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Senior union officials question changing of t -

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Senior union officials question changing of the guard

Broadcast: 13/06/2007

Reporter: Heather Ewart

With ACTU secretary Greg Combet switching careers to run for Parliament, some senior figures in the
union movement are questioning whether Jeff Lawrence, a low-profile official from NSW, is up to the
task of taking over the top job.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN: Trade unions, as has become abundantly clear yet again tonight, are one of the keys
to this year's election outcome. They're a crucial ally for Labor and key target for the
Government. They're also fighting for their very survival, and there probably couldn't be a worse
time for a change of leadership at the top of the peak union body, the ACTU (Australian Council of
Trade Unions).

With ACTU Secretary, Greg Combet, switching careers to run for Parliament, the union movement is
poised to anoint Jeff Lawrence to take over the top job. Nominations closed at five o'clock today
and his name was the only one to put up. "Jeff who?", you may well ask, and even some senior
figures in the union movement are questioning whether the low profile official from New South Wales
is up to the task. Heather Ewart reports.

UNION LEADER 1: Despite the pressures, we will win.

JOHN ROBERTSON, SECRETARY, UNIONS NSW: No, you're not going to see a Kelty. We're not going to see
another Bob Hawke, Bob Hawke was one of those pretty unique characters.

REPORTER: Your popularity has risen beyond all expectations.

BOB HAWKE, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: That's not a bad public opinion poll.

JOE HOCKEY, WORKPLACE RELATIONS MINISTER: In those days, the president of the ACTU truly
represented the workers.

UNION LEADER 2: A working class strategy for award...

DEAN MIGHELL, ELECTRICAL TRADES UNION: Hawke and Bill Kelty were our icons. They were great
leaders, irrespective of what you may have thought of certain issues, they were great leaders. Greg
Combet was a great leader.

GREG COMBET, OUTGOING ACTU SECRETARY: We will hold the Government to account for the human cost of
these laws.

HEATHER EWART: This is the new face of trade unionism, and he is nothing like his predecessors. In
his spare time, Jeff Lawrence loves to garden and watch soccer. He's been attached in some way to
the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union for 30 years. On the face of it, he seems a
low key sort of bloke who until now hasn't sought the limelight. Yet within weeks, he has very big
shoes to fill when Greg Combet steps down.

(to Jeff Lawrence) Why do you want the job?

JEFF LAWRENCE, ACTU SECRETARY NOMINEE: Because I think I can make a difference for Australian
unions and for Australian workers. I must say, I didn't seek the job, but now I'm really looking
forward to the challenge.

HEATHER EWART: If you didn't seek the job, what made you go for it in the end?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Because I thought that I was the best person in the circumstances to lead the
Australian trade union movement.

HEATHER EWART: Beyond the internal workings of the union movement in New South Wales and the ACTU
executive, Jeff Lawrence is pretty much an unknown.

JOHN ROBERTSON: He is a quiet, reserved sort of bloke. He is very thorough. I think Jeff is a very
capable person, he's somebody who is a very solid person within the union movement. I think he can
do a great job.

HEATHER EWART: Fulsome praise from the man who was after the top job himself until recent factional
power troubles ruled him out. Greg Combet had always promoted his old friend Jeff Lawrence to take
over, but now there are question marks both inside and outside the union movement about whether
swapping Greg Combet for Jeff Lawrence is like going from chocolates to boiled lollies, just when
the union campaign against the Government's WorkChoices legislation is at its peak.

(to Dr John Howe) Is there a danger of losing momentum in this campaign?

DR JOHN HOWE, LAW, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE: Well look, I think when you do change leaders in the
middle of the campaign, there is always that danger.

DEAN MIGHELL: In some ways the previous ACTU leaders have been such strong characters and such good
leaders that the expectation on Jeff is rather immense. There is a lot on his shoulders.

JOHN ROBERTSON: I think it makes no real difference who is going to run the ACTU. It is about the
style and the campaigning.

DR JOHN HOWE: Look, it will be important for Jeff Lawrence to establish a public persona, and he'll
have to do that quickly, and he'll have to convince people that you know, he can take over Greg
Combet's mantle.

JEFF LAWRENCE: I accept the fact that I'll need to do more in the public eye. I understand that.

HEATHER EWART: Are you tough enough for the job?

JEFF LAWRENCE: I'm tough enough, but I'm also a person who likes to work by consensus. I like to
set out some clear areas of an agenda and then talk to people and try to weld support around those.

HEATHER EWART: He'll need to be tough.

PAUL KEATING, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: Dying on the vine. Dying out of lack of passion, its reason
for existence and general incompetence.

DEAN MIGHELL: Well, I think the criticism of Keating is quiet legitimate for many of us in the
union movement.

HEATHER EWART: Is it possible that you are going to continue to die on the vine as Paul Keating
suggests?

DEAN MIGHELL: Well, it's possible. If unions don't work hard enough, if we don't identify the
problems, if we don't get out there and create organisations that working people want to join, then
we'll die.

HEATHER EWART: The controversial Dean Mighell, recently pushed out of the Labor Party, heads the
state branch of the Electrical Trades Union, where he claims union membership has grown for the
past 10 years. But that's not a typical story. Only one in five Australians now belongs to a trade
union, despite the campaign against WorkChoices.

JEFF LAWRENCE: There is increased support for the role of unions in Australian society

HEATHER EWART: It is not translating into new members though, is it?

JEFF LAWRENCE: I'm sure that it will. There are lots of factors that influence union membership,
and of course one of them at the moment is that we have the most repressive industrial legislation
in the developed world, and so we need to change that.

JOHN ROBERTSON: What it has done is it's provided an impetus for us to get up, go out and actually
campaign on the ground. And to that extent, that will be the future.

HEATHER EWART: Gone are the days of table thumping speeches and old style rallies. Instead today's
union movement has discovered the power of advertising and mobilising its troops. There is a push
on for the levy imposed on all union members to fund the campaign called "Your Rights at Work" to
be extended beyond the next election, for matter who wins.

JOHN ROBERTSON: All aspects of the campaign need to be continued, so that includes the levies, so
there's a capacity to advertise, there's a capacity to organise on the ground.

DEAN MIGHELL: The new generation of Australian workers expect a more sophisticated approach from
Australian unions.

JOHN ROBERTSON: Because I don't think you can assume anything after the federal election,
irrespective of what the outcome is.

JOE HOCKEY: Well, that says it all. The union bosses are more interested in the political games
than they are in the interests of their members.

HEATHER EWART: The ACTU leader in waiting clearly isn't opposed to the idea of keeping up the
campaign, and the levy of $5.50 per union member after the election.

JOHN ROBERTSON: Even if Labor is elected, I anticipate that we'll need to do that because there
will be the issue of the Senate. There will be the whole the need to actually look at in detail the
legislation.

HEATHER EWART: That message applies to both sides of politics who will be watching how the new man
grows in the role.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Heather Ewart with that report.