Has the Coalition been presented with a way to revisit WorkChoices without the political opprobrium?

One should always pay attention to the views of Peter Reith, who is happy to offer his thoughts on Coalition policy refreshingly unrestrained by political calculation. Reith doesn’t believe in a small-target philosophy, particularly not these days. His call for an inquiry into trade unions shows he’s out in front of his former colleagues in terms of exploiting the recent prominence in public debate of union scandals.

Reith’s proposal opens up the possibility of converting what for the Coalition so far has primarily been a tactical ploy against the Gillard government and a means of damaging the reputation of the wider labour movement into a vehicle for renewing the campaign against trade unions that formed the heart of WorkChoices.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

Get more and save 50%.

Subscribe now

The tactic was used successfully by the Howard government to directly attack the CFMEU, via a royal commission into the construction industry. The resulting legal framework, enforced by the draconian powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, diminished the role of the CFMEU (and also saw a significant rise in the number of construction industry workers dying at work).

The Coalition has been able to use the revelations of extensive corruption within the Health Services Union and the 20-year old Australian Workers Union saga as the basis for a general attack on union corruption. This has extended to attacking industry superannuation funds, run by “venal” union officials as a “gravy train”, according to Tony Abbott.

Industry super funds, run jointly by union and employer representatives, consistently and strongly outperform retail super funds run by the big banks and AMP, which provide a lucrative source of fees for financial planners. The Howard government unsuccessfully tried to stymie the growth of industry super funds through its 2004 superannuation choice legislation.

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. A business campaign, run through the national newspapers, to pin Australia’s poor productivity performance on trade unions and the Fair Work Act has come a cropper, partly because of the inconvenient fact that labour productivity has been on the increase since 2011. And even The Australian Financial Review has begun admitting there’s been no wages breakout under the Fair Work framework, despite that being one of the central claims of its opponents (see Greg Jericho’s insightful piece on the lack of a wages breakout).

Nonetheless, as Reith has sensed, a year in which the media has relentlessly scrutinized the HSU and events in the AWU two decades ago (while ignoring far worse instances of business fraud) provides an ideal basis to propose an inquiry that could furnish the basis for more restrictive legislation on the activities of unions.

Abbott’s promise to hold an inquiry into the AWU matter if elected, a commitment likely to be routinely exploited by Labor as part of its campaign to paint him as capable only of negativity, could neatly be transformed into a commitment to a broader inquiry into “union corruption”, with the goal of restricting unions’ activities and capacity to use members’ funds. It could even be used to drive “venal” union officials off industry superannuation boards.

And all with nary a mention of the hated WorkChoices.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

And now you get more from your membership than ever before.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
Get more and save 50%