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Blind Freddie can see what’s coming

Image from

Image from

In the 1950s, Trade Union leaders were a highly militant collection of poorly paid, poorly educated men who had risen up through the ranks, some with criminal connections, some members of the communist party and others just a bunch of bloody minded individuals who would delight in taking employers they detested down a long, tortuous road of strikes, intimidation and bullying, without even blinking.

At the time the greatest threat to world peace was perceived to be the Russian and Chinese communist governments facing off against the USA, UK and Europe. The fear was real and nuclear war was a real possibility; far greater than anything we face today.

Politically, it was cut and dried. Sir Robert Menzies was Prime Minister leading a conservative coalition government. The Labor leader, Dr H V (Doc) Evatt, had one of the smartest and brightest minds of any leader our country has ever known. But, similar to the Rudd/Gillard years, it was the internal machinations of the party that prevented him from ever becoming Prime Minister. The Labor Party was inextricably wound up, tied up, twisted several times over and financially dependent on the unions. It was the unions’ connection with the Communist Party and the practice of issuing ‘unity tickets’ that precipitated a split that gave birth to the DLP (Democratic Labor Party). Unity tickets involved pairing ALP members and Communist Party members on a joint ticket to contest official trade union management positions. The Menzies government, ever aware that the public were troubled by developments in the communist world, exploited this weakness and milked it for everything they could. That split kept Labor from governing for 23 years.

Eventually times changed and in 1967 Gough Whitlam took over from the hapless Arthur Caldwell. He sorted out the union mess and got Labor back on the path to government in 1972. Those days, however, have inextricably tied Labor to the unions both financially and culturally to this day and any likelihood of a divorce in the near future is wishful thinking.

In 1983 former ACTU President Bob Hawke became Prime Minister after a disastrous period of economic mismanagement by the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser. The industrial accords he and Paul Keating negotiated with the unions, and the employers covering the period 1983-1996, brought an end to the industrial disruption so widespread and damaging to Labor and our economy. This enabled them to implement far reaching economic reforms without any serious disturbance. Those reforms put us on track for the economic prosperity that we enjoy today.

Then in 1996 John Howard was elected Prime Minister. He dispensed with the accord and introduced Australian Workplace Agreements in an attempt to reduce the power of the unions. When he gained control of the Senate in 2004 he introduced ‘Work Choices’. His actions were of the classic ‘let’s pick a fight’ mentality so clearly evidenced much earlier by the Patrick’s waterfront dispute of 1998. It was something he learned from Menzies days.

Where am I going with all of this? It looks suspiciously like Tony Abbott is heading down the same path. In fact, Blind Freddie can see what’s coming: more confrontation. Tony Abbott has nothing of substance to contribute to Australia’s continued prosperity. He is certainly no Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, so what does he do? He looks to those of his political persuasion to see what they did in the past. Not for the purposes of good governance, mind you, but to consolidate a hold on power.

At much the same time as Employment Minister, Eric Abetz announced a submission to the Fair Work Commission to comprehensively examine the minimum pay and conditions contained in the award system, AWU leader Paul Howes entered the discussion advocating a return to the days of the accords. This has taken both Labor and the government by surprise, but Howes can smell a rat.

Bill Shorten, a former union boss, needs to read between the lines and play this game astutely. Coalition governments going back to Menzies have prospered playing the union card. The Hawke/Keating years demonstrated how this can be thwarted. They showed how the broader public perception of the connection between Labor and the unions can be neutralised and even turned to their advantage.

The issue of industrial relations in Australia has been a battleground royal for as long as I can remember. It is not going away any time soon. The CMFEU corruption revelations have seen to that. If Shorten allows himself and Labor to be sucked into siding with the unions in an industrial war, he will likely lose. While Australia’s IR position at the moment is in fairly good shape, no one should underestimate the Coalition’s ability to pick a fight they are sure they can win. Labor might do well to think seriously about Paul Howes suggestion, if only to neutralise the Coalition’s upcoming frontal assault. Just as Tony Abbott is looking to the past to keep him in power, Bill Shorten should do the same.

