Mandarin stays out of love-in

Thursday, 14 June 2007 

If The 7.30 Report’s Kerry O’Brien was right that IR is one of the main political fault lines of our time, they all seemed remarkably happy discussing it in parliament yesterday – from both sides. For the government, Howard and Costello were clearly using the ACTU briefing manual as a means of cheering up their own team. It is always a sure sign that an internal debate of little consequence is going on when the Treasurer gets into his stride. But Howard too was going for it like he was the biggest union buster since Thatcher. Joe Hockey was also letting his wit run amok, although his ability to generate a laugh across the house is perhaps a little too easy these days.

Unfortunately it didn’t translate so well outside parliament. When Hockey was quizzed later on specific examples of the union practices he was condemning he struggled to come up with examples other than Joe McDonald (again) and to reply why then had Rudd expelled Dean Mighell? That’s a good question. The answer was that Rudd needed a symbolic target to signal his distance from the union movement, rather like Clinton attacked rap singer Sister Soulja back in 1992 to distance himself on the race issue.

That this is all about symbols rather than anything substantive is indicated by the existence of the ACTU manual itself. The fact that ACTU bureaucrats need detailed instructions for how to approach their membership indicates what an empty shell the union movement has become. Sharon Burrows’ comment that it wouldn’t surprise anyone that unions will talk to their members, might come as a surprise to the members themselves for whom the relationship with their union has become no more than a fortnightly direct debit for dues.

The relevance of all of this to the electorate is highly questionable. While industrial relations ranks high as an issue for coalition voters one wonders how much IR is a convenient issue for those searching to justify why they were going to vote for the coalition anyway. Certainly on specifics of IR policy, the polls suggest indifference. An Age/Neilsen poll cited that on the abolition of AWAs, the electorate was evenly divided but half had no opinion at all, something an Age columnist put down to Labor’s mixed message but more likely to be the issue itself.

A more detailed breakdown by market research group Sensis suggested that this was an issue largely confined to the dwindling union membership with 47% of union members believing AWAs would be negative compared to 24% of non-union employees. Perhaps more tellingly, the same survey found that even in the small business community, a group which should be the most supportive of AWAs, only 22% surveyed thought it would have a positive impact (against 8% believing it would be negative).

From the Labor side, Gillard and other Labor members looked far more comfortable being accused of being pro-union than they did defending Therese Rein’s business activities a few weeks ago. However, the other leaked document from yesterday showed the real situation. A report prepared for one of the loudest opponents of Labor’s IR platform, the Australian Constructors Association, suggested threatening a political campaign against Labor. The proposal was not taken up because “constructive discussions with the ALP leadership resulted in significant concessions in terms of their position on the future of the Australian Building and Construction Commission”, an anti-union concession which had been criticised by former ACTU head, Greg Combet.

There was one figure who was not participating in the fun and games yesterday. The Labor leader, the first in living memory not to be sponsored by a union, husband of the owner of a non-unionised job placement agency, preferred to ask questions about Liberal fund-raising at Kirribilli. The essence of this question was the same as his media response to the ACTU document, when he said that everyone could campaign on what they liked, but the problem with the government is that theirs was funded through taxpayers’ money. Both raise questions about what had been normal practices of the Australian political class. While the rest of them spent yesterday re-hashing old battles like they still mattered, the Foreign Affairs mandarin was probably having more resonance in the electorate attacking the political class itself. No wonder we are seeing more of Keating on the telly these days.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 14 June 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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