Australian labour on back foot

Submitted by Matthew on 12 March, 2014 - 10:39

Australia’s right-wing prime minister Tony Abbott has called for a Royal Commission into union “corruption”, as a way of paving the way for new anti-union laws, which he can’t introduce straight off because he lacks a majority in the Senate (upper house).

The comment by former Labor minister and former ACTU [Australian TUC] president Martin Ferguson on Abbott’s anti-union drive focuses some of the problems in the labour movement’s response.

He says he is pleased that Abbott is suggesting what he calls “sensible industrial relations reform”. Gas bosses, he says, could lose billions “because of over-regulation”. And “high labour costs” — not high profits, not high pay-outs to bosses — are a problem.

“High labour costs and low productivity are an unsustainable mix. And therefore elements of the Fair Work Act must be looked at”.

Ferguson made his entire career in the labour movement, starting off with a straight-from-university job as a union research officer. He was reckoned to represent the “soft left”.

There’s no evidence that he had his fingers in the till, as some union leaders have had. (You notice, though, that no-one is doing a Royal Commission into the world’s big banks, despite one huge scandal after another being revealed as they’ve come under more strain since 2008!)

But Ferguson exemplifies a deeper corruption in the unions — the corruption constituted by the fact that being a union official has become more a career option than a chance to serve rank and file workers.

After quitting Labor politics in March 2013 with a blast against then Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, of all people, for “class war rhetoric”, Ferguson is now chair of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

The ACTU and Labor leader Bill Shorten have opposed the Royal Commission; but weakly. The labour movement still has not regrouped to fight the Abbott government, or the aggressive conservative state governments such as Campbell Newman’s in Queensland, or even Dennis Napthine’s minority administration in Victoria.

Latest opinion surveys show that the “union corruption” ballyhoo has helped the Liberal-National coalition recover from its sag in the polls after winning the federal election in September 2013.

Labor has opposed Abbott’s repeal of the carbon tax, but again had a limp, defensive response to Abbott’s blatant policy of favouring profits now over longer-term environmental safety.

Rudd’s and Gillard’s terrible record in government on asylum seekers gives Labor little chance to build on the widespread anger against the Manus Island atrocities. “Those who have been appalled by the policies of both parties have no reason to see Labor as ‘less bad’, though now they do know that Labor is ‘less effective’ at being awful”, as one newspaper columnist put it.

Nor is there much effective campaign by the labour movement against the coalition’s refusal to guarantee the federal funding for schools called for by the Gonski report.

Campaigns like that against the road tunnel in Melbourne show that there is a base for resistance. The task of socialists is to turn the labour movement out to link up with that resistance.

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