The AWU Scandal And Labor’s WorkChoices Lie

A FILTHY SUB-PLOT to the fiasco engulfing the Australian Workers’ Union has emerged, with details of an AWU EBA becoming public; whether illegality is proven or not, it seems the AWU was selling members out as unions were spending $13 million to campaign against John Howard’s WorkChoices laws. The revelation smashes ALP claims that “fairness” drives its refusal to debate penalty rates, and further imperils Bill Shorten’s “leadership.”

Irrespective of whether charges are eventually laid over the stinking mess being uncovered at the Royal Commission into the union movement that threatens to engulf the Australian Workers’ Union and terminate Bill Shorten’s political career, Labor and its thuggy union brethren stand exposed, and condemned, today: at best, of a flagrant and reprehensible lie to both the Australian public and to their own members and supporters; and at worst, of an attempt to rig a federal election in 2007 that the ALP would otherwise have been unlikely to win.

Either way, the credibility of both entities, where the fraught subject of penalty rates and their impost on small businesses is concerned, is now precisely zero.

I’m not going to bang on today about the violent, lawless, militant excesses of the worst aspects of the union movement in this country, although — as ever — these are reason enough for decent, ordinary folk to look forward to the day union influence and power in Australia is smashed to smithereens, for the unions in their present incarnation represent an edifice that has long passed its use-by date.

But I have been reading an explosive feature on the AWU in today’s edition of The Australian, and a little exercise in playing connect-the-dots suggests that at the same time the union movement was spending in excess of $10 million to buy a federal election win for the Labor Party, it was doing and maintaining deals with selected preferred businesses that stripped away the very penalty rates and worker entitlements it so noisily claimed it would fight forever to protect whilst pocketing…well, whilst pocketing lump-sum payments from those companies for which it is yet to provide any cogent or plausible explanation.

One of those companies — as the week’s events have shown, and as today’s piece in The Australian details — was Cleanevent.

I urge readers to take the time to read the linked article, for I am not going to replicate its contents contemporaneously; but whichever way you cut it — and to date neither Shorten nor any of the key players involved from either the AWU or the company have denied it — the ferocious insistence that all penalty rates and worker entitlements are non-negotiable, as promulgated by the ALP and the union movement, is selectively applicable at best, and just another tool with which to wreak industrial bastardry and political trouble at worst.

The deal struck between the AWU and Cleanevent in 1999, rolled over in 2004 (when signed by Shorten) and — crucially — in 2006, at the height of the unions’ massive campaign against WorkChoices and the “erosion” of workers’ rights, and again in 2010, traded away penalty rates and other loadings in favour of a flat rate paid to casual employees of about $18 per hour, which was payable by Cleanevent even if its staff worked on public holidays, late at night, or (I presume) through shifts exceeding eight hours in length.

The $18 hourly rate compared with an average rate payable by Cleanevent’s competitors of about $28-$29, as the article details.

With reported wage savings to Cleanevent in the order of $2 million annually and competitors locked out of striking a similar deal with the AWU — with one competitor quoted in the article as interpreting his inability to secure the same arrangements for his own business as meaning the AWU intended him to be unable to compete — the Cleanevent deal raises the question of anti-competitive and collusive behaviour on the part of the AWU which one would hope is taken up at some later stage by the ACCC and/or other relevant federal government instrumentalities.

But having permitted Cleanevent to have its wage cake and eat it too — including during Shorten’s watch — it appears that the AWU eventually fixed a price to its complicity in selling out the entitlements of workers that it viciously purported to be the custodian of, with The Australian noting that it was revealed in testimony to the Heydon inquiry that Cleanevent was eventually required to pay the AWU $25,000 per year in return for the continuation of the enterprise agreement and for the union committing to undertake no industrial action against the company.

If that sounds like blackmail and/or extortion to readers on the face of it, I assure them I concur with their perception.

To add fuel to a fire that will clearly continue to burn for some time now its architecture is being oxygenated in public and before a Royal Commission, The Australian‘s article details at least one competitor to Cleanevent — established by a former employee of that company — who approached the AWU in an endeavour to extract a comparable arrangement for his own workforce, and after a period of stonewalling, obfuscation and delaying tactics, that particular endeavour was refused.

The competitor’s business went belly-up. It is reasonable to suspect that where there was one such inconsistency in the AWU’s conduct — or, indeed, in yet-to-be-revealed deals struck by other unions — there must be others as well.

But a logical reading of the fact this type of arrangement existed at all can only lead to the conclusion that similarly, where there is one, there are others; and whilst it remains to be seen whether the AWU — or any other union — was party to other agreements involving the unionised workforces of other companies that cannibalised statutory employee entitlements in exchange for “payments” to those unions, this particular set of arrangements (involving at one point Shorten, now “leader” of the ALP, as it does) raises some disturbing and salient questions that judged against the public behaviour of the union movement are impossible to justify.

In no particular order:

  • On what basis did the AWU believe it had the right to enter into an industrial agreement with any company that stripped casual workers of remunerative entitlements contained in union-backed, legally binding awards;
  • Did either AWU, Bill Shorten or the union movement generally believe it or they had the right to arbitrarily determine which businesses succeeded or failed through the exercise of control over their labour costs and if they did, what was the basis for such a belief?
  • Did the AWU, Bill Shorten or the union movement generally believe the practice of accepting “payments” in return for declining to take industrial action against companies was acceptable and again, if so, what was the basis for such a belief?
  • Did the AWU, Bill Shorten or the union movement generally believe themselves to be exempt from those provisions of Trade Practices law governing anti-competitive, collusive and/or cartel behaviour?
  • On what basis did the AWU and/or Bill Shorten believe it acceptable, in 2006 and 2010, to renew an enterprise agreement that stripped penalty rates from casual employees at a time the union movement generally was running a high-profile media campaign against the legislation of a Liberal government that provided, in part, for any worker to strike a similar deal by consent with their own employer?
  • On what basis does Bill Shorten reconcile his present position — and that of the ALP under his “leadership” — of refusing to allow any discussion of penalty rate flexibility whatsoever when his own union presided over their complete abolition in at least one workplace, including during the period of his own stewardship of that union?
  • What point does Bill Shorten ascribe to the continuation of the award regime as a tool for wage-setting when the actions of his own union, including the period in which he was in charge of it, allowed award-busting agreements like the one struck with Cleanevent to be struck?
  • In view of all of these questions (and notwithstanding other aggravating factors in the behaviour of unions, including the AWU, that may yet come to public attention), why are Bill Shorten, the ALP and the union movement bitterly and implacably opposed to any reforms to introduce genuine labour market flexibility at a time of rising unemployment, stagnating economic conditions and tepid wage growth?

If I was running a cafe or restaurant and being legally forced to cough up $60 to $80 per hour to pay staff on a Sunday, I’d be very angry today: Shorten, the ALP and the union movement are the three impediments to getting ridiculous wage imposts on such businesses ameliorated, and enabling those businesses to hire more people, and it seems that for all the lofty rhetoric about “fairness” and making sure workers aren’t ripped off, those “principles” are elastic, expedient, and able to be sacrificed in the interests of union dominance and the advancement of its preferred cronies and allies.

