When the Australian Labor Party was formed in 1891, it and the union movement were as one.

The ALP was a creation of unions, which had recognised that the interests and causes of workers would be advanced not just industrially, but politically through elected representation in Parliament.

Traditionally, the main vehicle for promoting workers’ rights in the political sphere has been through influencing the processes and structures of the ALP. It is still the case that the ALP is the only progressive party that can form government. And on most issues, the policies of the ALP best represent the interests of working Australians.

Unions retain enduring and significant links to the ALP and will continue to do so.

But it is clear to everyone that over the last 30 years in particular, the Labor Party, like social democratic parties all over the world, has shifted ground.

When I spoke at the National Press Club last week and mentioned that unions would not automatically support Labor on every issue, it created headlines. But it shouldn’t have, as this is not news to anyone with knowledge of the union movement and Labor

And nor is it to denigrate the Labor Party.

It is to recognise that the battle of ideas, pursued ruthlessly by the neo-liberals globally, has changed the grounds of the debate and, some would say, the policies that the ALP pursues.

The setting of this debate has moved almost continuously to the Right. The debate is dominated by corporate, rather than national interests, a free market agenda and reactionary economic and social policy. Labor has been dragged with it.

The success of that campaign over the last 40 years has introduced excessive deregulation and competition, and the rapid transfer of the risk and costs of services and businesses to households and indviduals.

In some instances the union movement has embraced change, like financial and trade reform, in order to modernise industry, save jobs and renew skill formation. But in other areas, we have resisted the “reform” agenda, including labour market deregulation and attacks on the welfare and public health systems.

As for the ALP, in some areas like refugee policy, climate change, and the Australian Building and Construction Commission, it has confused and even alienated parts of its base. Many feel they have been left behind by Labor – or ignored by it.

Make no mistake, the first Labor Government in a dozen years had some powerful achievements to be proud of. But it often failed to communicate them effectively to the Australian public.

The abolition of WorkChoices and implementation of the Fair Work Act, the historic introduction of the first universal paid parental leave scheme, the successful management of the national economy and protection of jobs through the Global Financial Crisis – these are all achievements that are good for working people.

Labor has an unfinished agenda that includes raising the Superannuation Guarantee to 12% and protecting workers’ entitlements. It has won strong praise from unions for its crucial response to the GFC, and its aim to deliver a fairer share of the mineral wealth of this country to all Australians. These are classic labour movement policies in the best social democratic tradition.

And it is also true that sometimes the previous Government failed to properly acknowledge or respect its base, as represented by unions.

But there is no single issue or one single turning point. In the new political environment – where Labor governs with the essential support of the Greens and independents – it is the right course for an independent union movement to take a mature approach to its relationship with the party it founded.

The 2010 election was not a failure of Labor. It was a failure of politics. All parties at the election failed to communicate their values and convictions.

In particular the Coalition ran a wholly disingenuous campaign based on glib slogans and inaccurate costings. Neither of the major parties stood by who they represented, no one articulated a clear answer to why Australians should vote for them. And voters delivered their verdict – not just on Labor, but on the Coalition as well.

By contrast, the values of the Australian union movement are clear. There is no doubt where unions stand.

We believe in fairness, justice, and respect for the rights of all people, both here and across the globe. We stand for job security, workers’ rights and a better Australia.

In the changed political environment, you will hear a union voice that reflects consistent values as well as policies that are in the interests of our membership.

Unions will fearlessly and without favour pursue this agenda and seek to have influence on all parties and MPs – Labor, Green, Coalition or independent.

The traditional ties with Labor will remain – for some unions more closely than others – but unions will work with elected representatives who show a genuine commitment to enhancing workers’ rights – and of taking a long-term view to improving our members’ lives.

Ultimately, strong democracies need a voice for working people that is provided by unions. Unions understand the concerns and desires of working people better than anyone else. What is essential right now is for unions to engage in a debate on how we should recast social democracy. That is a debate that is not only important for working people, but to the future of the ALP itself.

For unions, nothing changes in the way we operate. Our relationship with any political party should always pass a basic test: does it advance the interests of our almost 2 million members and the millions of others who work or live with them? We will be forthright and outspoken when we believe Labor has done the wrong thing and support them when we agree.

But at the end of the day, while the political insiders may be obsessed with the union movement’s relationship with Labor – or any other political party – it is really a second order issue to our members. After all, some unions have always steadfastly refused to affiliate to any political party. Others have formed alliances with parties other than Labor over their history.

What matters to workers and what they want is strong representation by unions and good outcomes, and that will only be achieved by balancing political relationships with a strong independent voice.

We are determined to provide that voice.

An edited version of this article was published in The Australian under the headline ‘The ALP must show respect for its trade union base’ on Wednesday, 13 October 2010.