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07 February 2014

Blind Freddie can see what's coming

In the 1950s, Trade Union leaders were a highly militant collection of poorly paid, poorly educated men who had risen up through the ranks, some with criminal connections, some members of the communist party and others just a bunch of bloody minded individuals who would delight in taking employers they detested down a long, tortuous road of strikes, intimidation and bullying, without even blinking.

At the time the greatest threat to world peace was perceived to be the Russian and Chinese communist governments facing off against the USA, UK and Europe. The fear was real and nuclear war was a real possibility; far greater than anything we face today.

Politically, it was cut and dried. Sir Robert Menzies was Prime Minister leading a conservative coalition government. The Labor leader, Dr H V (Doc) Evatt, had one of the smartest and brightest minds of any leader our country has ever known. But, similar to the Rudd/Gillard years, it was the internal machinations of the party that prevented him from ever becoming Prime Minister. The Labor Party was inextricably wound up, tied up, twisted several times over and financially dependent on the unions. It was the unions' connection with the Communist Party and the practice of issuing 'unity tickets' that precipitated a split that gave birth to the DLP (Democratic Labor Party). Unity tickets involved pairing ALP members and Communist Party members on a joint ticket to contest official trade union management positions. The Menzies government, ever aware that the public were troubled by developments in the communist world, exploited this weakness and milked it for everything they could. That split kept Labor from governing for 23 years.

Eventually times changed and in 1967 Gough Whitlam took over from the hapless Arthur Caldwell. He sorted out the union mess and got Labor back on the path to government in 1972. Those days, however, have inextricably tied Labor to the unions both financially and culturally to this day and any likelihood of a divorce in the near future is wishful thinking.

In 1983 former ACTU President Bob Hawke became Prime Minister after a disastrous period of economic mismanagement by the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser. The industrial accords he and Paul Keating negotiated with the unions, and the employers covering the period 1983-1996, brought an end to the industrial disruption so widespread and damaging to Labor and our economy. This enabled them to implement far reaching economic reforms without any serious disturbance. Those reforms put us on track for the economic prosperity that we enjoy today.

Then in 1996 John Howard was elected Prime Minister. He dispensed with the accord and introduced Australian Workplace Agreements in an attempt to reduce the power of the unions. When he gained control of the Senate in 2004 he introduced 'Work Choices'. His actions were of the classic 'let's pick a fight' mentality so clearly evidenced much earlier by the Patrick's waterfront dispute of 1998. It was something he learned from Menzies days.

Where am I going with all of this? It looks suspiciously like Tony Abbott is heading down the same path. In fact, Blind Freddie can see what's coming: more confrontation. Tony Abbott has nothing of substance to contribute to Australia's continued prosperity. He is certainly no Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, so what does he do? He looks to those of his political persuasion to see what they did in the past. Not for the purposes of good governance, mind you, but to consolidate a hold on power.

At much the same time as Employment Minister, Eric Abetz announced a submission to the Fair Work Commission to comprehensively examine the minimum pay and conditions contained in the award system, AWU leader Paul Howes entered the discussion advocating a return to the days of the accords. This has taken both Labor and the government by surprise, but Howes can smell a rat.

Bill Shorten, a former union boss, needs to read between the lines and play this game astutely. Coalition governments going back to Menzies have prospered playing the union card. The Hawke/Keating years demonstrated how this can be thwarted. They showed how the broader public perception of the connection between Labor and the unions can be neutralised and even turned to their advantage.

The issue of industrial relations in Australia has been a battleground royal for as long as I can remember. It is not going away any time soon. The CMFEU corruption revelations have seen to that. If Shorten allows himself and Labor to be sucked into siding with the unions in an industrial war, he will likely lose. While Australia's IR position at the moment is in fairly good shape, no one should underestimate the Coalition's ability to pick a fight they are sure they can win. Labor might do well to think seriously about Paul Howes suggestion, if only to neutralise the Coalition's upcoming frontal assault. Just as Tony Abbott is looking to the past to keep him in power, Bill Shorten should do the same.

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