How I miss the days when Bob Hawke would sort out something like this by simply picking up the phone.



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  1. bobrafto

    My first thought when I read Howes pitch was that Howes was trying to avert a Royal Commission.

  2. mikestasse

    “He {Abbott} is certainly no Bob Hawke or Paul Keating”

    UNDERSTATEMENT of the Century………..

  3. John Kelly

    Reblogged this on THE VIEW FROM MY GARDEN and commented:

    How I miss the days when Bob Hawke would sort out something like this by simply picking up the phone.

  4. Terry2

    I thought Howes was playing a blocking tactic to encourage a compact between workers, employers and unions ( but pointedly not government).
    Clearly the Abbott government want a punch-up with the unions as part of the Howard inspired Work Choices strategy.
    So will the unions succeed in excluding the government from the workplace or will government succeed in excluding unions from the workplace or will they behave as adults and work on a compact.

  5. Keith

    lawriejay, PM Billy McMahon was a statesman in comparison to what we have now. PM Billy McMahon may have made some gaffes but not as consistently as Abbott.
    The Abbott gang claim to be adults, but you can be sure Terry2, that no compact will be attempted by the Abbott gang. They are ideologically driven by views that have been discredited elsewhere.

  6. lawriejay


  7. Dissenter

    If you are an employee ANYWHERE in Australia YOUR JOB IS AT THREAT right now. Whether you are politically opposed to UNIONS or not you must JOIN one.
    It is only with membership to a UNION that you can receive assistance in any professional situation you might face.

    The way things are you also need INSURANCE against unemployment as well.
    But MOST importantly JOIN THE union.
    BELONGING TO a UNION is valuing yourself in your professional life and VALUING your colleagues in your professional life.
    AND above all it is valuing the working conditions and wages you currently receive KNOWING that those working conditions and wages and superannuation too ONLY exist because of UNION work done by others.

  8. edward eastwood

    Well said Dissenter, and every word of that is true!

  9. lawrencewinder

    “We must close union offices, confiscate their money and put their leaders in prison.
    We must reduce workers salaries and take away their right to strike”. – Adolph Hitler May 2, 1933.

    If any-one is interested, I’m retailing the sheet music of the Horst Wessell song to get ahead of the rush.

    The Liarbril’s relationships to Imagination, empathy, social cohesion and innovative thinking are all examples oxymoron’s.

  10. edward eastwood

    Mr Kelly seems to have a somewhat selective view of history.
    Yes, the split in the ALP did keep it in opposition for 23 years but the split was exploited mercilessly by the DLP and the ‘Groupers’ under the leadership of Abbott’s mentor Bob Santamaria who whipped up the ‘Reds under the bed’ scare at every opportunity especially at election time, and aided by a compliant and unquestioning media. (starting to sound familiar?)

    Yes, the fear of nuclear war was real – again due largely to media hysteria – but the substance was false. Only twice did the world come to the brink of nuclear war, once during the Quemoy crisis in 1958 and on the second occasion, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

    In fanning the flames of fear, the Liberal – Country Party aided and abetted by the DLP, relied on the ‘domino theory’ to whip up anti-Communist sentiment coupled with the fear of invasion – a fear long entrenched in the Australian psyche since the French navy were sailing in what would eventually become Australian waters in the 1770s.

    The reality of was that due to the internal ructions and total chaos caused by Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in the 1950s followed by the Cultural Revolution in the 60s. The PLA would have had great difficulty invading Hayman Island (no blue water navy) let alone Australia.

    As for the Hawke-Keating years, it was during this period that the ALP abandoned their commitment to full employment and introduced ‘supply side’ economics which demanded a permanent pool of between 5 – 6% of the work force to be unemployed.

    The reality is that Hawke and Keating kerbed, paved and channeled the road which Howard, Costello, and now Abbott drive so comfortably along.

    Howe’s argument is specious in the face of the current government and its idee fix on neo-liberal ‘free market’ policies, and Shorten is right to reject them.

    To defend Howe’s stance is similar to defending Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of the Nazis.

