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Jun 4, 2009

Gillard’s ACTU spray a centrist triumph

Julia Gillard's speech at the ACTU Congress yesterday a display of raw executive power, writes Bernard Keane.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

As unpleasant as it might have been at the time, Julia Gillard would have been chuffed at her hostile reception from unionists, and especially construction industry workers, at the ACTU congress yesterday.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise. How else were CFMEU representatives going to react to words like these:

There is both debate and difference on display as the Rudd Government honours its election commitment to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and replace it on 1 February 2010 with a new specialist Fair Work body.

But as there is debate and difference, I expect there to be one clear point of unanimity. Like me, I am sure you were appalled to read of dangerous car chases across Melbourne City involving carloads of balaclava wearing people, criminal damage to vehicles resulting in arrests, threats of physical violence and intimidation of individuals, including damage to a private residence.

The last time I read of balaclavas in an industrial dispute they were being worn by security thugs at the Melbourne waterfront when the MUA fought its history making battle against Patricks and the Liberal Party.

Balaclavas, violence and intimidation must be unreservedly condemned as wrong by every unionist, every ALP member, every decent Australian.

And the Rudd Labor Government will do everything necessary to ensure that we do not see this appalling conduct again.

The speech was a display of raw executive power from Gillard, bluntly telling the union movement the Government had given them the Fair Work Act and was killing WorkChoices, and that’s all they were going to get.

But this also perfectly suits this Government’s long-term agenda to occupy the centre of Australian politics. Union agitation, heckling and interruption of Gillard, threats to complain to the International Labour Organisation — all serve exactly that agenda, not merely showing the disconnection between the unions and the Parliamentary Labor Party, but suggesting the Government is moderate and cautious in its approach to even the totemic issue of IR. The more criticism from militant unionists, the better.

And perhaps unionists don’t realise that international criticism of Australia is of no moment whatsoever to any government. Indeed, it can be welcome. Australians either dislike or distrust foreign agencies and getting criticised by one has never harmed any politician’s career.

The “Julia among the savages” imagery won’t directly enter voters’ awareness — it received minimal play on evening news bulletins — but it will influence the commentariat, even those predisposed to regard Labor as pawns of militant unionists. And, for that matter, it won’t hurt Gillard’s credentials as the next Prime Minister.

The current Prime Minister played good cop to Gillard’s bad, addressing the conference last night and opening — as he tends to do — with a brief comic routine, in this case about having to miss the State of Origin. The he discussed the national accounts, reeled off the Government’s expenditure on education and infrastructure, referred to the tax cuts, backed the car industry, and talked in vague terms about a union-government partnership for a “21st century social wage”. The subtext was clear — real wage growth can be offset by increases in government spending to assist working families. This may be a clue to the Government’s approach to constraining wage growth once the recovery really sets in.

It’s a lot harder to construct Hawke-era style Accords in an era of enterprise-level bargaining. And it doesn’t augur well for the Government’s commitment to confine future real spending growth to 2%. But Rudd wasn’t heckled or interrupted.

The ultimate union threat to Parliamentary Labor is to cut off the flow of millions of dollars in funding that unions provide. But a Government that has so assiduously consulted with business — including on IR — and has the support of most of the business community on its economic strategy, may be able to make up some of the gaps that appear in its funding. Power tends to attract donations. It’s only when Labor is in Opposition that union funding becomes crucial. And that’s when unions needs Labor the most.

As with climate change, industrial relations is an important policy issue for this government — but not as important as its political value in shaping Labor’s public image as the party of moderate, centrist Australia. Angry unionists berating the female Deputy PM is perfect for that image.

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4 thoughts on “Gillard’s ACTU spray a centrist triumph

  1. Liz45

    Rudd should’ve torn up the ABCC as soon as he was sworn in. Any so-called Labor PM who supports the bullying tactics and fascist behaviour of this secretive mob, that doesn’t have to give any reasons for their tactics is appalling. It’s more at home in a dictatorship, not in a so-called democracy. Not even judges have the right to force people to answer questions; even if they’re guilty. A defendant can nominate not to take the witness stand in their own defence; a person doesn’t have to answer police questions with or without their lawyer present; a person is entitled to legal representation immediately they’re detained. Not with the ABCC. You can’t have legal representation, and if you are forced to go to court, you can’t select your own legal person; you can’t refuse to answer any questions; you can’t tell your partner where you are, have been or why – to do so is a jailable offence! What sort of country adopts these bullying tactics as part of their IR laws?