I reiterate that where one of these grubby arrangements is to be found, it stands to reason that there must be others: and in that vein, unions and the people in charge of them are guilty of a massive lie to the Australian public in the dishonest and disingenuous scare campaign they waged against the Howard government’s WorkChoices laws a decade ago.

It says something about the utterly contemptible nature of the ALP and the union movement that even now, they are gearing up to attempt to fight a fourth consecutive federal election on a WorkChoices-based scare when all along, deals that achieved precisely what they wanted to frighten people about over WorkChoices were being struck by those posturing as the protectors of the rights EBAs like the Cleanevent one summarily dispensed with.

And it goes so far as to raise the question of whether the 2007 federal election was rigged: certainly, in the absence of the WorkChoices scare campaign, Labor would have been unlikely to win, and whilst it is always difficult to substantiate the validity of judgements made with the benefit of hindsight, the fact remains that even with WorkChoices in operation, Labor under Kim Beazley struggled to lay a glove on both Howard and his industrial legislation.

Yet at the minimum, and moving forward, this episode should destroy forever Labor’s ability to run scare campaigns around supposed plots by conservative governments to “slash” the wages of employees through labour market reform: as of yesterday, with the emergence of hard detail of the Cleanevent EBA, the ALP no longer has a leg to stand on.

But forgetting about the Royal Commission for a moment and looking at these matters through a purely political prism, Shorten’s viability as a “leader” of any description whatsoever has taken yet another blow as a result of all of this: and if his tenure at the helm of the ALP wasn’t fatally compromised before this week, it surely must be now.

After all, Shorten had the opportunity to stamp out the abrogation of penalty rates when he was running the AWU that he now says he would never allow to occur and never would. He failed to do so. That nobody can believe anything Shorten has to say is now indisputable, and so the sooner Labor dispenses with his highly dubious services, the better off it will be.

 

IR Review: WorkChoices Does Not Justify Doing Nothing

THE MERE HINT of a review of Australia’s labour market laws — never mind actual reform proposals — is enough to send the ALP into paroxysms of outrage, with the Howard Government’s WorkChoices laws again being dusted off for battle; armed with a rigidly pro-union workplace regime and readying to fight a fourth consecutive election on WorkChoices, Labor has no reason to countenance change and will refuse to permit others to do so.

I intend a short post — even by my loquacious standards — yet I fear this will end up being anything but “short;” it has been an extremely busy and eventful week, as readers will know from the dearth of comment appearing in this column, and to be honest I’m very, very tired. But I wanted to say a few things before I head off for a few hours’ sleep a bit after midnight in Melbourne on a sultry and unpleasantly humid Thursday night.

The long-awaited review by the Productivity Commission into Australia’s workplace relations system is set to commence shortly — extra reading, depending on preference, can be found from the Fairfax and Murdoch stables — and thanks to the reposting by Labor MPs on Twitter of incorrectly published material from the Commission, we already know what it will examine: and that the minimum wage, penalty rates, enterprise bargaining, individual contracts, unfair dismissal and anti-bullying laws comprise the agenda for the review ought to surprise no-one.

No-one, that is, except the conflicted ALP and its vested interests wherever the snouts of its union mates in protected troughs are concerned.

I was listening to Tom Elliott’s Drive programme on 3AW in the car on the way home this afternoon (go to the 62:00 mark of the 22 January podcast of his show); his guest today was ACTU president Ged Kearney, and the scary thing about listening to her latest enunciation of hatred toward the conservative government and Australian business is that people take notice of her for no other reason than all she preaches is fear: the government wants to cut living standards, make people pay for Medicare (irrelevant in the context of a discussion of workplace laws), drive down wages, slash conditions, blah blah blah…it’s enough to make you want to slit your wrists.

Yet people like Kearney can afford to be smug; the legacy of the Gillard government (held squarely by the balls by its masters in Kearney’s own union movement) is a regime of industrial relations laws, underpinned by the so-called Fair Work Act, that enshrines rigid and expensive conditions whilst conferring a raft of benefits around access, organisation and mobilisation on unions.

Aside from using these issues as battering rams against the detested Liberals, the end consequence of the Gillard government is that unions in this country have never had it so good — and that’s a problem.

Whether you like it or not, Australian labour is expensive by world standards; and the minimum wage — also very high by international standards — is, far from being the guarantor of “fair” pay and comfortable subsistence the likes of Kearney bleat about, is actually a disincentive (or outright bar, for some businesses) to hiring anyone at all.

I wonder how many readers understand that as a result of the Fair Work Act, unions can enter any “workplace” they like; I especially wonder how many readers understand its application insofar as enshrining the right to organise and recruit members during working hours: for just as some of the big, heavily unionised workforces in Australia have collapsed over the past couple of years, the unions have to secure their future somewhere — and they aren’t going to be allowed to do it if the ridiculous favours showered upon them on Gillard’s watch are removed.

It is instructive, therefore, to see WorkChoices — the long-defunct Howard era workplace relations laws — now apparently being readied for re-use as a political sledgehammer at a fourth consecutive election by the ALP and its thuggy associates in the union movement.

The Howard reforms were a modest and sensible suite of measures that encouraged direct bargaining between employers and employees, and which — subject to a no-disadvantage test omitted from the initial version of the laws, but hastily restored after a backlash — enabled flexibility and tradeability around hours, allowances, leave provisions and so forth.

Its greatest flaw was that it was never taken to an election, a misjudgement for which the Howard government paid with its electoral life in 2007.

But to see the idiocy of jumping savagely up and down over a purported “resurrection” of WorkChoices, it is not necessary to look even as far backwards as the Howard government, but to a more recent outrage largely of the unions’ own making.

Back in December 2013 I published a commentary entitled “Moving Forward: Marginalising Unions Without WorkChoices;” that article came as GMH was readying to announce the closure of its Australian manufacturing operations, and also contains several links to excellent articles by other journalists and to other resources, and I encourage those who missed it to take the time to review the material included.

Yet the GMH case and the exodus of the car manufacturers more broadly paints the picture of the logical (and actual) end destination of the preferred operating conditions of the union movement, their eventual deleterious effects on employment, and the obscene bounties carted away by its unquestioningly loyal footsoldiers when the whole edifice collapses under the absurdity of its own weight.

Unions point to “base rates of pay” in enterprise bargaining agreements as evidence of just how poorly remunerated their decrepit members are, but fail to mention the plethora of allowances, loadings, bonuses, penalties and other goodies that in some cases can see workers employed under them earn three, four, five times that rate.

Some of the GMH workers made redundant — the poor, maligned bastards — will walk away with redundancy payouts of between quarter and half a million dollars, and when it is considered that the liability for these payments was a consideration in General Motors’ decision to close its Australian operations it’s hardly a stretch to suggest the unions, in striking enterprise deals that enshrined them in the face of the threat to strike, are largely to blame for the “misfortune” of their members’ unemployment.

But if that is too difficult for some to accept, I cite the example at the polar opposite end of the industrial spectrum of restaurants operated in Melbourne by high-profile chef George Calombaris — and scores more like them — that do not open on Sundays for the rather obvious reason that paying kitchen staff and waiters up to $60 per hour to serve customers, cook food and wash dishes is, on any objective criteria, ridiculous.

