Politics One

Fourth edition

by Ian Ward and Randal G. Stewart

The Australian Labor Party

Further reading suggestions.

  • Maddox, G. 1978. ‘The Australian Labor Party’ in G Starr, K Richmond, and G. Maddox, Political Parties in Australia (Melbourne: Heinemann). A useful short history of the origins and early evolution of the ALP.
  • Economou, J. 2009. ‘The Labor Party’ in D. Woodward, A. Parkin, and J. Summers (eds) Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forest NSW: Pearson.)
  • Miragliotta, N. And Errington, W. 2009.The Australian Political System in Action. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press). Chapter 10 ‘The Australian Labor Party’.
  • Maddox, G. 2005. Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice. 5 th edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Longman). Chapter 6 examines the party system, and in this context provides an account of the evolution of ALP on pp.260-277.
A further note on labor parties 
The ALP is an example of a labor party. Indeed it is ‘the world’s archetypical Labor party’ (Rawson 1966, 3). Similar parties can be found in a several other countries including New Zealand and Britain. The distinguishing feature of this kind of party is the formal affiliation of trade unions: trade unions are member organisations of labor parties and thus entitled to send delegates to party conferences. Writing in 1966 Don Rawson (p.3) made this very point and added that labour parties are ‘a rare but not unimportant type of political organisation’. It is difficult now to see labor parties as an important. As trade unionism has declined—as we show in Politics Onethat it has in Australia—labor parties which survive are more objects of curiosity than important types of party organisation. In a sense they are anachronisms—remnants of an earlier era when the social divide between labour and capital did substantially party politics. Certainly in countries such as Britain and Australia where labor parties survive they no longer provide the principal channel by which trade unions seek to exert political influence on policy making. 

The ALP may have been (as Rawson notes) the very first labor-style party to emerge. But it is not a typical labor party in that trade union organisations which form part of it are affiliated at the state Branch level and not (as in the case of the British Labour Party) at the national level. As a consequence there is no formal link at all between the Australian Council of Trade Unions which is the peak body representing trade unions in Australia (although several former ACTU presidents have pursued careers in the federal parliamentary ALP). It is also true that many of the white-collar and professional unions which belong to the ACTU have never had any connection with the ALP. Indeed only a proportion of unions are affiliated to ALP state Branches. As the trade union movement broadened its membership base in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the unions which emerged to represent teachers, public servants, nurses and a burgeoning range of other white-collar and salaried professionals did not affiliate with the ALP. Those unions which are affiliated with the ALP tend to be industrial and craft unions and are no longer typical of the wider trade union movement. In some cases unions which are members of the ALP in one state are not affiliated in other states. 

The ALP does remain a trade union-based party in quite another sense. A significant proportion of the parliamentary Labor Party comprises Members and Senators whose political careers began in trade unions. When the union movement had a broad membership base and substantial reach into the working community, its close ties with the union movement enabled the ALP to recruit members and candidates from a cross-section of the community. However the great majority of Australian employees now do not join unions. Labor’s union ties no longer permit it to tap into the electorate as once was the case. 

Discussion point 
In his The Latham Diaries the former ALP leader made a scathing attack upon his former party as a ‘museum relic from a time when trade unions mattered’. 

Should the ALP sever its formal links with the trade union movement? 

Can it be truly representative whilst unions continue to play a key role within its organisation?