2344Re: Response to Bob Gould on WA ETU elections
- Sep 3, 2003WA ETU elections: the results, a balance sheet of the debate about
the elections, and a few suggestions about what Anthony Benbow and
the DSP might do now
By Bob Gould
About 2050 of the 3800-odd ETU members who got ballot papers voted in
the WA ETU elections. This is a turnout of about 55 per cent, which
is spectacularly high in any blue-collar union election in the
current industrial climate, even for an election that was fiercely
For the vital state secretary's position, Bill Game won by six votes,
1023 to 1017 for Les McLaughlan. For three positions on the federal
council of the union, Mahood, who was on both tickets got 1792, Fiala
who was on Game's ticket got 1095, McLaughlan (Game's opponent) got
1067 and Game missed out with 1056.
The result for the state council is less clear, and this body may be
fairly evenly divided, as a number of people who were elected were
supported by both teams. The Recharge team claims to have a majority
on the state council, but that will have to be tested, as it's
possible that the day-to-day legal power of the state secretary and
the prestige of the state secretary's office may lead a number of the
people elected unopposed to either support Game or not oppose him
In day-to-day matters the elected state secretary is legally vested
by the industrial system with the running of the union. There have
been situations similar to this in a number of unions, where the mix
on a state council is a bit different to the views of the state
secretary, but over time the state secretary has tended to re-emerge
as the dominant personality, and in this case most observers say Game
is an energetic and skilful industrial operator. I'll come back to
In an earlier post, I made the following observation: "I can envisage
a situation where the DSP may well be saying, privately, something
like this: Look, Bill Game isn't a bad bloke. He has been an honest
socialist militant, but he has lost the plot because of his
ultraleftism. He's going to be beaten by the other bloke. We've got
to cut our losses and go with the other bloke, because we may be able
to influence events to the left, under the new regime, if we are seen
to be supporters of Les McLaughlan's push for power, and that will
also be good for relations with Kevin Reynolds and his
The DSP, however, doesn't say anything like that publicly. It prefers
to maintain the argument on the plane of rather high-flown
abstractions, such as "that McLaughlan's leadership will be better
for the ETU". Well, surprisingly, Anthony Benbow does say something
like that in his reply to me.
He makes this surprising tribute to Bill Game: "It is true, as Gould
notes, that Game is a socialist and has been outspoken on issues of
principle in the past such as opposing the wage-cutting prices and
incomes accord of the federal Labor government under Hawke and
Keating. This was a courageous position to take. Game has also
maintained a principled opposition to the ALP as a party which does
not represent the interests of workers. Game is not a member of the
ALP and the CEPU is not affiliated to the ALP ... "In recent times,
Game hasn't promoted as much activism among members as he might have
done in the past. Game's key achievements are in the past rather than
in the present."
Benbow also says: "The choice is between continuing with a principled
leadership that has come through tough fights in the past but has no
effective plan to address several pressing issues the union currently
faces; or, to elect a new leadership team that has a plan to meet
these challenges and which has proven itself to be industrially
militant and is left-wing."
It could hardly be more clearly expressed by Benbow, the DSP's
judgement was almost exactly the kind of judgement I imputed to them
in my paragraph above. It clearly included an estimate on their part
that the Game team would be resoundingly defeated. They're not
terribly good judges in these matters.
Elsewhere in his response to me, Benbow lays a political basis for
his opposition to Game's team and his support for McLaughlan and
Recharge by stressing that McLaughlan is a leftist with a past
association with the New Left Party, although he hasn't had a high
profile like Game.
Benbow is also quite frank that he supported another unsuccessful
challenge to Game back in 1995 by another bloke from the New Left
Party, and he also gets in the jab that McLaughlan and his supporters
aren't so full of socialist theory as Game when he asserts that Game
would have got a lot of theory in the Socialist Labour League,
thereby getting in the idea that Game was once in the SLL, something
I'm not aware of.
It's all very well of Benbow to say the bloke he supported in 1995
opposed the Accord. If he was, he would have been one of the very few
in the CPA-NLP industrial and political stable who were. I ask
readers of this exchange all over the country: how many member of the
CPA-NLP stable who were serious opponents of the Accord. Mostly they
supported it, and were up to their ears in it.
In making a judgement as to whether the challenge to Game was from
the right or the left it's also extremely useful to do a balance
sheet of the campaigns conducted by the two sides. I've just receive
the modest little eight-page broadsheet official union newspaper of
the ETU in WA, edited by a Game appointee under Game's supervision.
