The Greens NSW, unions & political donations

by · December 5, 2013

...except not all of them.

…except not all of them.

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:

Donations Laws Don’t Create A Level Playing Field,

Jim Casey, State Secretary, Fire Brigade Employees’ Union and Greens member, 7 November 2013

Unions NSW Are Right To Challenge O’Farrell

Osmond Chiu, Secretary NSW Fabians & CPSU Research Officer, 6 November 2013

Under These Laws We’d Still Have WorkChoices

Mark Lennon, Secretary, Unions NSW, 28 February 2012


And the defence of the EFED Amendments from the Greens:

What’s At Stake In The Donations Wars

Jeremy Buckingham, Greens NSW MLC, 12 November 2013

Giving the ‘Greens Light’ on Political Funding

Senator Lee Rhiannon, Greens NSW, 8 November 2013

Unions Take Donations Reform To The High Court

Justin Field, adviser to Jeremy Buckingham MLC, Greens NSW, 5 November 2013)

New Laws Restrict Cronyism, Not Speech

Norman Thompson, former adviser to Lee Rhiannon MLC and Justin Field, adviser to Jeremy Buckingham MLC (Greens), 18 December 2012 


Discussion6 Comments

  1. IsabelM says:

    If you believe that ‘politics is local’ and in grassroots power then Marc Newman’s comment “Let’s not kid ourselves as to what is really at stake here: the ability of collective organisations… to participate in politics” is the opposite.

    Think of the recent successful non-union people power campaigns that like unions are membership based – Better Planning Network, Lock the Gate Alliance, Recognise, Student environment networks… And the strength of unions campaigns like Your Rights at Work, Big Steps in childcare, the TCFUA Campaign for Outworkers’ Rights, Come Home Safely… – all great union campaigns, all great outcomes and what they had in common was strong grassroots engagement and mobilising a diverse range of people (from all political backgrounds) to PARTICIPATE in bringing about change. Does this sort of success stop if Unions can’t donate to political parties? Absolutely not. As a membership based organisation it means they keep focusing on bottom up organising and the people power that brings about change. They still represent. They still win, if the message is right and it engages their members and their peers. Unions are at strongest when building support for political and issue based campaigning, campaigns linked to the rights of workers, what is humane. Big Steps was a fantastic campaign, not limited by the union donating to Labor to get one of its union into parliament. It was a multi-stakeholder campaign across paid public and private sector childcare workers, parents, community, childcare centre managers and owners. Awareness was raised, there were wins. And what has donating to a political party got to do with that?

    The fundamental principle of the Greens donations policy is that taking money OUT of politics which is a good thing. Unions that are not affiliated can spend up to $1.16m as third party in the six weeks before the election but not if affiliated. Let’s not pretend, the affiliated unions are affiliated is about power inside the Labor party machine. It’s a boy thing. In NSW under the new laws the total pool of funds involved in 2015 NSW state election will be significantly less than in the 2011 election due to the new laws and that has to be a good thing.

    • Marc Newman says:

      The laundry list of campaigns you list are not actually all of a piece. Your Rights At Work, for example, relied on, among other things, peak bodies being able to levy affiliates to fund the coordinators who played a very significant role in cohering and organising the local Your Rights At Work groups. As donations from one Third Party Campaigner to another, these are restricted under EFED as if they were donations to a political party. Thus, the levies themselves would not have been legal, therefore the resources applied could not have been applied, dramatically weakening the capacity of the campaign. Secondly, it relied on *getting candidates over the line who were likely to back the repeal of WorkChoices*. I was quite critical of the particular candidates they backed, but whichever way you cut it, WorkChoices was only going to be defeated by unseating the Liberals, which relied on backing candidates, handing out more than just “Don’t Vote Liberal” cards, but rather actively supporting other candidates. So on two critical indexes, YRAW is made illegal under EFED. My argument is not that the laws stop unions saying “WorkChoices bad” – what it stops is any effective political action to do anything about it. Furthermore your characterisation of a number of Union campaigns just shows up how little you understand how these campaigns really work – there is *always* a political component, particularly in industries where public funding is a significant factor. You might not see it, but I guarantee its there – the fact many Greens can’t see it merely illustrates the distance between the Greens and the workers movement, and underscores the point that many Greens speak about these issues from a position of extreme ignorance.

      I simply do not accept that it is reasonable to place such an artificial distinction between the claims of civil society organisations like unions and their being pressed in the political space. This inevitably involves direct engagement in elections, and at times at least, involves backing one candidate or another. EFED bans this.