Yet the unions have an answer for that too: of course businesses can afford to pay! Their attempts to avoid doing so merely show how greedy they are and how much they hate their staff by depriving them of high-paying hours. It’s just another conspiracy, you see, between the nasty bastards in the Liberal Party who want to wreck the standards of living of millions of Australians, and the business community that gets fat off the profits and gratefully bankrolls the Liberals in return.

That’s a simplistic — but accurately distilled — version of the basic premise of union resistance to workplace reform, and it’s absolute bullshit.

WorkChoices had nothing to do with the demise of car manufacturing in Australia, but the Fair Work Act has a great deal to do with pricing workers at the lower end of the market out of jobs (or at least, reducing the amount of available work to be obtained — which the analogy of the Melbourne restaurants neatly illustrates).

Now, a review by the Productivity Commission — to develop recommendations for the Abbott government to consider, with a view to taking a package of them to the electorate next year — is about to commence, and the unions and an irresponsible ALP are set to raise merry hell over it.

Of course all aspects of workplace laws should be reviewed if there is to be a review; that’s the whole point. Of course things like penalty rates and the laws surrounding terminations and disciplinary action should be included, even if doing so enrages the vested interests who stand to profit most from them being left untouched. But then again, Labor is the party that held a taxation review and prevented it from considering the GST, so it is unsurprising it should object to the framework of the Productivity Commission’s investigations now.

This morning’s article is really meant only as a curtain raiser to what I am sure will occupy a great deal of our time in the medium term, and some thoughts — again, from an addled mind devoid of the six hours’ sleep it needs to function — as a starting point. We will be revisiting this subject rather frequently this year, methinks.

But at the end of the day, a review that encompasses all the things that provoke fury in the ALP/ACTU axis for even daring to mention is not incompatible with a regulatory regime that prevents, for example, the less scrupulous shysters and cowboys in business from firing their staff and rehiring others at half their salaries — a point nobody seems to be making much noise about thus far.

And this is relevant because a sensible and balanced debate over workplace relations reform (which did not accompany the introduction of WorkChoices, was dispensed with when the Rudd-Gillard governments introduced the Fair Work Act, and which Labor and the unions now seek to shut down before it even begins) would talk about the labour market from the perspective of liberalising it and the benefits of doing so: again, an exercise given short shrift in Australia over the past ten years or so, although Coalition figures like Andrew Robb tried to fashion the case with the 2007 election bearing down on the Howard government, but by then it was too late.

After all, there is nothing as effective in politics as fear; these days, of course, Labor peddles little else.

Very simply, when there is plenty of work around and not many people in the market to take it on, employers should have the freedom to pay those who fit their requirements more for their services and, by contrast, when jobs are scarce and many people are competing for them, the impetus to pay them more is, quite clearly, nowhere near as compelling.

The corollary of this is that when businesses cannot afford to hire as many people as they like, forcing them to pay more for the people they do hire is just as likely to drive them out of business — destroying jobs anyway — whereas refusing to remunerate candidates from a smaller pool well to fill an abundance of jobs will damage the business too: no workers, no work, and no work, no profits.

And with observable minimum standards and a system of regulatory safeguards for those already in employment, the horror scenarios being cooked up and bandied around need only remain the stuff of nightmares — not reality.

As we head into this review and the debate that should accompany it, both the ALP and the union movement should stop trying to scare the hell out of people, abandon the story of the nasty, greedy nexus between the Liberals and business, and recognise that business stands to win (and lose) as much from intelligent reforms as their workers do, and that simply ripping people off is in nobody’s interests.

But to do so would require them to concede that their own agendas and their own handiwork, protected by legislation specifically designed in the unions’ favour, actually destroy jobs, and hundreds of thousands of them at that: and in the certain knowledge that Labor and its union cronies will never concede such a thing, the loud and vicious campaign to shut the entire debate down (or to at least render it politically impossible to proceed with anything arising from it) will now begin in earnest.

If you vote and you live in Australia, you’re about to hear an awful lot more about WorkChoices. Again. The 2016 election will be the fourth consecutive election Labor and the unions have fought on WorkChoices.

And rather than being frightened witless by the awful scenarios their rhetoric conjures up for workers and their families, perhaps — after a decade of this tactic — a better question might in fact be what the ALP and the unions are actually afraid of, and why they are so determined to fight tooth and nail to resist any change that compromises the cosy little sinecures they enjoy as the “masters” of Australia’s workforce.

After all, if you don’t belong to a union, neither the ALP or any union in the country could care less about you — however mistreated or exploited you are. If you don’t belong to a union, you may as well — to them — be dog shit.

And if simple, decent folk think about that, they might realise that the fight over workplace laws and employment conditions has less to do with actual workers than they ever believed, or thought was possible.

 

Labor Pain: Bolt Only Half-Right On ALP Affliction

THE ASSERTION by Herald Sun writer Andrew Bolt — that policy, not the unions, lies the root of the Labor Party’s precarious standing as a viable political entity — is only half-right; only a fool would suggest (and Bolt, of course, doesn’t) that ALP policy is anything other than the stuff served up by an outfit totally divorced from community expectation and reality, but the fingerprints of the union movement lie all over the problem at its genesis.

Back in 2005 — fresh from a thumping fourth election win, and armed with a majority in the Senate — the Howard government introduced what was presented at the time as “the final objective of John Howard’s 30-year career in politics” in the form of a suite of laws designed to increase flexibility in the labour market and place curbs on the degree of intrusion unions were able to make into workplaces. That package of legislation, of course, was WorkChoices.

Labor, then in opposition and led by the avuncular Kim Beazley, was flummoxed; it was an outrage, Labor said, an attack on the party’s core constituency, and introduced without a mandate. Yet despite the noise and outrage emanating from the ALP the best it could mostly do was to draw close to Howard in reputable opinion polling: Howard, it seemed, would probably get away with it.

Watching in the wings was the leadership of the union movement, which collectively took a deep breath, steeled itself, and flung itself into battle; a $13 million advertising and media campaign — “Your Rights At Work” — was prosecuted with deadly precision (if not, perhaps, particularly honestly) and Labor zoomed ahead of the Coalition in the polls.

To ensure its advantage was pressed home, Beazley was dumped: the unions desperately wanted Julia Gillard to take on the leadership, and the contest that saw Beazley replaced certainly set her up for “next time,” emerging as she did with the deputy leadership and a bloc of votes without which Beazley would probably have survived. But the next best thing was the driven, distastefully ambitious Kevin Rudd, who had set himself up carefully as an electable face the party could turn to. Rudd, as we all know, went on to become the giant slayer who beat John Howard.

I begin thus because I have read Andrew Bolt’s column in the Daily Telegraph today and I think he is only half-right in the case he presents; certainly, Labor’s policies — and they have cost that party very dearly in the past couple of years — belong somewhere between cuckoo-land and some God-forsaken socialist utopia. But I contend they are very much consequential to the main problem, rather than the cause of it.

The episode over WorkChoices, to me, represented the point at which the unions finally completed their takeover of the political operation of the ALP; we’ve spoken about this at great length during the lifespan of this column, and whilst the ALP and the unions have always been entwined — after all, the ALP is the political wing of the union movement, and one grew from the other — the past ten years have seen Labor “evolve” into a “union party” rather than the Left-of-Centre party affiliated to and significantly influenced by the unions that it mostly had been.

