In today’s Age, Monash University’sÂ Paul Rodan is kind enough to cite my research:
What was lost was not just a section of the loyal blue-collar ALP voter base, but also some of that unionised workplace environment in which a Labor message could be proselytised. One can also factor in the weakened loyalty of remaining blue-collar voters, who are now dealing with the reality that “their” party did not look after their jobs.
The possible effect of this lost support has been quantified, in an indirect way, by ANU academic Andrew Leigh. His research suggests that if unionisation had remained at pre-Hawke government levels (about 50 per cent), and if unionists had continued to vote ALP in the same historical pattern (about two-thirds), Labor would have won the 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections. From this viewpoint, Labor’s losses are in part due, not to John Howard’s genius, but to his Labor predecessors’ policies. It seems highly likely that this loss of voting base is a factor in Labor’s now regular inability to poll above 40 per cent in primaries.
Whether these policies were good or bad, or even inevitable, is irrelevant to the point being made here: that they came at a cost to Labor’s electoral base. In Yes, Minister terms, that may make them courageous, but it is unlikely that Howard would ever engage in such electoral self-harm.
But could the Hawke and Keating governments really have kept unionisation rates at 50% if they wanted to? In a different paper, IÂ argued last year that four factors explain the collapse in union membership:
changes to the laws governing unions (mostly state laws on compulsory union membership),
more product market competition,
rising inequality, and
structural change in the labour market.
As David Peetz has shown, federal policies like the Accord and enterprise bargaining didn’t play a major role in causing union membership to fall. So blaming Paul Keating for declining unionisation seems a mite unfair.