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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 854

Ms O’DWYER (9:28 PM) —After a spray last week that would have been laughable if it were not so serious, the Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, attacked the CEO of one of Australia’s largest employers, Rio Tinto. Paul Howes used his union’s recent national conference, attended by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, as an opportunity to make personal attacks on business executives. Coming to his defence today, Ged Kearney, President of the ACTU, writes in the Punch, under the headline ‘You call ‘em thugs, I call ‘em foot soldiers of democracy’, that she does not really understand what all the fuss is about. She says she is surprised that the comments have made front-page news. Ms Kearney goes on to say:

A bit of argy-bargy between union leaders, politicians and bosses is fairly standard practice in Australia. And some colourful language in the mix is nothing new.

Really? Let me remind Ms Kearney as to just what was said. Mr Howes denounced chief executive Tom Albanese as:

… sucking out the blood, sweat and tears of blue-collar workers.

He said that ‘monkeys could do a better job’ of managing Rio. Strangely, of all the industries he could have targeted, Howes chose the mining sector, where workers are paid more in wages than in any other industry—which tells you really all you need to know about this attack. It is about power. It is about membership. It is about money. It is about control. It is a fight for union domination of one of Australia’s biggest employers.

He went on to say:

I’ve got a message for Rio Tinto: you don’t own this government, you don’t own this country any more. Your workforce has the right to be represented. You cannot hide behind the law. You cannot hide behind the lawyers. You cannot hide behind your slimy, grubby mates in the coalition, because we’re coming after you. We are going to take Rio Tinto on, and we are going to make sure that they pay a liveable wage to the workers who make the wealth that these shiny arses sitting in the boardroom in London enjoy.

The Hon. Craig Emerson, Minister for Trade, was called a ‘dishonourable rat’ by Howes and AWU President Bill Ludwig for daring to suggest that the unions were undermining constructive relations between employers and employees. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd denounced them as factional thugs. Prime Minister Julia Gillard though was far more sanguine and circumspect in her response, suggesting that everybody simply take Bex and have a good lie down. Treasurer Wayne Swan, responsible for the economic stewardship of this country, went missing in action. When he finally did respond, he could only make a very weak plea for cooperation between employers and employees. He said, ‘I don’t referee fights between unions or employers.’ For a Treasurer and a Prime Minister who claim to be economic conservatives, who want to return the budget to surplus, who want to increase productivity, it is hard to see how the return to class warfare and protracted disputes helps.

Paul Howes challenged Rio Tinto in his speech by saying, and I quote it again:

You don’t own this government.

He is right on at least that one thing. His statement reveals his view that the union is the only organisation that can claim ownership of the government and he is not about to let Prime Minister Julia Gillard forget it. As Howes himself attests in his book, it was he and his former AWU colleague the Assistant Treasurer, Bill Shorten, who put the Prime Minister in power by knifing former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during a midnight coup. The AWU is so confident of unconditional support from the government that it has continued to revel in its controversy over the past few days. It knows that neither the Prime Minister nor the Treasurer are in a position to state definitively that what the unions are saying is wrong and is damaging to industrial relations in Australia.

But this is not an industrial dispute between employers and employees; this is a blatant provocation by the AWU to flex their muscles. The unions know that these sorts of tactics do nothing for their members or for employees more generally, but they do it anyway because it makes headlines and forces the government to adopt their agenda. And it seems that, no matter how much Labor gives to the unions, they are never satisfied. The Prime Minister, when she was the minister for workplace relations in the now-forgotten Rudd government, was responsible for redefining industrial relations in Australia. She took employment law in this country back to a pre-Hawke-and-Keating state, with enterprise bargaining usurped by union control. This is hardly surprising when you have Paul Howes describing freedom of contract as ‘the freedom to enslave’, taking a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. When you have union leaders equating employment contracts with the forced servitude that existed in certain parts of America during the 19th century, it makes negotiation all the more difficult.

Paul Howes called for something else in the speech that he delivered to the AWU conference. He wanted to see the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. He said he believes :

... the job is not yet finished—there is more to do. There is nothing more urgent than “shutting down the evil Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ABCC”.

He goes on to say he does not want:

... the evil of the ABCC hanging, menacingly, over their heads.Every second of the day the ABCC is a threat to their basic working rights—their human rights. The ABCC can only undermine the reconstruction effort.

He says:

Now is the time for Labor to remove the last remnant of John Howard’s union busting Government instrumentalities.The ABCC must be abolished.

Shame! Of all the policies and issues facing Australia at this time, of all the political dilemmas that the government has forced upon itself, this is the issue that Howes says is the most important. The outgoing Commissioner of the ABCC, John Lloyd, warned last year that ‘any watering down of the circumstances of the ABCC would see the bad practices of the past return’. This would be damaging to the industry and the Australian economy. The union’s obsession with the ABCC is ideological and extreme. The unions are not concerned about a fair and productive construction industry. The ABCC was established after an extensive and independent inquiry conducted by the Cole commission into an industry that had exhibited very different behaviours from those of other industries, including violence, threats and corruption. Commissioner Cole said ‘at the heart of these findings is lawlessness’.

And what is the justification for the abolition of the ABCC? Is it that the problem is fixed? No. It is that the union movement does not like the scrutiny. Why would you abolish the ABCC when you consider the facts? Research undertaken by KPMG Econtech shows that the ABCC has delivered wide-ranging economic benefits since it was established, including a 10 per cent rise in industry productivity, an annual economic welfare gain of $5.5 billion a year, a drop in the CPI of 1.2 per cent, an increase in GDP of 1.5 per cent and a significant reduction in days lost through industrial action. These are not the sorts of developments that Paul Howes and his union are interested in. They do not care about the enhanced productivity, welfare gains throughout the economy or safer and more harmonious workplaces. Instead they carry on an ideological campaign against a body that has performed its role well and which, sadly, still has a role to perform. It is very hard for any person who opposes the ABCC to articulate a reason why it should be disbanded given the well-documented violence, disruptions and corrupt dealings in the industry. Howes’s latest effort is to try and argue the ABCC will slow down the reconstruction effort in Queensland after the floods and Cyclone Yasi. This, of course, is a ridiculous claim.

I want to touch on one final point before my time concludes, which is that Labor’s review into the federal election results of last year reveals a political party that is heavily reliant on the union movement in terms of both membership and financial support. For this reason, the report, conducted by former premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, as well as one of Labor’s elder statesmen, John Faulkner, recommended even closer ties to the unions. Well, Julia Gillard has a real choice to make. Is she going to deliver real action in 2011? Is she going to deliver real leadership? Is she a real leader? The test is out there: she should retain the ABCC.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Before calling the member for Robertson I would remind the member for Higgins that she ought not to refer to the Prime Minister by her name. She should use ‘Prime Minister’ or even ‘Prime Minister Julia Gillard’.