Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Tensions simmer as ALP grapples with dwindling base

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Editorial comment from the May 2015 edition of The Socialist

Deep seated tensions within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) came to the fore last month as the party failed to unseat the incumbent Liberal Government in NSW.

Opportunistically Labor had campaigned against the privatisation of the electricity poles and wires. The party does not oppose the privatisation of public assets in principle – far from it. In fact it was Labor that actually privatised the state’s electricity retailers when last in office.

Labor opposed the Liberal Government’s plans in a cynical attempt to garner votes. They hoped to tap into anti-privatisation mood that dominated the electorate. The problem came when an elder of the Labor Party, Martin Ferguson, was filmed at a book launch speaking in favour of privatisation.

Ferguson accused the Labor leadership in NSW of running a “scare campaign” and accused the state Labor leader Luke Foley of “rank opportunism”. The Liberals got hold of this footage and used it to their advantage in a television advertisement in the final days of the campaign.

In response several Labor figures have called for Ferguson to be expelled from the party. A number of pro-Labor trade union leaders have rounded on Ferguson and Maritime Union leader Kevin Bracken has instigated internal party disciplinary proceedings against him claiming that he has been disloyal.

Ferguson is a former Resources and Energy Minister, and a former President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). He has actually long typified the right wing ideas embodied in the modern day Labor Party. Alongside the selling off of public assets Ferguson also supports draconian industrial laws and abolishing penalty rates.

Fittingly since leaving the parliament he has become the chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. This lobby group for big oil is a natural home for Ferguson given his support for the fracking and uranium mining.

Ferguson was an advocate for big business even when he was a part of the Labor government. He previously argued for a watering down of Wayne Swan’s resource rent tax and helped to facilitate super profits for the mining sector over many years.

The outrage of the pro-Labor union leaders towards Ferguson is misplaced. Kevin Bracken was quoted saying that the disciplinary proceedings were an “opportunity for the ALP to define what sort of party they are”. Labor actually decided this question long ago.

Serious attempts to undermine trade union influence were carried out by Labor in the 1980s and 1990s. From the same period on the party has implemented neoliberal policies, including privatisations, hand over fist and taken millions of dollars from big business.

Even on the question of penalty rates the biggest Labor affiliated union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’s Association (SDA), has been signing deals that undermine penalty rates for years.

If anything the views outlined by Ferguson are perfectly in line with majority of the Labor Party and the big business interests they strive to represent. It is the pro-Labor trade union leaders who have been slow to accept this reality.

The real source of the outrage about Ferguson’s comments is the fact that he speaks boldly about Labor’s right wing ideals. It seems some trade union leaders are content being part of a party that pushes anti-worker policies as long as it’s not spoken about openly.

Others are clearly frustrated about the fact that Labor’s social base is diminishing. The right wing policies held by the party have alienated workers and seen Labor emptied out of its working class membership base. Labor wants to be a party that represents big business interests but the more it does that the more it repeals workers from voting for it or joining the party.

It is not possible to expel the right wing ideologues from the Labor Party. They are the majority. If the trade union leaders are serious about fighting for policies in the interests of the working class they should ditch Labor and work with others to build a new workers party in Australia. That is the only way forward.


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the problems with capitalism. The Socialist strives to explain the systemic causes of this crisis, and reports about the issues that are important to working people. We also help to organise struggles against the powers that be.

We don’t receive a cent from big business or governments. Our work is fully funded by our supporters. Even if half the people who read our website every month donated a few dollars each we would raise thousands to help our work!

We need organisations of struggle now more than ever, so if you support what we do please consider making a donation.

One-off or regular donations can be made securely HERE.