To complete the WorkChoices analogy, the Fair Work Act — and all its legislative and organisational instruments — might as well have been written over at Trades Hall in Carlton; this regime, along with the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, were tantamount to handing the union movement a blank cheque.

Don’t get me wrong: there is very, very little in Bolt’s column today that I disagree with. He is right to describe Labor policy as it stands today as “lunatic,” and his roll call of the party’s recent (and deserved) electoral humiliations, the carbon tax and its lethal politics, the culpable and almost criminal dereliction of its asylum seeker policy and the like are potent symbols of a once-mighty political party that has not only lost its way, but strayed into the realm of a prescriptive nanny-state that few Australians have either the engagement with nor the inclination to support.

But there are two large disagreements I take with Bolt’s arguments.

The first, of course, is their central premise: that Labor policy, rather than the unions, is the source of the party’s woes.

It can’t be any clearer that union control of the ALP is so endemic that such an assertion simply fails to withstand scrutiny: led by a former unionist, who replaced another leader with roots deep in the union movement, Labor’s MPs are disproportionately skewed toward a demographic that left school, went to university, and worked either for another MP or for a union before entering Parliament.

Those who didn’t work for a union directly are nonetheless beholden to the movement indirectly by virtue of ALP preselection processes, which remain largely the preserve of union warlords despite present fashionable rhetoric about “democratising” the ALP, and which are carved up and allocated among factions controlled by union interests well before names are allocated to individual seats or electorates.

Labor’s industrial policies (again, courtesy of the union effort on WorkChoices) are a virtual no-go zone for anyone in the party who might seek to alter their pro-union intent: such is the debt Labor owes the unions for its anti-WorkChoices campaign a decade ago.

And Shorten’s reticence to fall into line with the Royal Commission into the union movement isn’t simply a manifestation of his directionless methods in seeking to offer all things to all people; he simply can’t do otherwise. He is too beholden to the unions himself, and I can’t even say he’s beholden to “union masters” because as the former head of the AWU and a deeply connected union figure himself, he is one of those masters.

Certainly, one may follow the other — Labor’s policies may well be the partial result of stacking out the deck with union hacks and ceding control of the party to others in the union realm. But the policies are very much consequential, not causative.

The other “disagreement” I have with Bolt isn’t so much a disagreement per se as an addendum: Bolt is right that Labor seeks scapegoats; it looks everywhere except where it should, of course, with any meaningful assessment of the control the unions wield over it sacrosanct despite some “smart” formulations otherwise expressed (such as “opening” the ALP to non-union members, despite the unions continuing to control 50% of the vote at party conferences — a reality nobody in the ALP seems to have the stomach to confront).

The additional scapegoat Bolt merely alludes to in the most peripheral sense is the one it should be taking full aim at alongside the unions: the Communist Party of Australia Greens, whose jaundiced and cynical socialist view of the world — wrapped in the innocuous cloak of tree-hugging environmentalism — finishes for the Labor disease what the union movement starts.

Labor’s carbon tax, its asylum seeker policy, its class warfare and its anti-business, anti-family, anti-wealth inclinations all pander to varying degrees to the insidious scourge that is the Greens, to which a substantial portion of the Labor Left has decamped and on which the ALP is increasingly dependent on preferences simply to survive as a viable political entity.

In other words, rather than Labor developing a platform of its own in the best interests of the community at large as it sees it, the ALP pays its thirty pieces of silver in exchange for whatever favour or service or benefit it thinks it can extract on its historic mission to get Labor bums into green ministerial leather, as unencumbered as possible by any responsibility to deliver anything that most people actually want, or support, or — God forbid — might have voted for.

The same can be said of its callous disregard for anything people might have voted against, which is perhaps peculiar given the role WorkChoices played in its return to government in the first place in 2007.

This is the behaviour of political prostitution, not political principle, and in one sense the description at all of its bastard fruits as “policy” is an affront to the otherwise meaningful, considered process of developing sensible public policy crafted in the aim of advancing the public interest.

Even if that policy is called WorkChoices.

 

 

Moving Forward: Marginalising Unions Without WorkChoices

WHEREVER YOU LOOK, evidence of the misuse and abuse of union power abounds; folk in “Middle Australia” who aren’t lined up against the union movement soon will be as businesses like Holden collapse. Their outrage won’t be over job losses; it will be over the unions using them as a battering ram against a conservative government when their own actions are the problem. There are ways to deal with the union movement — once and for all.

The single greatest failing of conservative politics over the past ten years, in my view, was WorkChoices: armed with a Senate majority for the first time in more than 30 years, the Howard government introduced a fairly reasonable (if initially imperfect) set of workplace changes to increase flexibility in Australia’s labour market.

Everyone knows how that particular story played out: $13 million in union media bookings and the mother of all scare campaigns later, Howard’s government was swept from office in a campaign so saturated in industrial relations that even now, a new conservative government won’t consider revisiting those laws until at least after the next election — four parliamentary terms after the original “WorkChoices” election.

It was a failure for many reasons: the inability or unwillingness to respond to the unions’ characteristically hysterical and dishonest fear campaign; the failure or refusal of the business community that begged Howard to liberalise the labour market to fund or mount a co-ordinated response to the unions; the inability or refusal to properly explain and sell the policy to voters; the travesty implicitly committed against the national interest in mishandling the single opportunity that has presented in decades to wind back workplace inflexibility in any meaningful sense; and the damage that now continues to be inflicted on Australia’s economic and productivity growth as a result of the reshackling of the labour market as payback to the unions for services rendered to the ALP.

Above all, it breathed new life into a dying union movement that hasn’t missed a day since to wield — and misuse — its reclaimed and disproportionate power in Australia’s industrial relations system.

Yet the ultimate travesty from all of this lies in the fact that from a political perspective, the atmospherics surrounding any contemplation of workplace relations legislation reform is now so poisonous that even the conservative parties are too frightened to raise their heads above the parapet over the subject, and so I just wonder whether attacking the problem from the opposite direction — legislating on the conduct of the unions themselves — might present an alternate avenue to achieving at least some of the desired outcomes.

But first, I was asked yesterday why Monday’s article proclaiming it a “good riddance” if GMH terminated its operations in Australia was such a great idea on the basis it would lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, directly and/or indirectly, and pose a colossal political headache for the Abbott government.

The answer can, to some extent, be found in a brilliant piece from yesterday’s issue of The Australian by Grace Collier, which outlines in infinitesimal detail everything wrong with the business model of the heavily unionised, taxpayer-indulged GMH, and how wages high enough to make the eyes of most of us in private enterprise water — driven by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by union thugs with scant regard for the long-term welfare of their members — have transformed an unprofitable business able to subsist on government handouts into an unproductive and uncompetitive sloth that should be put out of its misery.

As Collier observes, it seems the union thinks members are better off jobless than on award wages, so usuriously extortionate is the collective agreement it has extracted from (or imposed on) Holden’s managements. It also raises the question of what the point is in actually having the awards the unions fought against WorkChoices to preserve if the Holden example is indicative of what the movement then does with them. Regrettably, there are plenty of “Holdens” around.

