So what are the key issues for the Australian union movement during one of the most significant economic events of the last century? What dominates unions’ “response to the global financial crisis” to be considered at the forthcoming ACTU Congress?

Protectionism, via “buy local” requirements that would waste taxpayers’ money in government procurement, and an end to free trade agreements.

Internationalism, with calls to dob the Government into the International Labour Organisation.

Opposition to lifting a retirement age that was established 100 years ago and hasn’t been changed since.

A return to pattern bargaining, ignoring the circumstances of individual businesses and the benefits of greater workplace flexibility.

And then there’s unions’ responses in other areas. Keeping consumer-punishing tariffs on imported motor vehicles. Opposition to letting parents see how their kids’ schools compare to others. Opposition to any emissions trading scheme that might see some industry lose jobs, even if other industries gain jobs. Reflexive opposition to privatisation.

Most of this agenda could have been written in the 1970s. In fact, it was. Australia’s union movement has not developed intellectually in the past 30 years, despite the parliamentary Labor Party under Bob Hawke realising twenty years ago the need for an open, competitive Australian economy and the urgency of reforms that would get us there. But unions appear to still want Australia to be a sheltered workshop, hiding behind protectionist walls, with businesses heavily regulated and consumers kept ignorant of inconvenient facts.

The response of the Right to the economic crisis has been profoundly flawed. After they finished trying to blame governments for the financial meltdown, conservatives in Australia and the US have persistently argued against economic stimulus and government action to address the crisis, apparently preferring a Herbert Hoover-style approach of letting the economy flatline for a few years.

Australia’s union movement appears to be every bit as reactionary and moribund. The crisis has tested both sides of the ideological divide and found both sorely wanting.

Peter Fray

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