The labour movement must never lose sight of the foundation that underpins the relationship between Labor and the unions – the commitment to a fair and just society argues ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

John Howard’s electoral triumph on November 10 has understandably triggered a debate about why Labor lost, and what it must do to win next time.

Few commentators would deny that there were two defining features of the 2001 Federal election. Firstly, the degree to which domestic political issues were overshadowed by external factors. Secondly, the extent to which the tactics and policies of the major parties were defined by their parliamentary and administrative leaders – as evidenced by Howard’s ‘strong leadership’ pitch and Labor’s pre-election ‘small target’ strategy.

It is surprising then how much of the post-election analysis, led by commentary in The Australian, has been dedicated to the relationship between the Labor Party and the unions. It is an issue that had no discernible electoral impact at all.

Which is not to say that the Labor-union relationship should not be debated, but that it should be seen in a proper context.

Unions helped create the Labor Party over 100 years ago because they recognised that action was needed at a political level, as well as at a workplace level, if the aspirations of workers and their families were to be advanced.

The foundation of the relationship between Labor and the unions, one which continues to this day, is a set of broadly shared values and objectives – the commitment to a fair and just society.

Those of us in the labour movement must never lose sight of this. Consideration of the Labor-union relationship must not be confined to narrow debates about the size of union delegations at ALP conferences.

Labor’s new leaders can build a platform for future electoral success by boldly stating their convictions, by developing policies which take into account the aspirations of Australian people, and by insisting on quality parliamentary candidates.

The most significant barrier arises in the selection of candidates. If ALP rules, factional self-interest, or union involvement demonstrably stand in the way, it is on that basis that the necessary changes must be argued. The problem is in no way confined to the NSW Branch of the ALP, which has attracted criticism. But leadership from NSW will be vital, for Federal Labor is strong when NSW Labor is strong.

In recent years the relationship between unions and Labor has been defined more by the Coalition than by the labour movement. John Howard, as a student of the Menzies period, knows that the conservatives can dominate when the labour movement is divided. That is why he denigrates unions and ridicules Labor politicians with a union background. Labor has been defensive about the issue, whereas a positive approach is needed.

Those in the labour movement who argue that the Labor-union relationship should be jettisoned altogether should consider the issues very carefully indeed. They should look to build on the strengths of the relationship, rather than condemn it for its weaknesses.

Unions are made up of 1.9 million members. Their fundamental objectives are to improve the living standards and quality of working life of these members and their families. Unions stand up for people’s rights. And, contrary to the uninformed and glib assertion of Peter Botsman in this paper, many unions are adapting to the challenges of an open economy and are reaching out to new sections of the workforce.

Unions work closely with people in their workplaces and their communities. They know first hand the concerns and aspirations of many people.

Unions therefore have much to constructively contribute to the political process and the society. They share a wider vision with Labor – a growing economy that delivers jobs and opportunity, and a society that is compassionate and which bridges the divisions.

There may well be disagreement at times about policy, but the foundation of the relationship is sound and it has delivered much for Australian people in the past – jobs and education, Medicare, and superannuation – to name but a few areas of achievement.

Unions have also nurtured some of Labor’s and the nations greatest leaders, including John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Bob Hawke. Similarly, Simon Crean will be strengthened, not weakened, by his experience as a union official representing ordinary people.

So as the debate about the relationship between unions and Labor develops, it will be important to maintain perspective. The collapse in Labor’s primary vote to its lowest level in decades demands a widespread dialogue not just involving unions, but with business and other community representatives.

Labor’s renewal must be driven by the clear and confident articulation of core values, community consultation, and the selection of quality candidates – not by a narrow debate about its’ relationship with unions.