Another with its name in the press for all the wrong reasons at present is Qantas, a far bigger commercial proposition than Holden which is also on its knees in large part for the same reason — its bloated, overpaid, complacent, unionised workforces presided over by union thugs and warlords with cavalier disregard as to whether the airline survives or dies.

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than two years since Alan Joyce grounded Qantas to neutralise rolling industrial action that its unions were engaging in; as we said at the time, the Fair Work Act introduced by the Rudd-Gillard government had created the most heavily pro-union industrial environment in 30 years, and the thugs at some of Qantas’ unions weren’t shy or bashful about exploiting it.

Indeed — despite the pleadings of some of the more reasonable figures in their movement, such as Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association federal secretary, Steve Purvinas — the Qantas unions collectively bent Qantas over a barrel, so to speak; and as we also said of their actions at the time

“What…is even worse is the fact that Qantas workers who have opted not to take part in strike action have been harassed and bastardised:…houses of workers refusing to strike have been damaged, or their car windows smashed in retaliation for turning up to work, are disgraceful.”

I’ll just float this for readers to consider, too: the three years Joyce bought Qantas by grounding the airline, during which its unions are prohibited from engaging in industrial action against it, expires in October next year. What right-minded individual would expect anything other than hell breaking loose at Qantas in ten months’ time?

We will, of course, get to Qantas in its own right very soon, as promised. Yet Qantas seems to have been singled out for special attention by the unions; the same unions struck largely the same deals for the same work with Virgin Blue shortly before the 2011 dispute for an average of 14% less in take-home wages for the Virgin workers than it had demanded of Qantas.

The point is that laid bare in last week’s press, it’s now clear that Qantas couldn’t even afford the compromise pay increases it worked through after the airline’s grounding, let alone the rip-off the unions sought at first to enact “in the name of their members.” Those who were loudest two years ago in their vehement protestations that the wage rises sought at the time were “modest” and “affordable,” and that Qantas was simply another evil employer that needed to be taught a lesson, are now — strangely enough — nowhere to be seen or heard.

It continues with the teacher unions; again I am going to defer to The Australian‘s Judith Sloan, who eloquently articulates the agenda of these most powerful of union beasts; it’s a good read that should really outrage anyone whose view of education funding extends beyond the idiot-simple (and fatuous) proposition that higher teacher salaries are a magic bullet for improving educational outcomes.

Indeed, Sloan concurs with my oft-repeated statements in this column that all Gonski will achieve, in short, is to fund further pay rises for teachers, with nary a care in return for enhanced standards of education delivery; what she fails to point out directly (although the allusion is there) is that such salary increases are indiscriminate: a really great teacher (who deserves to be paid more, frankly) will be paid at the same rate as the bumbling no-hoper who fell into a teaching course on the back of “loving kids” and who might have a “rewarding” experience in the classroom, but who isn’t a teacher’s bootlace.

It’s an insult to the great teacher in the example, and an abject waste of taxpayer money; it’s also a potentially lifelong disservice that is rendered upon those who really matter — the students — but when you’re a teacher union operating in this fashion and wielding the clout with which to do so, the welfare and education of school students play second fiddle to the more urgent task of lining pockets at public expense.

What makes it worse, as Sloan points out, is that the AEU in particular has taken the Victorian Department of Education to court to block it from introducing performance benchmarks for its teachers: proof, were it even required, that education is very much a second-order priority to salary.

Why do roadworks occur during the day, wreaking havoc on everyday life? Union-“negotiated” rates of pay and penalties make it prohibitively expensive for them to be undertaken overnight as they once were. Why do an increasing number of hospitality businesses close on Sundays? Because small businesses can no longer afford paying $40 or $50 per hour on the penalty rates that go with rostering staff on Sundays.

Of course, I could go on, but I think the point is amply illustrated. And the irony is that far from guaranteeing “the rights and conditions of members at work,” as the unions proudly boast, all of these scenarios (and plenty more like them) actually put their members at risk of unemployment — sooner or later.

The Abbott government has been bequeathed an unexpected opportunity to kill two birds with the one stone on account of the AWU scandal that enveloped the Gillard government; that scandal — and Gillard’s role in it — has some room yet to run, with a Melbourne court ruling that Victoria Police can access documents seized from law firm Slater and Gordon as part of the ongoing investigation into alleged fraud at the AWU. Lawyers for Ms Gillard’s ex-boyfriend Bruce Wilson had argued they were privileged.

It is already known that the industrial relations overhaul — such as it is — to be enacted by the Coalition during this term of Parliament will include the imposition of the kind of regulations and standards of governance on unions as already applies to business under the Corporations Act.

This is to be welcomed and, to be clear, is a reform that is decades overdue.

But so much of the mess that has been created by the “modern” union movement in Australia — business failures, mass sackings, and the movement of entire workforces offshore as union demands price their members out of Australian markets — dictates that something has to be done to curb their influence, even if the revisitation of a WorkChoices-style labour market liberalisation is too politically fraught to attempt.

The problem arises from the unbridled abuse of the very commodity unions trumpet as their greatest strength: their bargaining clout as a collective entity.

Whilst the Liberals are legislating more appropriate standards of union governance, here are a few other measures  — in no particular order — that should be evaluated and legislated as well:

  • The right of an individual worker to opt out of a collective agreement and negotiate directly with an employer should be restored;
  • The inclusion of any political levy in union membership fees should be outlawed altogether;
  • All major union ballots to occur as secret ballots, and to be conducted under the auspices of the Australian Electoral Commission;
  • “Slush Funds” of the kind central to the AWU scandal — and since reported to be rife within the union movement — to be outlawed;
  • The coercion, intimidation, harassment or victimisation of union members refusing to strike to be made a criminal offence punishable with fines of $500,000 for the individual and $2 million for the union, per offence;
  • Coercing, inciting or otherwise forcing or directing individual union members  to vote in support of industrial action to be criminalised and punished in similar terms;
  • Making the solicitation of new union members an offence during the standard working hours and on the premises of any business union organisers, stewards or the like enter;
  • Imposing a reasonable notice period (enforceable by the employer) under so-called “right of entry” provisions available to unions, and the abolition of those provisions altogether in businesses employing 20 or fewer workers;
  • Mandatory Federal Court review of all collective bargaining agreements struck between unions and employers since 2008, with the Federal Court empowered by legislation to dissolve these agreements where they can be shown to be significantly prejudicial to the continuing operation of the employer on a case-by-case basis; and
  • The dissolution and prohibition of any union-sponsored collective bargaining agreement explicitly stating that productivity and/or standards of performance must be excluded in determining whether employees are eligible to receive pay rises.

For far too long, the unions in this country have played fast and loose with Australia’s business sector, its economy, and the jobs of those they so callously yet emptily claim to protect.

If WorkChoices is no option, there is more than one way to skin a cat: perhaps an approach of the kind outlined here might be more propitious.

After all, unions now cover just 16% of the Australian workforce, and it’s a very reasonable assumption that a fair proportion of that 16% were coerced into joining up in the first place.

The final thought goes to Collier, who says — in the context of an ex-employee of Holden she interviewed — that

“If Holden does (close in Australia…it) says leaving will cost $600m. Most of this will go to staff payouts. The fellow interviewed agrees…the average production-line worker will walk away with a redundancy package of between $300k-500k.”

