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Incoming ACTU President discusses the Government's popularity and the forthcoming election, industrial relations and quotas for women in Parliament

JIM WALEY: For the first time the top job in the union movement is about to pass to a woman. The ACTU Congress will this week anoint former teacher, Jennie George, to succeed current President, Martin Ferguson, when he enters Parliament at the next election. Ms George had her own eyes on a Senate seat until the Victorian ALP failed to implement the commitment to greater female representation. She'll take over the ACTU at a critical time. This week, the West Australian Government introduced legislation to crack down on unions, putting industrial relations squarely on the election agenda, and the ALP was warned that its blue-collar voters are deserting. Here to talk with Jennie George is Sunday's political editor, Laurie Oakes. Good morning, Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES: Good morning Jim. Jennie George, welcome to Sunday. Paul Keating addresses the ACTU Congress on Wednesday, what will delegates want to hear from him?

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, I think delegates will want some reassurance that Labor has a vision and an agenda for the future and that Labor in power is there to represent the interests of working people.

LAURIE OAKES: The election is on the agenda of the Congress, isn't it?

JENNIE GEORGE: Yes, there will be discussions about, particularly the contrast in policy approaches between the Liberal conservative parties and the Labor Party.

LAURIE OAKES: The Government is in pretty serious trouble. Would you agree?

JENNIE GEORGE: I wouldn't draw too much by way of comparison between the disaffection that was evident in Queensland. I don't think that necessarily transfers to the Federal level, but certainly there is a growing anxiety among lots of workers. The changes that we've seen with enterprise bargaining, the recession that we live through, the downsizing in lots of companies has meant a lot of uncertainty and anxiety at the workplace level. So I think the Government needs to send a message of reassurance to its traditional base and to ensure that its policy approaches are such that understand quite clearly the sacrifices that working people have made and the expectations that out of economic recovery they're going to see some gains and betterments.

LAURIE OAKES: It sounds as though you don't take as seriously as Mick Young, the alleged desertion of blue-collar voters from Labor.

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, I think there was obviously a desertion in Queensland but I think some of that desertion rests primarily on the policies of the Goss Government, in my judgment. It was a very conservative government vis a vis the public sector and I think we saw a lot of disaffection among workers in the health industry, the education industry, and then promises at the end I think for a lot of people. They saw that as a bit cynical, a lot of promises coming too late in the piece. But I think the Federal Labor Government, I mean there have been some touchy points. There's still the issue of AL that is an issue of dispute between us, but I think by and large people see it as a government that has been a rock-solid Labor government, and a lot of the achievements that we can look forward to in the future like national superannuation have come as a result of a fairly good working relationship with the ACT, albeit on some issues we have differences of opinion.

LAURIE OAKES:But is there a feeling among working class voters, among blue-collar voters, that their living standards have been increasingly squeezed since Labor has been in office?

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, certainly in the early period of the Labor Government when we were coping with high levels of inflation, high levels of unemployment, real wage levels did decline. And I think what they get very angry about is people don't appreciate the sacrifices that ordinary working people have made for the economic good of this country, and that is particularly evident with people like Mr Howard and Mr Reith. Now, what they're saying now is that we've gone through the hard time, there is light at the end of the tunnel and we expect to share in that more optimistic outlook for the future.

LAURIE OAKES: This week's Morgan Poll in the Bulletin magazine will show, in mid-September, support for Labor rose on a two-party preferred basis by 2.5 per cent, so they're up to 48; the Coalition down 2.5 to 52. Do you think that puts Paul Keating within striking distance of another election win?

JENNIE GEORGE: Absolutely. I have no doubt that we are positioned with a really good chance of winning in the next election. We were behind last time and we saw that, with the work of the union movement and the Parliamentary party, people getting out into the electorate, speaking to people, explaining the issues, that we did turn it around and I think this time industrial relations policy will be a key issue. I mean, there are eight million or so people who work. If the policies of the conservatives parties are to the detriment of working people, be they union or non-union members, then I think that will have a decided effect on the election outcome.

LAURIE OAKES:What role do you see unions playing in the campaign?

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, I think unions have an obligation to clearly spell out the differences in policy approach, but most importantly to point out to working people how they will be in fact disadvantaged by the policies of Mr Howard and Mr Reith. We already know that there is talk about a no-disadvantage test but as yet the criteria for that test has not been specified. The real issue, of course, is that they want to deregulate the labour market. They want to be able to allow employers to contract below award rates. They talk about an hourly rate of pay, so immediately things like overtime, shift penalties, leave loadings are affected ....

- LAURIE OAKES: But they do guarantee that anyone who is in an award now will be able to stay in that award, so how can you say they want to ....

