With the Unions NSW-led High Court challenge to Barry O’Farrell’s donations laws awaiting a decision, a flurry of articles and commentary emerged in the press and social media recently, with several Greens activists defending the laws, and unionists, including Greens member and Fire Brigade Employees’ Union Secretary, Jim Casey, attacking them. Also coming out against the laws have been several environment and other NGOs. Such a line up — the Greens NSW and Liberals on one side denouncing union ‘cronyism’, and the unions and environment NGOs on the other — should give any Greens member or supporter pause.
Let’s not kid ourselves as to what is really at stake here: the ability of collective organisations based on the 99%, including workers’ unions, to participate in politics. The Electoral Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures (EFED) Act 1981, as amended, to all intents and purposes bans organisational donations and heavily restricts the political activity of organised forces in civil society. Despite claims to the contrary, most of the Your Rights At Work campaign would have been illegal or impossible under this legislation, which gives a concrete idea of what this means.
The case for the EFED Act rests on an ostensibly liberal critique of the role played by ‘vested interests’ within the democratic process, in which trade unions are seen as ‘just as bad’ as corporations.
Yet this assessment misunderstands the nature of corporate rule in three distinct ways.
The first is that it assumes the main way in which the 1% rule is via their financial or media influence within the electoral process. It displays little understanding of the realities of institutional power that have always allowed corporations and the very rich to have direct influence with and control over the state and government regardless of ‘democratic’ outcomes.
The second is the idea that the empowerment of atomised individuals is both possible and meaningful, and by extension that there is something intrinsically problematic about organised collectives like trade unions and NGOs participating directly in politics. Yet the fact that atomised individuals appear solely as voters, not as candidates and campaigners, should tell us something: it is collective forces that are the real actors in politics, not individuals. Voters are relegated to the essentially passive role of ‘the audience’.
The third is the idea that those seeking progressive social change have a direct and immediate stake in the regeneration of popular confidence in capitalist parliamentarism, even though that system demonstrably fails the 99%.
The collapse of the Australian public’s faith in the political system as anything more than a self-perpetuating sideshow completely in the hands of a privileged elite is not a dangerous form of depoliticisation. Far from it. It is merely the recognition on the part of a growing part of the population that the political class has nothing on offer that represents their interests. Increasingly the political system is being seen for what it is: the playground of unrepresentative politicians and parties contending over who gets to carry the torch for an even more unrepresentative set of private capitalist interests.
The interests of the various groups who are on the losing end of this process depend not mainly on individually taking ‘action’ at the ballot box, but on challenges to the authority of the state and the ruling class outside parliament. When building those challenges, faith in (capitalist) democracy is a liability, not an asset. And such challenges can only be collective, since individuals have little power as atomised units in a market society. Yet the EFED Act strikes directly at such collective political interventions.
The origins of EFED in Greens NSW donations policy
The debate inside the Greens NSW, despite the party’s roots in extra-parliamentary social movements, has systematically (and at times deliberately) avoided confronting the question of how to understand the state. In the absence of a critique of the state, a compromise based on a naïve enlightenment liberalism’s commitment to a parliament elected by (formally) equal citizens.
Liberalism, wilfully blind to the differences which actually exist between voters from different social classes, can offer a language that allows pro and anti-union forces within the Greens to agree on a superficially common position: the pro-union Greens oppose corporate donations, the deep ecologists and others on the Right oppose trade union donations, and the idea of ‘vested interests’ offers a formula for rejecting organisational donations which excludes both, even if initially as a matter of voluntary policy.
But as the party’s Democracy4Sale campaign gained purchase, especially in the wake of the various NSW ALP corruption scandals, the same essential logic re-presented itself as a matter of law, of coercion by the state. This involved accepting essentially the same compromise with the Liberals as had previously been adopted internally with the Greens’ Right wing, but as a question of legislatively imposing it. And as a result the Greens have ended up defending an attack by O’Farrell on the political rights of NSW workers.
