The resignation of Martin Ferguson – one of the old Hawke Keating guard – again brings into stark relief, where to for Labor?
The party’s white knuckle fight for survival leaves little room for philosophical debate but after a two months in the wilderness, Ferguson was feeling expansive when I caught up with him in Budget week.
He was in his backbenchers office at the back end of the building where he and Simon Crean had been unceremoniously dumped after that dog’s breakfast of a leadership coup against Julia Gillard.
It is known by some of the older Labor hands as the “naughty boys’ corner” because it is about as far away as you can get from the Prime Minister’s office.
Other Rudd backers dropped in through the morning to shoot the breeze, having been relieved of their normally frenetic Budget duties.
Our conversation soon turned to the future of the Labor Party, as it so often does with Labor pollies these days.
Ferguson, who was ACTU president during the Hawke Keating era, was singing that government’s praises – as he did during his final ministerial press conference.
But after a few months to consider the direction of his party, it is clear he is not happy with the direction of the union movement to which he devoted much of his working life.
“I actually think the Hawke Keating era created a modern progressive Labor Party,” he said. “A party of economic and social reform.”
“The problem is that after 1996, rather than defending the legacy in some ways especially within in the union movement we sought to destroy it – rather than accepting the challenges we confronted were not as a result of the Hawke-Keating period and the partnership of the union movement.
“They really reflected the change in the structure of the Australian economy which is what we set out to achieve.”
In Ferguson’s opinion, the union movement should have been defending the Hawke Keating legacy, which was known for its industrial Accord, under which unions agreed to restrict wage demands in order to minimize inflation.
In return, the government agreed to act to create a “social wage”, through reforms like the introduction of Medicare.
Ferguson said the 13 years of Labor Hawke Keating Government were “the most rewarding for our base where the unions and Labor worked together constructively”.
Ironically, Ferguson won his seat with the defeat of that government by John Howard in 1996.
According to Ferguson, with the election of Howard, the union movement took the easy way out and tried to blame the previous Labor Government’s reforms, rather than work constructively to continue the economic improvement for Labor’s base.
“It was easier to trash the generation that came before you than respond…It was easier to blame someone else for your failures rather than accept that you yourselves have got to work out find an alternative way of working under a conservative government.
“Unions have developed a sense of entitlement without responsibility.
“With the Accord, we achieved and accepted responsibility through proper dialogue.
He said through constructive engagement, Labor had achieved major “down payments” for Labor’s base, such as Medicare, superannuation, increased retention rates in schools and the dental care scheme.
The union movement failed to acknowledge that the structural changes such as the workplace transition from huge factories to a growth of a huge services sector was happening all about the world.
When he resigned from Parliament after Question Time on Wednesday, Ferguson gave an emotional farewell as “his first and last speech as a backbencher”.
He returned to his theme that “creating opportunities by working with business is not the same thing as pointless class rhetoric”.
Ferguson leaves Batman, the safest Labor seat in the country, open for preselection to a new generation of Labor. That generations’ direction, post September, remains open to guessing.