DAN TEHAN | Australian Financial Review | June 15, 2015
It was reported on the weekend that Bill Shorten’s favourite song as a union boss was I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair). The song is annoyingly catchy but also has a memorable line wishing for a time “when accountants didn’t have control”.
The irony is that preventing this wish lies at the heart of the government’s Registered Organisations Bill and is why we have sought ALP support for it. Yet with the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption showing how intractable union influence is in the Labor Party, it now seems impossible to achieve bipartisanship on modernising industrial relations.
Put starkly, all hope for progress in this area now lies with the Senate cross-benches. And it is high time senators Day, Lambie, Lazarus, Leyonhjelm, Madigan, Muir, Wang and Xenophon came to the party on this crucial reform.
No small ask, given that the independents and minor parties only vote for government legislation an average 48 per cent of the time. But act they must. The national accounts show a dim picture of labour productivity with current levels at lows not seen since before the first wave of reform undertaken by Paul Keating in the early 1990’s.
This is not a coincidence.
With the election of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government and the adoption of the Fair Work Act 2009 and its 2013 amendments, our industrial relations system went back to 1990.
We must return to a model that Keating himself envisaged in 1993, which places the primary emphasis on “bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards.”
This Keating model allowed for the first enterprise flexibility agreements and the Howard government continued these reforms in 1996 by allowing union and non-union collective and individual agreements.
The ability for the workers to decide for themselves the conditions under which they worked led to massive boosts in productivity. Days lost to industrial action were slashed and average wages between 1996 and 2006 increased from $30,000 to $46,000.
It is time we moved to back to this model that allows workers the ability to protect themselves under the law without relying on over regulation or top down interference from union bosses.
All this sadly seems like a pipe dream for the current Parliament, which can’t even cope with the government’s electorally mandated reforms. If the revelations of the royal commission have shown us anything, it is the lengths that some union officials will allegedly go to extend their power within the ALP.
Evidence tells tales of “sweetheart” deals that sold out low-paid workers and “phantom” memberships that inflated the size of unions’ membership lists.
The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, appears the clearest representation of how far union control has extended inside the Labor Party and its culture. His appearance at the royal commission is welcome as there are many questions to which Australians deserve answers. Not least is if he still stands by his testimony to the Cole royal commission that he had no knowledge of any deals in which companies paid bulk membership to the AWU.
For the Australian public, the mandate that was given to the government to increase the transparency of trade union governance is needed more than ever. The Coalition government’s Registered Organisations Bill does this. Every single one of the Senate cross benchers should be asked to explain why they won’t back this bill, especially given the evidence presented at the royal commission.
Placing the same level of scrutiny on union officials as is placed on their corporate equivalents is plain common sense. The Senate cross benchers could then boost the economy by supporting the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
By not allowing passage of these two important pieces of legislation our balance of-power senators need to be aware of whose interests they are supporting. It is not the welfare of workers but the welfare of union bosses. If they decide to act and with apologies to Sandi Thorn, on behalf of workers I will gladly be the one to place flowers in their hair.