Briefing from Leichhardt Town Hall

Anthony McLaughlin, comments on a Federal ALP member's  IR Forum (April 2006) held in Inner-Western Sydney.

Anthony Albanese, the federal member for the unhappiest electorate in Australia, Grayndler, presented the "Future of Industrial Relations" forum on Wednesday April 12 to a crowd of more than 200 ALP and politically curious residents at Leichhardt town hall, Sydney. His guest speakers for the evening were John Robertson, secretary of Unions NSW, Stephen Smith, the shadow minister for industrial relations and Rae Cooper, lecturer in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney.

This is one of several forums that Mr Albanese is planning in an attempt to bring debate on ‘contentious’ issues back to the grass roots. An admirable ideal, but perhaps more on that and the unhappy electorate at another time.

While Stephen Smith gave a fairly predictable speech for a shadow minister there was some excitement around his contention that the trade union movement was doomed if Labor was not elected in 2007. Aside from the “you need us” warnings he was strong on rhetoric and light on substance and the “trust us” slogan hung silent and heavy.

Dr Cooper leant heavily on the impacts on women that the new Howard industrial laws will bring. Needless to say, the impacts aren’t jolly and yet should be expected from a government that has openly telegraphed its intention to extend legislative control over all facets of women’s lives. The glass ceiling is now passé; the oubliette is in.

John Robertson led off the evening and certainly provided an insight into prevailing political analysis within the industrial wing of the NSW Labor Right.

Picture John Robertson UnionsNSW
John Robertson, UnionsNSW

In a burst of historical analysis Robertson tackled the ACTU’s engagement with the Accord and his conclusions weren’t flattering. While not condemning the Accord per se he was reasonably forthcoming about the errors the trade union movement made in engaging so whole-heartedly in this traitorous collaboration with the state and capital to dampen down the working class expectations that accompany the election of social democratic parties to power.

In essence, Robertson admitted that participation in the Accord led to the decline of the organised labour movement because union leaders got "arrogant" and "failed to engage our community". True enough and while not rocket science it is refreshing candor coming from a NSW Labor Council secretary. There is no doubt that Robertson is the most able secretary the council has had for many years and he certainly brought forth some useful rhetoric. He warned the MPs that if elected, unions must hold our politicians to account. And to a wave of applause he said that ALP politicians must not only "say the right things; they must do the right things". (Perhaps one day they'll also say the left things and then actually do the left things.)

Robertson played hard with what union members and the working class had given Australia: i.e., everything. This should be a strong campaigning position for the union movement but needs clearer analysis, some meat on the bones.

Addendum: it was interesting, if not a little tiring, to hear both Robertson and Smith eulogise about (Australian) ‘Values’, ‘Characteristics’ and ‘Culture’ of the past. Some of the statements made during these sentimental segues were astonishing in their neglect of historical fact: it appears the past Australia (and Australians) of their minds was an egalitarian and utopian idyll that was only shattered by the election of John Howard and his Morlocks.

No class conflict here, or back there, comrade.


Add a new comment

Only registered users can add comments.

Registering is quick and easy. You will need a valid e-mail account and you will make up a username and password

Click Register to register with us
or Login if you have aleady registered.