On those figures, you have to wonder — had Holden’s workforce been reasonably remunerated rather than kept in clover by a union gun to the company’s collective head — just how much more time it would have available to it to knock its Australian operation back into something resembling decent shape.

As I said at the outset, when the union “outrage” at the Abbott government begins after Holden shuts up shop, it will be a politically motivated attack on a conservative government, pure and simple; “concern” for the jobs of their members will have nothing to do with it.

There are plenty of “Holdens” around. It should give conservative lawmakers some pause for thought.

Left Unchanged, Putrid Attitudes Will Entrench Labor In Opposition

FAR FROM being a rejuvenated party moving merrily to reclaim government in 2016, the ALP remains an unimaginative and unreconstructed cabal of spivs, hacks and charlatans; Labor must embrace root-and-branch cultural, political and personnel change — or spend decades in the wilderness.

I did something yesterday I haven’t done in several years: I kicked someone out of my “friends” list on Facebook.

The individual in question had posted a photo of the Prime Minister in his volunteer firefighter’s kit; the image had “You Absolute Bastard” emblazoned across it, and a caption (to the effect) that Abbott was obstructing in firefighting efforts in NSW in pursuit of a cheap photo opportunity — and look at him, not a speck of soot or dirt to be seen!

When I pointed out that Abbott was not only a volunteer firefighter of many years’ standing, but had been almost forcibly discouraged by his security detail from helping fight bushfires north of Sydney for rather obvious safety reasons — when no other politician (including Liberals) had offered to do anything of the sort — the comment was deleted.

Since then, of course, Abbott has been mucking in with disaster relief crews despite the danger. But I retell this anecdote because it neatly illustrates the end consequences of the kind of political tactics the Labor Party seems determined to perpetuate.

In the six weeks since it lost the federal election, the ALP has engaged in one of the most delicately orchestrated shams served up in years: namely, the “democratic” selection of leader Bill Shorten, with its ordinary branch members given “a real say.”

I’ve written at length about it (notably here and here), and there is an excellent opinion piece in today’s issue of The Australian on the subject that readers can read here as well.

In short — and no pun intended — rather than simply stitch up a simple majority of MPs to win the ballot, the forces around Bill Shorten stitched up close to two-thirds of Labor MPs to render the vote of the members absolutely pointless.

It’s the sort of conjuring trick that’s meant to bamboozle everyone with its ingenuity, but ultimately leaves its audience feeling let down and disillusioned — and so, sooner or later it will prove (and probably sooner) in this case.

Labor’s form as an opposition since the election hasn’t been much better; it zeroed in on parliamentary expenses — always good for a headline — knowing most of its so-called revelations centre on claims that were legal, were within accepted practice (including repayments made by several Coalition MPs), and that in any case, its own MPs are as “guilty” in their use of the entitlement claim system as they accused their Coalition counterparts of being.

Oddly, very little has been made publicly of the bill — footed by taxpayers — for travel, accommodation and ancillary costs incurred during Labor’s leadership election process, including transporting the entire ALP caucus twice to Canberra: once for the rigged MPs’ vote, and once for the announcement of the winner of the leadership.

The amount is credibly estimated to have been in the order of some $200,000 — far more than any of the individual complaints the ALP has been pursuing Coalition figures over.

Pot, Kettle, Black.

The ALP has even gone so far as to refer its grievances to the Australian Federal Police; in a breathtakingly smug attempt to incriminate Abbott, Attorney-General George Brandis and the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce, Labor clearly thought dumping senior government ministers into a Police investigation would advance its own political agenda handsomely.

It must have been crushing, to say the least, when the Feds bounced the matters straight back to the appropriate government department — effectively wiping their hands of them.

Just a bit too clever; a bit too smart. Then again, when it comes to the ALP, you can never be too clever or too smart, it seems.

Labor’s grand parliamentary strategy looks almost certain to be predicated on trying to block the repeal of the carbon tax — the so-called “Clean Energy Act” that represented the culmination of a political lie over an issue that has left a trail of political corpses in its wake.

The ALP simply doesn’t accept that the election loss it suffered last month is a massive repudiation of its record in government, and that this very issue is at the top of the list of voters’ gripes.

No mandate was ever given for a government to implement a carbon tax; in fact, the only people who willingly voted for it were the adherents of the Communist Party Greens: all 11.8% of them in 2010.

The list of careers directly or indirectly ruined or crippled by the climate change issue starts with John Howard and extends to Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson. You’d think Labor would get the message.

And even if the so-called “settled science” on man-made climate change is correct (which I don’t accept), ordinary people will form their own views: and if the ALP doesn’t like that, it should reflect that in a democracy people are free to vote as they choose — especially in response to attempts to force them to think or act as directed.

Labor cannot or will not control its urge to pursue vendettas against those it despises; for a party claiming to be transformed by a “democratisation” as fraudulent as it was flawed, Labor still has a lot to say when it comes to old favourites and preferred storylines.

The performance of former minister Nicola Roxon last week in delivering the John Button Memorial Lecture was shameful, and the Labor movement should collectively be ashamed of it.

The odious Roxon — herself no saint — simply couldn’t resist the temptation to sink the boot into former PM Kevin Rudd yet again, saying he was “a bastard” whose all-round nastiness made the wider act of “bastardry” involved in dumping him in 2010 possible.

Roxon went on to say, in effect, that whilst the Labor caucus was right to dump Rudd, it didn’t do it properly because it wasn’t nice enough to him afterwards.

Read into that whatever you like.

And it’s dangerous to let people like Roxon off their leashes; ALP types might think she is some kind of star, but the wider community couldn’t care less about her (at best) or is downright hostile toward her (at worst).

Like many of her colleagues, her record as a minister was pathetic; she seemed more interested in joining the fray in the “misogyny” war against Abbott than in achieving useful or meaningful policy outcomes.

Remember, this is the woman who wanted to make it a criminal offence to offend someone.

This is the woman who, as Attorney-General, interfered with established protocol in the matters concerning Peter Slipper.

Her plain cigarette packaging (and yes, I’m a smoker) was an expensive waste of time that seems to have made little or no impact on smoking rates or on the numbers of young people taking up the habit.

Yet Roxon has been afforded oxygen by the ALP on multiple occasions since the election; it’s something Shorten is going to have to put a stop to — fast — even if only for the cruel reason the pair were once lovers, and whilst the reality may be different, public perceptions of Roxon’s continued public presence could be highly damaging.

Labor’s shadow ministry isn’t fresh, or modern, or new; the bulk of it is the remainder of the Gillard and Rudd ministries, with a few factional heavies being restored to favour at the expense of worthier faces.

To the extent there are any new faces, their identities were primarily determined by factional deals.

And Labor’s edifice is built — as it was after 1996 — on a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Liberals’ election win, or Abbott’s right to govern; these are aberrations that can be rectified within three years if Labor types smile nicely for the cameras and “unify” behind the photogenic, urbane stuffed suit the factions allocated the leadership to.

The truth is that the parliamentary ALP has very few stars — real or potential — in its ranks, a reality that has been in evidence for most of the time since its election loss in 1996.