    Should the reader think that this is drawing an unfair and overly dramatic comparison, the following quote should be of some interest;

    “We must close union offices, confiscate their money and put their leaders in prison.
    We must reduce workers salaries and take away their right to strike”. – Adolph Hitler May 2, 1933.

    The simple fact Mr. Kelly, is that you cannot negotiate with a hungry crocodile that is determined to make you its next meal. You either resist or you are eaten.

    Abbot and his cronies are very hungry crocodiles.

  11. Bill Morris

    I agree that unions are necessary to counter exploitation of workers by unscrupulous employers. But not all employers are, so not all workers need a union, distrust of unions by aggrieved and betrayed workers is also a factor as are the lies and deceit spread by those opposing unions. Some union members themselves, their actions, language and behaviour give a poor image of unions.
    What is important and an impediment to the ALP is the perception that unions control the party. Employer organisations may have great influence on the conservatives but this is rarely seen to be an issue as their connections (and plotting) are done in secret.
    Labor needs to draw its support from a much wider sector and in order to do this unions, as such, should be totally dissociated from the ALP.
    Unions should be seen to be organisations which support their members and lobby governments independent of the any political party.
    Political parties don’t care where they get their votes from.

  12. Chris Gould

    I have never understood why every person who works for an employer doesn’t join a union. Employers look after their own interests; they join associations and groups that represent them. It just makes sense to join with others in order to promote your aims and fight for your rights. Simple as that. I think the ALP has forgotten where they came from. Before the election I heard lots of uninformed people say that there was little difference between the major parties so why bother voting.
    One reason for non membership could be that many people don’t know how to go about joining a union, which union to join, and never see or hear from a union rep in their workplace.This needs to change. Also I’ve found if you do contact the union they are quite unhelpful and it is really hard to get information about workplace issues let alone have someone intervene on your behalf.They seem to only be interested in selling their products.

  13. Matters not.

    I was always in a Union until I became a ‘boss’ (therefore not allowed to continue my membership). I was on the Union Executive for years and worked for that Union in a research/advocacy capacity. The union’s membership included 95% of those eligible, making it a potent force.

    As a ‘boss’ I still encouraged those eligible to join a Union. Membership made economic, social and political sense. I remember one instance when a non-member was $20 000 out of pocket due to a legal problem, which the Union would have covered had he been a member.

    Unity is strength. It’s why he vast majority of politicians are members of their own ‘union’, usually called a political Party.

  14. diannaart

    The Abbott gang claim to be adults…

    Indeed, Keith.

    As with being chill-out cool – if you have to claim you are – you fail.

    I also agree Abbott’s style prevents him from even considering a compact such as Howe suggest – for a start he won’t be involved. The bully boy cannot and will not permit the ‘socialist’ idea of unions, employers and workers collaborating – simply not his nature.

  15. bjkelly1958

    If my memory serves my right, when Hawke and Keating pushed the Accord out into the mainstream the economy was floundering around because of lack of government initiative and support. I don’t detect that so much now. Manufacturing is, no doubt, in a bad way but other areas of the economy show growth. The rest of the world is slowly coming out of the maelstrom that was the GFC and business should improve.
    With that in mind, I doubt the employer’s side of the table would be all that interested as they have a government in place that is greater inclined to their way of thinking.

  16. Kaye Lee

    “As with being chill-out cool – if you have to claim you are – you fail.”

    When my kids tell me I am a dag, I tell them I am so cool I don’t have to show it 😉

  17. Stephen Tardrew

    Agreed Matters not. I was always in a union even when I was program manager and encouraged workers to join. In fourteen years at Chrysler then Mitsubishi we went on strike for a total of 10 days not exactly a hotbed of radicalism. We had excellent shop stewards who were reasonable and rational. I had conflict when coordinator of a welfare program when I disclosed misappropriation of funds so they kindly relieved me of my position. Rang the union who handled all of the legals and meetings resolving the situation to my satisfaction.

