Gillard's Union Brush-Off


A Senate Standing Committee released its report on Julia Gillard’s transitional IR legislation late yesterday, after the bill had been passed in the House of Representatives. The report – and responses to it – makes for interesting reading.

The Government has generally sought to establish an image of being open and consultative in this process. However, the pressure to pass the new legislation by Easter, and the Opposition’s backdown on the issue, have both stoked suspicions that Labor might have taken a leaf out of the Howard government’s legislative book – draft quickly, amend at leisure.

The broad outlines of the legislation had been clear since the release of Labor’s IR policy prior to the election, but the devil is always in the detail when it comes to complex workplace legislation. In a real way, the report is a test both of the Government’s attitude to the legislative process and of its relationship with the union movement.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The report puts to rest some of the furphies that have dominated debate on WorkChoices – through the rather clever tactic of citing evidence from DEEWR on productivity – where slow rates of growth have coincided with the AWA regime. Productivity failed to accelerate after WorkChoices came into effect – in fact its rate of growth fell further. Government senators were quick to seize on advice from the Department that collective bargaining would have an anti-inflationary effect, to counter the claims made by the Opposition that the abolition of WorkChoices would initiate a new cycle of wage-push inflation. That’s a very useful contribution to the debate, and transcends the political arguments made in the majority report about the evils of WorkChoices – a vein that has well and truly been mined by now.

But while the report pays lip service to concerns expressed by unions and expert witnesses, it was left up to Democrats Senator, Andrew Murray, and Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert, to urge the Government to amend the bill so as to immediately entrench unfair dismissal provisions and modify the award modernisation process to include a continuing role for test cases and the safeguarding of gender equality.

Siewert said she was disappointed the Government would only consider making minor changes to the bill: "It seems to be following what the previous Government did, which is put a bill in and try and ram it through the Senate and not accept amendments that come out of the committee process," she said.

While unions will be happy with the increased access to the ear of Government senators and weight placed on their submissions, they probably won’t be overjoyed by an apparent brush off of their substantive concerns by Gillard.

The Deputy PM has stated that she expects the legislation to pass, with perhaps some technical amendments, in the remaining three sitting days this week, which doesn’t bode well for a revival of a genuinely bicameral and inclusive parliamentary process under Labor. Gillard will characterise any amendments offered by the Opposition as "dithering" and "obstructionist", but her response to amendments offered by Democrats and Greens – based on union concerns – will be the true test.

This raises the broader question of the position of the union movement under the Labor Government – a Government which has nothing in place remotely akin to the Accord process which gave the ACTU so much influence under Hawke and Keating and which appears reluctant to even allow the formal consultative process entrenched in the ALP constitution. We’re very far indeed from the claims that a Rudd Government would be dominated by union bosses, and perhaps that line of attack allowed those within the Government who’d like to distance the ALP from the unions to seize the day.

Unions did not expect a land of milk and honey under Kevin Rudd, and nor is there much support within the union movement for the sort of close corporatist embrace that characterised the Accord – long recognised by key players as being a double-edged sword for unions in that it tied their fortunes to the political stocks of the Labor government and downplayed grassroots organising in favour of top level negotiations. Although obviously the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign didn’t have to carry the Labor party along in its wake once Beazley left the leadership, the significance of preliminary academic research, finding it made a sizeable contribution to Labor’s victory last year, hasn’t been missed.

Key figures in the union movement believe their future influence rests more on the ability to mobilise public sentiment than to directly influence legislation. Your Rights At Work was really an exercise in the sorts of community campaigns unions had been running successfully both here and overseas for some time – writ large. While the union "brand" still carries more of a negative connotation than unionists would like, the big lesson of Your Rights At Work was that fundamental and deeply ingrained sentiments in public opinion – particularly around fairness – have great force if channeled effectively.

Potentially, some union effort will be directed towards going with the grain in terms of the current political, social and economic climate – for instance in focusing on redistribution in fiscal policy and on the potential for industrial democracy in workplaces. Unions aren’t facing the sorts of snubs and locked doors characteristic of Blair’s regime in the UK, but there is a recognition that unions will not have a seat at the decision making table and will need to campaign in order to advance their agenda. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

While unions have an obvious stake in the re-election of the Rudd Government, their ability to fill in some of the blank spaces in its policy framework – through mobilising community opinion rather than relying on the ALP-union link – shouldn’t be discounted.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.