It is constituted by an amalgam of increasingly long-serving personnel who have moved seamlessly from the shadow ministry to the real ministry in 2007 and back to the shadow ministry now, augmented where necessary with bovverish spivs — most (if not all) of whom boast the CVs of parliamentary staffers, preceded by stints at the ALP or at a union.

There is no suggestion of any fresh directions on policy, or new ideas to offer, when it comes to fleshing out the claims of miraculous change in a mere six weeks: oppose, obfuscate, thwart and just carry on seem to be the order of the day.

Labor is at a crossroads, and the actions it must take are radical.

The party must overhaul its relationship with the union movement (if not cut the link altogether) if it is to have any chance of evolving into a mainstream social democratic party of enduring relevance to 21st century Australia; it needs fresh ideas, new policies and a moratorium on the continued pursuit of whatever it may have done in office.

It needs a cleanout: like the rabid supporters of a mediocre football team too biased to recognise the holes in its playing list, Labor cannot comprehend just how lacklustre the team that has emerged from electoral defeat really is; it should be aiming to turn at least a third of them over when the next election comes up.

And it has to abandon the noxious pursuit of quotas that pander to a few and alienate everyone else: silly gestures that patronise, tokenise and trivialise, but are otherwise of no consequence, and counterproductive.

It’s too easy, though, to aim below the belt; to verbal or to defame, or to embark on the clever strategy that isn’t actually all that clever — it’s merely the deluded reality Labor has created for itself.

Just about everything that’s wrong with Labor also happens to form the backbone of the platform Shorten offered as grounds for his election as leader — and the faceless hacks that still run the ALP engineered the result the party now trumpets as evidence of its rebirth.

Simply stated, Labor’s attitude stinks; the voters have already handed out one election flogging because they are fed up with the ALP’s antics, its agenda, and its representatives. Without change, many more will follow.

 

Gillard, Swan: Fantasy Scare Campaign Begins Now

IT STARTED just after Tony Abbott’s budget reply speech last night: devoid of credibility and bereft of ideas, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have embarked on a wild and thoroughly dishonest scare campaign. They have nothing else to fight with, and this stunt will worsen their inevitable defeat.

In recent weeks I have spoken at length about the cynical assumption that underpins most strategies and tactics deployed by the ALP: that is, that voters are an essentially stupid group; a brainless herd whose intelligence is extremely limited, and easily subjugated with idiot-simple slogans repeated endlessly until they become instinctively accepted.

The flashy part of the budget process is finished — the bills will grind their way through Parliament, yes, but barring the (unthinkable) blocking of supply, the rank and file punter won’t see much more of it now the promises, and the gimmicks, and the speeches are over.

And now it is over, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan have hit the stump; not, it seems, so much to sell the budget as to start a colossal scare campaign about an Abbott government in a final, jaundiced attempt to cobble enough votes together to stay in office.

I put it thus because there is no evidence this government cares about anything except that one basic objective; as I said last night, they will say and/or do anything to retain power, offices and salaries — and their treatment of anyone in their way will be brutal.

Wayne “I’m Important and I’m Right” Swan has been out today, spruiking a plot by Tony Abbott to “sneak his real plan” through the election campaign; Abbott, according to Swan, would follow the “Campbell Newman playbook” and hide the truth until after the election.

Labor is obsessed with the Queensland Premier, which is unsurprising as his is the most securely ensconced conservative administration in Australia, and is undertaking a painful yet urgent restructure of his state’s finances after decades of Labor mismanagement.

Even so, this is the same Queensland Premier who reputable polling suggests would easily win a fresh election this weekend, retaining almost all of his unprecedented majority intact.

Gillard — unbelievably — has launched a campaign on GST; despite Abbott’s repeated promise that any reforms of substance would be taken to an election ahead of a second term (and his insistence that review of the GST was not a priority), she has been running around telling anyone who will listen of the grand plot to extend the tax to food, and to increase the GST rate.

I would simply point out that the GST might have provided an effective campaign point in 1993 and 1998, but it won’t now.

At those elections, people voted out of fear, to the extent the GST was a consideration for them: fear of the unknown, fuelled largely by the same misleading tactics that seem to be making a reappearance now.

GST didn’t make Kim Beazley Prime Minister in 2001; people understand the sky didn’t fall in, and that the tax operated exactly as John Howard and Peter Costello said it would.

The GST, and some Machiavellian Newmanesque plot, are just the start of it.

Still, Gillard and Swan don’t have a hell of a lot to work with.

They can hardly stand on their record; they would only do so in order to hide it.

They can hardly outline a bold new vision, and invite the Australian public to follow them: the Australian public is fed up with being lied to by its politicians, and with that experience under their belts have decided they don’t want to follow Gillard anywhere.

And in any case, after six years in government, none of the ALP’s big, bold ideas have attracted much enthusiasm at all; take away the NDIS, and what’s left is received sullenly, almost malignantly, by a growing majority of voters.

Even the promise of billions in education funding made no difference to the government’s standing in the opinion polls.

And so — with no electoral capital in hand, and with voters waiting for them with baseball bats — The Big Scare is all Gillard and her cohorts have left.

A friend of mine asked last night why there was no palpable anger “out there” over the superannuation co-contribution (which was meant to be funded by the mining tax) being axed; at the time I responded that it was probably because people didn’t believe the promise from Swan and Gillard in the first place.

I actually think it’s more than that; people now know Wayne Swan has spent years presenting dodgy figures in budgets and implementing taxes that don’t raise any money, and I think they understand that there is no money, therefore there is no super top-up.

(I still can’t get over thew fact that the traditional tax-and-spend party has buggered up two taxes “designed” to reel in billions and billions and billions of dollars).

Yet everyone from Gillard to Swan to Bill Shorten and several of their colleagues are putting the line around that Abbott is ripping off the low-paid; Abbott is taking money away from the poor. “Tony Abbott (will) take the axe to low and middle-income families in the community,” Swan said.

I think people are more likely to be angry with the present government — and Gillard and Swan, first and foremost — for making such blatantly undeliverable promises in the first place than they are with Abbott for outlining steps to right the ship of state.

But Labor won’t back off; the fear factor is the only tool left in their toolbox.

Today is just the start of this latest attack, but it will intensify; the closer to polling day we get, the more of this desperate claptrap we will hear from Gillard.

Even after one day of this rubbish, she said “people should be asking themselves ‘what’s next?'”

Quite.

The scare campaign that worked in 1993 and — almost — in 1998 will not work now.

The Australian electorate have had enough of Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan; this Labor government is nearing its expiry date, but its leadership duo are the single biggest liabilities it carries, and the time to replace them has all but passed.

Gillard and her cronies will ramp up the scare campaign: expect wild accusations and even scurrilous “revelations;” but the fact is that nobody is listening, and that sobering reality must be very galling indeed.

Add to this the fact that since Julia Gillard’s despicable “misogyny” rant under the coward’s cover of parliamentary privilege, people have had another look at Abbott, and increasingly like what they see; Abbott himself is fuelling this effect, acting more Prime Ministerial by the day, and not responding to barbs and taunts he would once have let rip over.

