of course, they were never going to vote for him anyway; but other more moderate punters – the swinging voters – might also find the idea of a their head of government taking his line from the AWU – let alone the CFMEU – a trifle disconcerting.

Naturally, the Tories cannot believe their luck at what they see as a free kick, if not an own goal. Malcolm Turnbull has already revisited the Royal Commission in which Dyson Heydon spoke sharply to Shorten about the nature of his replies as the opposition leader tried to explain just how his stewardship of the AWU was deployed.

Shorten, thundered the prime minister, had sold out the lowliest paid workers in order to feather the nests of the apparatchiks of the movement.

But in one sense the damage that follows Shorten’s unwise assertion will come less from his ostensible opponents than from what would normally be called friendly fire.

For some years now there has been an increasingly acerbic, although largely underground, debate about the Labor party and the influence of the union movement over the rank and file. Elder statesmen such as the revered Senator John Faulkner have been in the forefront, but they are not alone. A former leader, Simon Crean, led an abortive charge to reform the ALP in order to allow more membership participation, and more recently Kevin Rudd launched an open attack on the unions and their associated party factions.

The traditional view is still that the political wing of the labour movement should remain subservient to the industrial wing; that, after all, is how the party was formed. But the long, slow demise of union membership has led a great many Labor supporters to query whether it is time to modernize to the rules and organization.

Indeed, Shorten himself has mused along those lines himself. So it is probably not the best idea to suggest that his government should revert to the old model – a model of course rejected by the conservatives, but no longer unquestioningly embraced even by Shorten’s own followers.

At the very outset of this campaign, Shorten returned to Beaconsfield to remember the tragedy and the triumph of miners and, by extension, of their unions. But that was a memorial service. It is not, and should not be, an agenda for a government in 2016.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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