      EFED does not “take money out of politics”. It takes *some* money out of *elections*. The very rich will still be the very rich, with access to the corridors of power, and a dominant position on a whole range of questions. As I point out in the article, the rich *do not depend* on elections to influence political outcomes in the same way that subaltern groups do. I take the view that the struggle outside parliament is the main one, but that often that struggle needs to be taken into parliament to disrupt the pawns of money that inhabit those benches. What EFED does is makes it harder for working class people to pool their resources to do so, and illegal if they try.

      Even on the narrow question of election funding, its delusional to think that corporate types will not be able to use their lawyers, effective control of many different pots of money, networks of power and privilege to funnel money in ways that frustrate the nominal ban on corporate donations. Unions are much, much more heavily regulated, and under Abbott, about to be more so. Few officials, and even fewer members, have independent pots of wealth that they can sling into the process. Yet even under EFED, a multi-millionaire candidate is free to spend *whatever they like* getting themselves elected, and so is a worker – who gets the advantage out of that, do you think? These laws can only be justified in an imaginary bubble where everyone is equal, but we’re not, so the laws have unequal effects, and screw the poor. That is to say, most of us.

      You claim this is just about money to ALP factions, but this is not true. If you really think that is the reason to support these laws, you are guilty of the sectarian charge I lay in the article, and I think that is both an objectively *right wing* position, and counterproductive for the Greens. But even leaving that to one side, it *also* stops unaffiliated, grassroots unions like my own, the Fire Brigade Employee’s Union, standing candidates, by making it virtually impossible to use significant amounts of union funds to back those candidates. Our mass meetings are often very fiery (no pun intended) and would decide on the dispensation of those funds if we were to do it, and the majority of our officials are rank and file workers. So the caricature of unions you’ve tried to paint above does not apply to us at all, nor does it apply in many parts of the movement. But we all get equally shafted by EFED. The attempts by sections of the Greens to smear all union officials as a bunch of Joe De Bruyns is nothing short of disgusting opportunism – there’s nothing principled about it.

      The ‘fundamental principle’ of the Greens NSW position on money in elections is *utopian* and cannot actually be applied in practice – and indeed, the Greens are not really trying to. In reality, the ‘fundamental principle’ gets washed through real politics, and ends up stabbing working class organisations, who the Greens purport to support, in the back, while leaving the rich very much in charge.

      Finally, I am sick to death of the holier-than-thou attitude of Greens who think that the cosy little clubs that they imagine all Greens local groups are like can be a model for trade unions and other organisations. When you are dealing with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers, with the profits of employers and their entrenched power, and are operating on a national scale – this is simply ridiculous, and if this is the standard to which you believe all political actors should be held, it basically amounts to the view that everyone *but* the Greens should be excluded from politics. This betrays the middle class prejudices of parts of the Greens. If you want to be taken seriously by working class activists, stop peddling prescriptive silliness like this.

  2. Justin Field says:

    I ceased being an adviser to Jeremy Buckingham in February 2013

    • Marc Newman says:

      Apologies for that Justin, I hadn’t realised you were now on a different tour of duty. The positions and associations of the authors I’ve linked to are all listed for the purposes of disclosure and transparency in this debate. If you like, I’ll email the site’s editors and get a notation added?

      • Justin Field says:

        No that’s alright Marc – thought I would just put it up for people to see.

        I now work with communities all over the country fighting to protect their land, water and social fabric from the coal and coal seam gas industries.

        Still trying to bring those social classes together into one campaign. I got new glasses recently so maybe that will help the wilful blindness.

  3. Jake says:

    Marc is correct here: the fundamental difference is that unions represent working people (at least in theory) and corporations represent the elite. While some unions are guilty of corruption (and should be purged and attack for this) they also have the capacity to be one of the most powerful social movements for progressive change. Corporations are bound to deliver short-term profit, hence do not ever posses that capacity. Therefore, they need to be treated differently.

    The Greens and social movements like Lock the Gate, etc, need to continue to build solidarity with unions, instead of unthinkingly labeling them all as ALP stooges. There are some unions that will virtually never change their politics (the SDA is perhaps the best example) but the solution is not to ban all unions from political involvement/donations. Marc is right to point to Adam Bandt as an example where unions have played a positive role in his campaigns (despite a number also donating to the ALP in Melbourne) and this would never have been achieved if Adam and the Greens had not worked hard over many years to build trust and progressive solidarity.