    When corporations are corrupt that is just the cost of capitalism and democracy. However when one union is corrupt then all unions are tarred with the same corruption brush. MSM continue to push this line relentlessly. The damage that collapsed financial institutions cause for investors and shareholders is sometimes far worse than the effects of industrial action.

    Chris Gould I agree completely. I cannot understand why employees do not join a union. If in doubt get involved in your union and help manage it effectively.

    Disengaging unions from the ALP may not be the best strategy. You know the term Labor is there for a reason. The core of any industrial system is its lowest paid workers who carry out essential services. They need both union and political protection. Remember socialism is not a dirty word. A market economy is not neoconservative economic rationalism or Smithian self-regulation it represents the means of production; adequate employment and wages; and the making of a fair profit. A market economy is not about increased inequality and greed. I wonder how many conservative economist have read Adam Smiths ON MORAL SENTIMENTS to actually understand his attitude towards rampant capitalist greed, poverty and inequality. They may be in for a big surprise.

  18. John Kelly

    For Edward Eastwood, I wasn’t being selective; I was condensing 60 years into 800 words.
    The fear of nuclear war was real, the rest is detail. Yes, the DLP and Santamaria were relentless and the media loved it. Yes, even the Catholic Church was complicit in the ‘domino theory’and Mao may not have been as much the threat then as was portrayed by government, the DLP and media combined, but everyone believed he was. As for the Hawke Keating years as now, a 5% unemployment rate is considered more or less full employment by most economists. We may not like it but we live with it. As for the Howes’ compact, we will just have to wait and see how it plays out. If the Hitler quotes have any resonance today then we are all to blame. As quoted in a post by Kaye Lee yesterday, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

  19. Bill Morris

    I see what you are saying Stephen, the term Labor was there for a reason in times past when labourers were a major part of the workforce. In 2014 the balance between labourers i.e. unskilled workers and the rest of the workforce is quite different and Labor (ALP) must identify with the total workforce, not just those in onerous and dangerous jobs that need protection from unscrupulous employers.
    The name Labor is a proud one and derives from great traditions but the time of surviving on tradition is long gone.

  20. Dissenter

    I have just watched snippets of the Contrarians. I cannot bear to watch much. They dismissed the accord as meaningless and quoted 17% overall union membership in the wider community as no longer relevant to anyone.
    Of course they are entirely skewed to the far right being IPA and the like but this is the NEW message for unions WE CAN BASH YOU BECAUSE you are supposedly corrupt and we can dismiss you as no longer relevant in the same breath.
    So I reiterate: Whoever you are and wherever you are ENSURE that you join a UNION.Treasure your Union membership even if you keep it private in your workplace.
    Sometime in your life you may depend on the legal representation or advice or the advocacy of the union on your behalf and or the support of fellow unionists.

  21. Bill Morris

    T.A. is any easy one in the context Paul but I.A. or A.I. ??? Information Architects? India Airlines? Artificial Intelligence? Amnesty International?
    I am not disparaging retirees Paul as I am in the same boat but W.T.F.

  22. Paul Raymond Scahill

    My wife and I are retired, not that there is anything wrong with that, however, whilst we feel akin to all the trouble that T.A. and his incompetent clan continue to portray we are only left with avenues such as I.A. or A.I. to fight on our behalf. We are not wealthy, God knows I sometimes wished we were, however, our fight (for want of a better word) is still with the abomination known as the Coallition. It is not governing for those of us who consider ourselves to be citizens of Australia, but merely for the rich, in some instances the filthy rich. We would just like to feel we had a Government who had the majority of us at HEART.

  23. diannaart

    Kaye Lee

    You got it.


  24. Fed up

    Dissenter, one need not worry. Mr. Abbott will give his regrets. That should make all OK.

  25. Stephen Tardrew

    John I do understand what you are saying however I have this deep love and regard for workers who toil away. The lack of union representation in the tech sector is sad. IT wages and conditions for many are just appalling. I know the whole outsourcing argument and global economy nevertheless something burns deep in us old lefties that is sometimes hard to explain. Sadness and sympathy cannot be measured in political jargon or polemic discourse.

