Last night’s speech to the Sydney Institute, wherein Martin Ferguson argued the federal government should roll back the elements of the Fair Work Act that give unions too much power over enterprise bargaining and right of entry, was exactly the sort of union bashing the Minerals Council excels at. But Mar’n is something of a strange mouthpiece for the rent-seeking resources industry, as a former unionist (and president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, no less).

Ferguson was president of the ACTU from 1990 to 1996, during which time the ACTU led the campaign for enterprise bargaining becoming the primary means by which wages were set. From 2007 to 2013 he was a senior minister in the Labor government during the creation of the Fair Work Act, which undid WorkChoices’ move to individual bargaining, and solidified the process that the ACTU had put in place. Theyvoteforyou.org notes he voted consistently for increasing trade unions powers in the workplace

Perhaps he just had a change of heart, roughly eight minutes after he left Parliament (and the energy and resources ministry) and decided to take a variety of roles in resources, such as adviser for peak oil and gas industry lobby group APPEA and head of natural resources for Seven Group Holdings. Since then, he’s had a lot of thoughts, most of them in opposition to the union and government he spent his life working for — let’s check in:

PENALTY RATES

THEN

“Let us stop for a moment to think why that is so, remembering what these workers do and the conditions they work under. Many of them rise before dawn or work late into the night after all the office workers have switched off their lights and have gone home at a reasonable hour … They have short-term contracts, which means they often work two jobs, rising early and working late into the night to make ends meet … And for this they are paid a pittance. The federal minimum wage for cleaners is $13.77 per hour and permanent part-time cleaners stand to lose at least a quarter of their wages because of proposed cuts in penalty rates for early morning and evening work.”

— Wednesday, May 24, 2006, while talking about the “Fair go for cleaners” campaign

NOW

After being announced as chairman of Tourism Accommodation Australia (a division of the Australian Hotels Association) in 2015, Mar’n immediately argued for penalty rates to be cut, and for developing “a modern package for the nature of society in the 21st century — not the nature of society in the ’60s and ’70s, where Sunday was seen as day of holiness on which no one was expected to work”. After all, how can tourism businesses create all those jobs if they can’t “make a quid”? 

He welcomed the decision earlier this year to cut penalty rates, telling unions to “step back and take a cold shower” on the issue.

THEN

“Let us talk about some of the tougher industries. Conditions are a lot tougher if you work in the accommodation, cafe and restaurant sectors. The average annual wage is just $38,000 per annum. It is a small wage when you think about the cost of childcare and the question of living from week to week when higher petrol prices and interest rate increases have to be covered. That is why the Labor Party’s industrial relations policy is about productivity and flexibility but also, importantly, a fair go. You can have both of those objectives. It is about making sure that workers receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work rather than the objectionable, draconian legislation of the Howard government. That is why I am pleased to join with the member for Chifley today in expressing my concerns that the legislation will clearly leave many Australian workers, especially those who are most vulnerable in the community — for example, women — without choice. These laws are about driving down their wages and conditions of employment.”

— Monday, October 9, 2006, discussing worker conditions in hospitality and tourism

“If you work in accommodation, cafes or restaurants, you cannot get childcare for your kids when you need it and you are struggling to pay the petrol bill to get to and from work or to and from the childcare centre in peak public transport hours. You may well conclude that you are not getting a fair shake from the resources boom. That is what they are thinking at the moment when they hear all this talk about the resources boom.”

— Monday, May 22, 2006

NOW

Reacting to the Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut penalty rates for hospitality workers by 2020, Ferguson’s only complaint was that it wasn’t happening fast enough, saying he would have preferred the penalty rate cuts in hospitality to be fully implemented over two years: “We realise that reforming penalty rates was a tough decision for the FWC, but ultimately this was essential and we are pleased that logic and long-term vision won out in the end.” 

WORKPLACE AGREEMENTS

THEN

I simply say in conclusion that, in terms of wages and conditions of employment, Australian workers know what is expected of them by their employers. But they also know what is expected of their government with respect to establishing a framework which guarantees them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Ultimately, they are vulnerable today because of the Howard government legislation, which not only undermines security but also enables their wages and conditions of employment to be stripped away. I am pleased to say that the Howard government has been shown up, not just by the Australian community but by the Australian Labor Party. The Labor Party is appropriately exposing the fact that these workers are now vulnerable. Worse still, it is often women and young workers who stand to be ripped off the most as a result of the Howard government legislation.”

 — Monday, 9 October 2006, discussing individual agreements under the WorkChoices legislation

NOW

“This would reinstate individual agreements as a vehicle for achieving a flexible and motivated workforce, for boosting performance and productivity — and for rewarding employees with well-paid individually tailored employment agreements.” 

— August 8, 2017, discussing the importance of individual workplace agreements in the mining industry

PRIVATISATION

THEN

“There is no growth, only a loss of jobs through the casualisation of the workforce, often without long service leave entitlements, and the export offshore of labour-intensive jobs to cheaper call centres. Is this what we want to become of one of our most important nation-building tools: to be manipulated according to political will, with jobs sacrificed to meet privatisation demands and short-term horizons? Can the country and the industries that underpin our economy afford a further deterioration of the network, further job cuts, loss of workers’ entitlements and a further running down of our infrastructure base, which is the key to our economic future? I simply say the answer is no. It would be a step backwards for working Australians. It is a backward step for Telstra. It is a backward step for the quality of telecommunication services across the nation …

“The call centre closures and job cuts are a response to continuing market pressures for cost reductions which are in turn a consequence of privatisation. It is the government’s policies that have brought the job losses about, and the issue has been returned squarely to its door. Yes, Telstra’s recent $3 billion profit will add to the shine of the sale, but it is a profit that has been bought through a shedding of staff and it cannot continue forever … These cuts are unsustainable and, I believe, not worth it if the true cost of privatisation is Australian jobs …”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006, discussing the privatisation of Telstra

NOW

During the 2015 NSW state election, Ferguson became a spokesperson for the privatisation of electricity poles and wires proposed by the NSW Coalition, and criticised NSW Labor leader Luke Foley’s campaign against it.

Ferguson said at the time Labor in NSW was “just deliberately misleading the public, creating unnecessary fear and trying to scare people into voting for Labor not on merit but on misinformation”. 

“In many ways I am ashamed of the party.”

NSW Liberal leader Mike Baird went on to use Ferguson’s comments in advertisements throughout the campaign. Ferguson was nearly expelled from the Labor Party in response.

Peter Fray

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