It's only black and white and it's not very flash, but I was very
taken with the May issue, which appears to have come out around the
middle of May. This issue contains a very large article taken from
and attributed to a Socialist Worker booklet titled "Stop Bush's War
on Iraq: A Dossier of Lies". The same issue has a full-page article
about Daryoush Hoshmandnejad, an asylum-seeker about to be deported
to Iran, and the heading of that article is "Secret Iran-Australia
Deal Will Send Union Activist to Die". Another headline on the same
page, which is completely devoted to the rights of asylum seekers,
reads: "Phil the Phibber Rats on Rights".
Two pages out of eight in a modest little union journal are devoted
to the two central issues in Australian politics from a defiantly
left-wing point of view, which was mailed under the secretary's name
to every financial member of a quite traditional craft union. I
haven't seen anything as leftist as that in any union journal in
recent times. This went out in the journal over the name of the
secretary who was about to be challenged vigorously in a ballot.
It says a great deal about Bill Game's notion of principle. The
context in which the challenge took place has to be understood within
the framework that the challengers no doubt believed that Game was
vulnerable because of such acts.
No wonder Benbow says: "McLaughlan has advocated progressive causes
while being a union official, although he doesn't have a profile on
the left outside the union." That's a coded way of saying McLaughlan
hasn't stuck his neck out like Game, which isn't really surprising if
his political training was, as Benbow says, in the New Left Party.
The character of the propaganda from the two teams is strikingly
different. The Recharge team's material isn't even really economist
in tone, it's kind of sub-economist and consists mainly of general
motherhood statements, plus a lot of personal attacks on Game,
talking about "Game's failed leadership", which is of course a way of
making a pitch for any more backward workers who may have been
antagonised by Game's public and belligerent leftism, particularly
his stand on the Iraq war, and racism towards asylum seekers.
One needs to remember that this is an election in a craft union in
WA, possibly the most conservative state in the country on matters
such as asylum seekers.
The Recharge material is better edited and much more expensive than
the Game material: four-colour printing with lots of photos, and in
my view is technically much more accomplished from an advertising
point of view than Bill Game's material.
The Bill Game material, on the other hand, is belligerently left-
wing, argumentative about issues and policies in the union. Game and
his associates are obviously kind of village Hampdens, so to speak,
and they reply in enormous detail to every accusation made against
them by Benbow's Recharge mates.
Their material is dull but persistent and detailed on industrial
matters. A central part of their propaganda is a pedestrian little
yellow leaflet listing 90 workers in about 50 workplaces, many of
them delegates, who support the Game team. My WA contacts, who now
include some of the Game team, as I got in contact with them, assert
that the other team was extremely well funded and relied heavily on
the new technique of ringing every member. The script being used in
the ringing of every member was rather primitive, and relied mainly
on talking about "the failed Game team".
It now appears that the challenge to Game was supported by the Centre
Unity right-wing group in the Labor Party the unions and also by the
moderate left grouping in the WA Labor Party and trade unions. They
ganged up together against Game because of his belligerent attitude
towards the WA Labor government.
That kind of line-up is familiar to a number of left-wing unionists
in NSW from the 1980s. There can be no serious question that the
challenge to Bill Game and his team was essentially a challenge from
the right, not the left, and it's unsound for Marxist socialists to
be associated with such a challenge no matter what ultraleft mistakes
Bill Game may have made in relation to the Labor Party.
In the event, the main tactical assumption made by the DSP in
engaging in this opportunism: that the Game team would be
comprehensively defeated, turned out to be a very grave misjudgement.
The expenditure of a lot of money and a glossy, rather backward
campaign was not quite sufficient to dislodge Game's team. The Game
forces obviously had the ear of the more militant, organised section
of the membership, because a close study of the other side's campaign
suggests that it is would very probably have got its votes from the
more conservative section of the membership.
The enormous size of the poll suggests that there was a sharp
polarisation between militancy and conservatism in this election.
What happens now?
The worst possible outcome would be a continuation of a vicious war
to the death between the two factions. It may even turn out that
Anthony Benbow and couple of others may have the balance of power. I
strongly recommend to them that they do what they should have done
before the elections and try to play a conciliatory and moderating
role between the two groups.
Despite the pitch to perceived discontent with the radical Game
leadership made by the Recharge challenge, most observers, including
people in the Game camp, say most of the McLaughlan team are not
extreme right wingers. Most of the challenge was motivated by wanting
the jobs, which is a human consideration in union matters. Benbow and
the DSP have the chance to play a positive role in drawing the two
factions together, if they seriously try to do so.
In this complex new situation, with two factions more or less evenly
balanced, the ball is well and truly in Benbow's court. He can make
up for past opportunism, if he wishes, by trying to play a
conciliatory role between the two factions, and I hope he and the DSP
decide to do that, rather than persisting in an exhausting and
demobilising factional war with Game, which they would very probably
lose anyway in the longer term.
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