The more the government tries to ramp up its scare campaign, the harder it will rebound on them, and staring down the barrel of a heavy defeat indeed, like lemmings they now seem hellbent on making it worse.

There is 17 more weeks of this to look forward to.

Workplace Relations: Abbott IR Policy A Reasoned, Reasonable Start

TONY ABBOTT today released the Coalition’s Workplace Relations policy for the looming election; it retains the bulk of the Fair Work Australia regime with incremental changes only. Even so, Labor and the unions are up in arms, and they risk fighting a “WorkChoices” election campaign at their peril.

One indisputable measure of how far removed the Liberals’ new Workplace Relations policy is from WorkChoices can be seen in the reaction of Australia’s business lobby; it is not happy, and for the most part has been forthright in saying so.

The noises from the business community have been mildly positive, but muted; “a step in the right direction” best sums up the benign but non-committal response.

To listen to the Labor Party and the unions, however, you’d think the world was about to end; and given they are about to be hurled from office in a landslide, the end of the world as they prefer it to exist may well, indeed, be nigh.

I am talking of course about a crackdown on the trade union movement as a whole; a law unto itself and largely unaccountable in any meaningful sense compared to equivalent corporate entities, the days of doing what it likes and on its own terms, untroubled by standards of governance applied to the capital sector it so despises, will soon end.

This column heartily endorses the proposed re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, in addition to a previously announced Royal Commission into the trade union movement, as part of a co-ordinated assault on union corruption and to haul unions into line with the stringent regulations (rightly) applied to corporate governance in the business community.

Tony Abbott should be taken at his word in saying that the only people with anything to worry about from this policy is dodgy union officials and their supporters.

To some extent, the Coalition’s hand has been forced on Workplace Relations by the relentless (and to some extent, misleading) campaign the union movement waged against WorkChoices in 2007, whose impact was renewed by the reprise to the campaign in 2010.

Even so, the positions announced today by Abbott and his shadow minister, Eric Abetz, represent a moderate and sensible course between the Howard government’s WorkChoices regime and the present government’s Fair Work Act, which went so far in the opposite direction to WorkChoices as to roll back labour market flexibility to a point predating the then-controversial reforms of the Keating government in 1993.

Initiating a Productivity Commission review into the Fair Work Act to recommend labour market changes — which would be presented to the electorate in 2016 to obtain a mandate — should take the sting out of IR for the Coalition in the medium term, and provide a point around which to build a more consensus-based approach to reform beyond that.

The allowance of Individual Flexibility Arrangements, or IFAs, is welcome, and The Red And The Blue notes they will be permitted provided any worker entering into such an agreement is not worse off as a result — effectively restoring the “no disadvantage” test to individual contracts that WorkChoices abolished under the Howard government.

I believe there should be no impediment to employers and employees striking direct agreements to the betterment of both, by consent, rather than a legislated requirement for collective agreements based on a lowest common denominator.

That said, if Abbott’s political opponents insist on calling such agreements “AWAs” then so be it: such contracts were common many years before the advent of WorkChoices, and deserve to be so again as a mechanism to provide additional flexibility and cater for the specific circumstances of particular employment situations.

Abbott’s indication that penalty rates and unfair dismissal provisions will remain unchanged — at least for his first term — should be interpreted by the unions in particular as an opportunity to pull back from their confrontational rhetoric, and to explore potential avenues through which to work in partnership with the new government.

I am aware that such a statement may lead some to accuse me of hypocrisy; after all, I really do endorse the crackdown on unions that comes as part and parcel of this package.

However, the fiasco of the Health Services Union — and the cavalcade of criminal charges flowing from it — neatly highlights one area in which the union movement have enjoyed differential standards, and that variance needs to be eliminated.

And again, any unionist not seeking to engage in dodgy practices will have nothing to fear.

The response from the Left, however, has been predictable if not a little tired.

The Murdoch press reports that the Greens “immediately jumped on the announcement,” saying they would try to block the proposals, but their specific objection is difficult to ascertain beyond a vague reference to WorkChoices and — unsurprisingly — an attempt to co-ordinate their attack with the ALP.

“Labor needs to make clear where it stands before the election so voters know that the Greens would be able to block these laws if they come before the Parliament,” Greens MP Adam Bandt was quoted as saying.

“Tony Abbott is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The history of WorkChoices shows that the Coalition promises one thing and does something else in government.”

Julia Gillard’s response, in sum, was to talk about WorkChoices: a policy proclaimed “dead, buried and cremated” by Abbott prior to the 2010 election, and there is nothing in today’s announcement to encourage the view that that particular status will in any way change.

And ACTU President Ged Kearney zeroed in on IFAs — as she would, representing as they do the anathema to everything unions and their collective bargaining agenda stand for — before rattling on, at length, about WorkChoices.

Kearney indulged herself with a vitriolic and ideology-driven rant about the loss of pay and conditions, to the extent that it was difficult to believe she was talking about the same policy announcement: after all, the response from the business community should have been enough to knock that on the head, and even if it wasn’t, the changes announced by Abbott and Abetz are hardly what anybody could construe as radical.

Then again, this is the same Ged Kearney who recently told a meeting of teachers that the ACTU would launch a “pre-emptive strike” on Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party ahead of the September election — whatever that means.

And this in turn evokes the memory of the meeting between the ACTU executive and new Prime Minister John Howard at Parliament House in mid-1996, when Howard terminated the meeting exactly seven minutes after it started, as reports of ACTU protesters outside the building throwing projectiles and causing criminal damage as part of a “demonstration” filtered through to him in the conference room.

It’s clear that anything short of a re-elected Gillard government — which simply isn’t going to transpire — will see the unions itching to cause trouble; it is to be hoped that smarter figures within their ranks, such as ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver, are able to ensure cooler heads prevail and that talking is attempted first, at the very least.

There is a difference between commitment to a cause and a fight for beliefs and values, and embarking on counter-productive and organisationally suicidal crusades: I think Oliver knows the difference, even though I fundamentally disagree with his politics. It remains to be seen how many of his contemporaries are able to draw the same distinction.

My final comment is on the ALP, and touches on a colossal political mistake it seems hellbent on making.

Even Mark Latham wasn’t stupid or pig-headed enough to attempt to run a third consecutive election campaign on the GST; the issue had brought Labor close to an upset in 1998, but was politically useless to the party by 2001, and not worth revisiting in 2004.

This year’s election will be the third consecutive campaign the ALP has tried to turn into a referendum on WorkChoices: it worked in 2007, after Howard legislated WorkChoices without the policy rating a mention during the 2004 election, and after the union movement bankrolled and undertook a massive mid-term media blitz against the laws.

But I contend the issue was as good as neutralised by 2010, and nothing in today’s announcement will render any WorkChoices scare campaign in 2013 remotely credible.

The danger for Labor here is that all it talks about is WorkChoices; given its record on the economy — which nobody would stand on except to hide — it can hardly campaign on that.

Come 2016, if Labor is still talking about WorkChoices, it will confirm just how irrelevant — and beholden to the unions — the party has become.

And if it gets to that point, and Labor is still trying to win elections on WorkChoices, it’ll be a potent symbol of the malaise that now afflicts the Labor Party, and threatens to destroy it as a viable, broad-based party of the Centre-Left in Australian politics.