  26. Fed up

    When I was at school. A time much nearer to the great depression, we were told, that once unemployment reaches a certain rate, it takes on a life of its own. Low teens I believe. I assume that a depression was the likely outcome.

  27. 'george hanson'

    when i was at high school studying economics, our teacher told us that a healthy economy would have about 4 to 5 % unemployment . This included the 2% [approx] of the population who are unemployable .The other 3+% are essential if the economy is to expand .If everyone had a job , the economy just turns over .No growth . Except in the level of wages that employers are willing to pay to get the skills that they need .An example is the recent mining boom.Can’t remember if there was a union making gina and her competition mates pay those huge amounts for hole diggers .

  28. John Armour

    I realise that you have time constraints John but there’s a danger in beginning any kind of analysis of the union movement starting in 1950. The visceral hatred of capital that still exists as a cultural meme within some parts of labour has it’s roots in the closing years of the 19th century but in 1950 it was still “in living memory”

    But my comment is about unemployment, or more particularly your qualified acceptance of an unemployment rate of 5% as “full employment”.

    Full employment is work for anyone who wants it, not something to be rationed out by over-paid economists in the belief that anything less than 5% will bring crippling inflation down on our heads.

    The magic number, 5%, has been a core belief of neo-liberal ideology since about 1975, about the same time we bid farewell to the post-WW2 era of 2% frictional unemployment.

    Any analysis of the data for unemployment vs inflation since then quickly shows there are no causal links between the two. The so-called “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment” (the NAIRU) is a myth and we should call it for the bullshit that it is at every opportunity.

    With household debt running at 150% of GDP and unemployment close to 6% it’s not hard to keep the workforce disciplined and worried.

    The times couldn’t be better for an assault on rights and conditions.

  29. John Armour

    Fed up,

    That sounds right to me.

    The unemployed don’t buy “stuff”, they barely subsist.

    As demand shrinks, employers have to put people off, making the problem worse.

    Eventually, it all comes to equilibrium at Great Depression levels of unemployment with people growing food on the median strip.

    Alternatively, the government could easily fill in the spending gap and get the economy back on track to full employment but that would involve increasing the deficit.

    With so much ignorance about just what a deficit really is, what Labor government would be game to attempt another Rudd-style stimulus should it come to that ?

    Such an intervention would not even cross the mind of an Abbott government.

  30. John Armour

    The other 3+% are essential if the economy is to expand

    The “wink-wink” message there George is that business needs a buffer-stock of unemployment to keep the workforce under pressure and not asking for pay rises even though labour productivity may be rising (as it has been doing) to enhance profits.

    And guess what ? That’s exactly what’s been happening, at least for the last decade here, and the last 30 years in the US.

    Don’t forget too that the definition of “employed” is not what it used to be. If you only worked for 1 hour in the “reference week” you weren’t counted as unemployed. So you could probably double the official rate of unemployment to get a realistic idea of the true level of unemployment.

    Maintaining a buffer-stock of unemployment to enhance profits however is a very short term strategy. It’s much better for business, in the long run, to have full employment. Employment = Demand.

    But so long as there are folk around who think that full employment equates with increasing inflation, we’re stuck in an ideological groove.

    BTW, your teacher should’ve been dismissed for telling lies.

  31. John Armour

    Here’s some background on that magic number, the NAIRU, from Professor Bil Mitchell:

    The NAIRU concept has dominated macroeconomic policy making in most OECD countries since the late 1970s and the “fight-inflation-first” strategies have exacted a harsh toll in the form of persistently high unemployment and broader labour underutilisation. Under the sway of the NAIRU, policy makers around the World abandoned the pursuit of full employment as initially conceived.

    Of-course they couldn’t admit that so they started redefining what full employment meant. So if you read this literature you will quickly realise that the neo-liberals define full employment as being the NAIRU which is divorced from any notion that there has to be enough jobs available to meet the desires of the available labour force. So in one small change in taxonomy governments have been
    able to turn their failure to provide enough jobs into a success – well we are at full employment now because we are at the NAIRU. So it is a pernicious concept indeed.

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