    Not one person was charged as a result of the Royal Commission into the Building Industry. It was a beat up and a shameful waste of money. The so-called revelations didn’t address the unsafe working conditions, that sadly cause death and injury on a daily basis to those workers who deserve at least, to look forward to going home to their loved ones at the end of their working day. I don’t recall Julia Gillard including this in her address to ACTU delegates yesterday! I don’t recall anybody putting this question to Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd or ????
    A government that trots out any actions of alleged ‘violent protest’ but is silent over the torture and illegal detention of its own citizens in foreign jails, hardly has the moral right to indignation. The Labor Party only called for David Hick’s repatriation after there was overwhelming public agitation for justice. I don’t recall the Rudd govt, like the Howard govt before it, speaking out against police bashing innocent protestors, who are only exercising their democratic rights!

    Today, there’s much talk of the horrors in China 20 years ago, and rightly so, but the smug politicians, who allow actions of the ABCC to exist are not much better. It’s all a matter of degree!
    I didn’t hear them objecting to the water cannon or stun guns introduced in NSW for instance, or the oppressive laws re bikies, that can be used against any organization the NSW govt takes a dislike to. We’re a very small distance away from the possibility of Tiananmen Square. Maybe I’ll see the day, when the law enforcers are on the street to protect me from oppressive laws made by govts that want to resume open spaces, that should be accessible to us all; threaten workers with jail for fighting for their right to a safe workplace; mine coal in fertile areas needed for growing food, or save trees from being demolished for a pulp mill that will pollute the oceans, wineries, food growing areas and the people around it, to name just a few ! Maybe a journalist will have the guts to challenge politicians over their hypocrisy! Maybe?

  2. John T

    Does LIZ45 think the money from a self-centred and dwindling union movement predominantly based in the public sector is enought to buy educated labor pollies, who know how to work the Labor pre-selection machine – many of whom have never done dirty work?

    The public associates the officials of the building workers’ and like unions with the emotive, descriptive words of LIZ45’s first para. In typical Stalinist style, Labor pollies just cannot have the grubby and rude workers calling the shots unexpectedly, especially using the nasty sort of bullying most young Labor pollies thought they’d left behind once they made it to uni. And what would the PM’s staff think – heavens, imagine the damage those nasty workers would do to today’s controlled political agenda!

    Why does Julia make me catch so many echoes of Margaret Thatcher? It’s not just the sinilar suits: this lady is not for crossing. And she’s loved, in a sort of terrifying nursery way, by the right, wherever those might be found.

    No, let’s cut loose the dirty workers, sustain and cosy up to the public-sector unionists, and create the antiodean nomenklaturia to rule the workers’ paradise.

  3. Jenny Haines

    What was Gillard talking about? Dave Noonan didn’t know of any balaclava thugs speeding across Melbourne. Liz T is right. The ABCC would be at home in a dictatorship but should not exist in Australia, a so called democracy. The delegates to the ACTU Congress were right when they heckled Gillard with “one law for all.” That is what it should be and this right wing Labor Government (forget centrist!!) should be ashamed that the ABCC has persisted as long as it has and their plans for replacing it. The main issue on building sites is safety and the prevention of untimely death and injury. If the unions did not campaign for safety, no-one else would.

  4. Jenny Haines

    Companies, director charged over worker deaths
    05 June 2009 | Content provided to you by AAP.

    BRISBANE, June 5 AAP – Charges have been laid against three companies and an executive officer following an investigation into the deaths of two Gold Coast workers last year.

    The workers were fatally injured on 21 June 2008 when the swing stage scaffold they were using to carry out concrete patchwork on the Pegasus high-rise, then under construction at Broadbeach, failed and they fell 26 levels to the ground.

    The charges allege various breaches of the Workplace Health and Safety Act 1995 for failing to ensure the health and safety of the workers.

    Allscaff Systems, which erected the swing stage, is charged with failing to ensure the plant was erected in a way that ensured it was safe when used properly.

    Ralph Michael Smith, director of Allscaff Systems, is charged with failing to ensure the company complied with its obligations under the Workplace Health and Safety Act.

    Karimbla Construction Services, which built the high-rise, is charged with breaching obligations as a person in control of a workplace and as project manager.

    Pryme Constructions, which undertook the concrete patching, is charged with breaching its obligations to ensure workplace health and safety.

    In a statement, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland said it had advised the deceased workers families that the investigation into the incident is complete and charges have been laid.

    The complaints are scheduled for mention in the Southport Industrial Magistrates Court on June 26.