A sectarian underbelly
There has also been a seedier underbelly to these debates. Put in the most generous way possible, it goes like this: given some unions are controlled by appalling figures like Joe De Bruyn, who then back candidates like Julia Gillard who opposed marriage equality and delay action on climate change, does this not prove it is reasonable to exclude their influence from politics entirely? And given Labor (on this account) has little more organised support on the ground than the Greens, isn’t it reasonable to try to exclude the ‘unfair’ backing that conservative Labor figures receive from unions? In other words, if the virtuous Greens are presently disadvantaged by union donations, is it not therefore acceptable to regulate the political problem out of existence?
These arguments must be confronted, because they start from a grain of truth and go on to defend the indefensible. They are designed to appeal to the tribal loyalties of Greens members, and undercut an internal critique of the legislative approach taken by the party’s MPs.
The idea that these laws will somehow wean Laborism off the Joe De Bruyns, or the union movement off Laborism, simply does not bear scrutiny. It is already slowing down that process by forcing unionists to confront the unreliability of the Greens on questions of class. Despite the obvious crisis of Laborism, this will delay unions and unionists moving out of the orbit of the ALP factions, and those unions that do will be forced to consider other alternatives, instead of finding common cause with the Greens.
The way to improve collective workers’ organisations is by organising within them and fighting for change. Yet it is hard to point to a single union where the Greens have attempted to make an organised reform push. To bypass this and legislate from above is anti-democratic in the extreme, and can only undermine the credibility of Greens members as serious unionists.
But these arguments often conceal a more petty concern: that union donations are somehow ‘unfair’ to the Greens. In response to which I have two words: Adam Bandt. There is one very obvious solution to the broad support which Labor has managed to win and maintain from the unions, one which was pursued systematically by Adam Bandt in his successful Greens campaign for Melbourne: to campaign energetically to win union support for the Greens instead. To resort to a legislative ‘solution’ which weakens the political rights of workers as against capital, in order to achieve an organisational advantage for the Greens against another competitor on the Left — in this case the ALP — is indefensible sectarianism.
And it is this that has ultimately united virtually all unionists against the EFED Act, regardless of ALP, Green or other sympathies. Workers cannot legally engage in collective political action through their unions under EFED, regardless of how democratic the union, how grassroots, how progressive, and how genuinely it represents its members’ interests. Such collective participation by workers is now deemed anathema by the state. And it is patently clear to much of the union movement that it is the disruptive impact this will have on the ALP that has attracted several figures on the Right of the Greens to the EFED approach.
Progressive social change depends on building a movement based on and articulating the interests of subaltern groups, social groups who are not currently part of the dominant bloc within civil society, nor integrated into the leadership of the state. These groups — and most centrally the working class — require greater freedom of organised action than those already on top of the pile in order to be able to successfully challenge the entrenched power of the ruling elite. Yet these laws do the opposite.
Most essentially, the EFED legislation pits the Greens against extra-parliamentary movements, in a counterproductive bid to regenerate the fading democratic credentials of the state. The longer it takes for the Greens to confront this problem, the more of the goodwill that has been built up over the years by the work of dedicated Greens activists alongside and inside the union movement will be burned. Despite the damage already done, the Greens NSW can still change its position on donations. It can stop providing a Left cover to O’Farrell. In doing so, it could begin to lay the basis for a more serious engagement with the union movement, something which is long overdue.
Marc Newman is a former Greens member, was previously the Lower House Campaign Coordinator for the Greens NSW in 2006-2007 and Industrial Relations Working Group convenor, and is now an Industrial Officer with the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union, an unaffiliated union in NSW.
Other useful contributions on donations:
Jim Casey, State Secretary, Fire Brigade Employees’ Union and Greens member, 7 November 2013
Osmond Chiu, Secretary NSW Fabians & CPSU Research Officer, 6 November 2013
Mark Lennon, Secretary, Unions NSW, 28 February 2012
And the defence of the EFED Amendments from the Greens:
Jeremy Buckingham, Greens NSW MLC, 12 November 2013
Senator Lee Rhiannon, Greens NSW, 8 November 2013
Justin Field, adviser to Jeremy Buckingham MLC, Greens NSW, 5 November 2013)
Norman Thompson, former adviser to Lee Rhiannon MLC and Justin Field, adviser to Jeremy Buckingham MLC (Greens), 18 December 2012