Paul Keating’s virtuoso performance on Lateline last week included the rather strange claim that Australia’s union movement is “dying on the line” and guilty of “general incompetence”.

Similarly, Barrie Cassidy opened a question to Julia Gillard on Insiders last Sunday as follows:

A Financial Review editorial said it’s a long time since a third party has intervened on an election campaign in this scale, and they went on to say that this election is the last roll of the dice for the unions, and perhaps that explains it.

Sure, membership is down, but that’s a global trend. Truth be known, the union movement is on the cusp of enjoying its greatest political domination in Australian history.

For starters, Australia has a very powerful second tier of government and the state cabinets are choc-full of former unionists. A Rudd government boasting the likes of Greg Combet and Bill Shorten in cabinet would just compete the domination.

Then you’ve got the emergence of industry super funds over the past 20 years. Gary Weaven is the father of the movement and he hails from the ACTU. The industry fund boards are full of unionists and they now control many tens of billions of dollars of investments thanks to superior long-term performance and lower fees. For instance, Combet and Shorten both sit on the board of the $25 billion Australian Super fund.

I spent last Friday at a fascinating one-day conference put on by the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors and there were plenty of current and former unionists in action. When Ian Wood from BHP-Billiton laid out the company’s sustainability performance, it was none other than CBUS chairman Ralph Willis who lobbed a curly question about work safety issues at Mt Newman.

Wood, to his credit, said BHP was examining why so many of its workers went public on The 7.30 Report last week and claimed it was partly driven by a CFMEU campaign against AWAs and to get back inside the company’s Pilbara operations.

This was a classic example of union power. The construction union’s super fund was putting a senior executive on the spot at a major conference of investors and the person asking the questions was a former ACTU official who rose to be federal treasurer.

Whilst employer groups are also represented on the CBUS board, CEO Sandy Grant delivered a blistering spray against the Howard Government at Friday’s conference, leaving no one doubting where he stood.

Given the CFMEU also reportedly has net assets of almost $100 million, this power should not be dismissed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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