Richard Marles: unionist, politician…or both?

4 July 2012

Written by: Stephanie Pradier

What does it take to succeed in Canberra these days? It doesn’t hurt if you were a law student at the University of Melbourne with strong involvement in the student union. It also helps if you come from a well-connected and established family. And Richard Marles has got the lot.

Such is the nature of politics, that in order to be successful in any party, you need a bit of backing. And for a lot of young, ambitious politicians, the task seems daunting.

Richard Marles

Source: APH

But for Richard Marles the plan was clear: join a union, win patronage, and then get parachuted into a safe seat.

The war between Labor and Liberal is ongoing; Labor accuses the Liberals of being controlled by big business, and the Liberals accuse Labor of being puppets to the union movement. The question on everyone’s mind is: does it really matter?

It is no secret that the Labor party was first established by the movement of workers back in 1890s, in response to the economic depression of that decade and the change in attitude of employers to trade unionism. So why does it still surprise some that most of the party’s MPs come from trade unions?

The question does not come down to whether or not MPs are unionists, but rather to whether their values truly reflect what the party stands for. Was the trajectory genuine with no hidden political agenda from the beginning. So is Marles a unionist at heart, or did he use the union as a political stepping stone to get to Parliament?

At 44, Marles has an impressive resume. After a few years as both a solicitor at Slater and Gordon and legal officer at the Transport Workers’ Union, Marles moved up the ranks to become the Federal Assistant Secretary of the TWU and then the ACTU until 2007.

He was then elected to the safe federal seat of Corio and re-elected in 2010. He is the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island and Foreign Affairs. The latter being a recent appointment following the leadership challenge, in which Marles was a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Gillard — also a former trade unionist.

However, Robert Graauwmans, voter in the seat of Corio and organiser at the CFMEU Construction Division, is not impressed. He says the only similarity between Marles and the voters in the electorate is that he went to Geelong Grammar and that ‘he fails to connect to the voters in the area’, who are predominantly blue collar.

‘Marles was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has made no attempts to connect to the demographic in the electorate,’ says Graauwmans.

State Secretary of the AWU, Cesar Melham, has a different opinion. He says that Marles has been a significant player throughout the Alcoa discussions, with the Alcoa Point Henry Smelter undergoing a viability review. The high Australian dollar, input costs and low aluminium prices have had significant impact on the company’s performance.

Melham says that Marles is fighting to keep the company afloat.

‘The public stance that he’s taken on the issue is very important,’ says Melham. ‘That lets the workers know that he is there for them and he’s doing everything in his power to maintain their jobs. That’s number one. But in the background, there’s a lot of discussion, lobbying and advocacy that needs to take place that only he is really in a position to do. Alcoa hasn’t finalised its plans, so Richard is ensuring that he’s doing everything he can to look at all the alternatives.’

In theory, a successful lawyer might not relate to the average blue collar worker. What is important is that your actions reflect that they are a priority. These people vote you into Parliament; regardless of where you learnt your skills, and how you made your connections.

In recent times, more and more unions are disaffiliating with the ALP and relations between the party and the unions are struggling.

Nationally, and in every state, Labor is struggling to hold onto power and keep the faith of its voters and stakeholders. Is this because the party is being controlled by unions?

Perhaps an interview with former Nationals Victorian Deputy Premier, Pat McNamara, would give a clearer indication. After all, the Nationals have been in coalition with the Liberal Party for decades.

But, McNamara’s view is not quite what one would expect: ‘I have always felt that unionists are much better prepared for politics than politicians that get in through the conservative arm. It’s a natural transition for them: they have a strong background in advocacy; they gather considerable group support and have a network of people prepared to support them in Government.’

McNamara continues: ‘Labor’s got a real hard one here, because they are quite narrow in their target voter. At the moment Labor’s losing vision, and as a result, they’re being cannibalised by the Liberals from the right and the Greens from the left, until they realise that the war against Liberal is old news. We’re going to see a lot more of Bob Brown.’

The frustration for some political academics is not that there are unionists who have gone on to be parliamentarians, but that this process excludes too many people. ‘Pre-selection should be opened up to a much broader field of potential candidates,’ says Russell Marks, political academic at La Trobe University.

Marks says: ‘Part of Labor’s problem now is that the people getting pre-selection are from such narrow backgrounds and they’ve all been well-instructed in political management.’

So that’s what it comes down to: fair accessibility, democratic methods and real representation of Australian society. It is of no concern whether politicians have backgrounds in unions or the stock market. Or whether they have a trust fund. What is important is their decisions and actions once elected.

Marles cannot claim that he relates to the workers at Alcoa, but they know that he is doing his utmost to ensure they have access to job security and quality of life.

As far as we can see, any loss of faith in the ALP cannot quite be blamed on the union history of its MPs.

Elisa Fernandes Carvalho is a student at La Trobe University.

To view profiles of some of the other backbenchers as part of upstart’s Backbench Insiders project, click here.