- JENNIE GEORGE: No, but that is a nonsense. How can you build in protections? How can you say, for example, in a small corner shop where there are four or five people working under the award, if the employer said, look I want you to transfer to an individual contract of employment. If you're not satisfied with that you can look elsewhere. Now, the Liberal Party has not spelt out what guarantees they would even give to those who are currently covered by awards, let alone the almost 20 per cent of the workforce that faces a new employer every year. So all this rhetoric about choice does not bear relationship to how things really operate in the real world. It is not a level playing field between employer and employee. The power is generally with the employer and the award is the protection, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

LAURIE OAKES: But if the Coalition wins the election, that is clearly a possibility, how do you think you'll be able to relate to a Coalition Government? How will the union relate?

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, the first thing I'd say is that I'm not impressed by their absolute lack of understanding of the contribution that the workers have made to the economic gains of late. Secondly, they've indicated they will walk away from the Accord. Well, in walking away from the Accord, they will walk away from a framework that not only provides standard of living improvements like childcare, maternity leave, superannuation, but also the framework by which we can achieve national economic goals. For example, in the absence of an Accord, I would like to know how Mr Howard would control inflation or how he would manage to bring unemployment down. I mean, there are big economic issues at stake. It is not just how are workers going to be affected by their policies but how the nation will suffer.

LAURIE OAKES: Would you see industrial warfare as a likelihood under a Coalition Government? Is that the sort of threat that you're holding out?

JENNIE GEORGE:No, I don't want to make threats Laurie, but all we need to do is look at the last years when Howard was Treasurer. Double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, 590 working days lost per thousand employees per year. We've got that down to an all time low of 70. So I think the facts speak for themselves. Hostile conservative governments that are aiming at reducing workers' living standards and attacking the union movement inevitably produce a reaction and that often involves industrial disputation and puts at risk economic goals.

LAURIE OAKES: But attacking the union movement, attacking the union perks and privileged positions, I suppose, are not the same necessarily as attacking workers conditions is it?

JENNIE GEORGE: No, well the first thing they're doing, of course, in Western Australia is making it possible to deregulate the labour market and contract below award rates, take away all the safety net and underpinnings. Now, in the second wave legislation, it is a very undemocratic assault on the organisations that are there to collectively represent workers. I mean, some of these people are driven by an ideological obsession and hatred of the union movement, and I think any reasonable person would look at the contribution of the last 10 years, the contribution that working people in the union movement have made to this country, and I don't think the average Australian wants to put all that at risk.

LAURIE OAKES: At a Federal level, it is true say isn't it that divisions between the Government and the Opposition have narrowed quite a lot in the last couple of years and the Government has taken on quite a bit of the Opposition's rhetoric on industrial relations. Peter Reith is obviously out to reduce the element of ideology in his policy. Wouldn't you agree that they are coming together?

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, in theory it looks like they're coming together. The rhetoric sounds a lot more conciliatory, but it doesn't mask the obvious objective which is to deregulate and rip away the award safety net for all Australian workers. Now, I find it amazing that these people want to lead the nation but they're not even prepared to tell workers what will be in their safety net, what will be in the Liberal's no-disadvantage test. Already we've seen this week the agreement up in northern New South Wales where Mr Reith and Mr Howard are quite happy to trade away sick leave, to cash it out. I mean, what is next? Is it annual leave? Is it maternity leave? I mean, all these questions remain undefined by the Opposition. So people want to know precisely what their policies are going to be and then they can work out how they will affect them and their standard of living.

LAURIE OAKES: We're almost out of time, but a final issue. Wednesday, I think, is the anniversary of the National Labor Party Conference decision on non quotas for women MPs. Now it seems to have gone backwards since then. Do you agree?

JENNIE GEORGE:Well, I think the commitment to the goals was a very principled commitment. I think in theory it's right but, of course, what we've seen happen is the lack of translation of that theory into any practice or reality and what we're facing is the possibility, in fact, of having fewer women MPs in Parliament after the next election than we have now. So I think the test is really there for the Labor Party, it needs to get its act together. We've seen a growing disaffection by women now forming their own womens' party in Queensland. I think what we need to be reassured about is that there is a practical and achievable strategy to make sure that that goal of increasing women will actually happen. If we just leave it to the factional power brokers who are predominantly men and the self- interests that often serve the factional system, then we will be a long way short of the targets that we've set.

LAURIE OAKES: Ms George, we thank you.

JENNIE GEORGE: Thank you.

LAURIE OAKES: Back to you Jim.

JIM WALEY: The next head of the ACTU, Jennie George, with Laurie Oakes.