Tony Abbott hoped he’d be able to beguile the oddball crossbenchers in the Senate, but revelations about Ricky Muir’s unionist past could prove a sticking point.
When the dust settled after the election last year and it became clear that the Senate had turned out to be, well, interesting, there was a widespread belief that it was a triumph for the Right and a disaster for the Left. The Greens had lost balance of power to a motley crew of micro- and pseudo-parties, most of which appeared to be from the oddball side of the Right. The new government cackled silently as a coal baron’s pet party, together with a libertarian and a “Family First” former Liberal, took the balance of power.
That hasn’t quite worked out as they planned — the Palmer party has positioned itself well to the Left of the spectrum on social services, David Leyonhjelm introduced a same-sex marriage bill, and everyone rejected the GP co-pay in its current form.
But perhaps the greatest surprise was Ricky Muir, the “revhead” whose major act to date was to save the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Indeed, it seems even less likely that Muir is the reliable right-winger of their imaginings, with the Senator revealing that, during his years as a saw miller, he was a member of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union — the union that the Abbott government is currently trying to bust and eventually deregister. Muir was not only a member of the CFMEU — he was a shop steward for it at the East Gippsland saw mill he worked at for a number of years, before his election to the Senate.
Muir hasn’t been going out of his way to advertise his CFMEU connections — it appears in none of the profiles of him published at the time of his election — but he doesn’t try to hide it, either. He confirmed to Crikey that he had been a shop steward for the Forestry division of the CFMEU for around two years in the 2000s, when he worked for the Gunns mill in Heyfield, East Gippsland, now owned by Australian Sustainable Hardwood. Muir says he put his hand up to be shop steward during a round of EAs negotiations, “to support and help his colleagues”, and that his fellow employees had had “concerns around entitlements”.
The news that Muir is a former bruvver won’t come as welcome news to the Abbott government, which has had the CFMEU in its sights for some time, running a witch-hunt in which the union is slated for standard business practices — establishing strike funds, dealing with dodgy corporate builders on behalf of the members who worked for them, and the like — which are constructed as inherently criminal activities.
Of course Muir was a member of CFMEU (Forestry), and the attacks are on CFMEU (Construction), and there are times when there has been no love lost between the two groups. But the government’s current onslaught is against the CFMEU in toto, and may generate a solidarity that the union could not create itself.
Muir has praise for the union, saying that they were supportive and there was “good communication when it was needed, and they provided training” for the role. Muir says that there was “generally a good relationship” between employers and union — but sources in the CFMEU say he’s being polite. “That wasn’t a friendly place,” said one official. “It would have taken some commitment to be a shoppie there.” Muir is more circumspect about the current government attacks on the CFMEU (Construction), saying that “like all unions, they have their place” — which suggests that he would not look favourably on the government’s ultimate aim, that of deregistration. “Individuals must be accountable for their actions,” he told Crikey, which all suggests that he doesn’t want the union as a whole hung out to dry.
This union history might well be something the Coalition would have wanted to know in planning its lines of attack — for the proposals the government is making, as regards re-establishing the ABCC, would make it easier for employers to deny building and other workers their entitlements such as RDOs and penalty rates. With Muir sitting in a useful swing position — if the government can get the support of PUP senators, plus right-wingers Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm, then Muir becomes their potential sixth crossbencher — treatment of his former union may well become a saw-point.