CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Beazley relishes coming fight for workers' rights
, November 11, 2006
The Howard Government is committed to pursuing further American-style labour market deregulation, despite the Australian public's clear opposition to it.Kim Beazley's recent speech to the ACTU National Congress was a crucial stepping-stone to his ambition of becoming Prime Minister late next year.
In the speech Mr Beazley declared he would remain a "friend and ally" of the union movement, but also gave fair warning that any government he led would maintain a healthy separation from it.
Mr Beazley outlined his understanding of the historical relationship between the union movement and how a Beazley Labor Government would view that relationship.
"As we go forward, I will listen to you and work with you. Just as I'll work with business, experts, and everyone else who'll put a shoulder to the wheel, to build together a modern, competitive economy," he said.
"But in the end, the decisions rest with me and my Government.
"We will have our differences. That's normal. Healthy. I will always be your friend and ally, but I will not be unquestioning. I will tell you when you are wrong, just as I expect you to tell me when you think I'm wrong."
There is little doubt that the Howard Government's new laws, which are now beginning to reshape the dynamics of industrial relations, will play a major part in the next election.Last-ditch battle
For the union movement the election will be a last-ditch battle because it fears that a re-elected Howard Government may go even further to strip away union rights.
For its part the Coalition will be trying to argue that Labor is stuck in the dark ages and wants a return to the 1970s and 1980s when the labour market was ossified and the ACTU believed it had a right to participate in running the country, and to have a seat in the Cabinet and on the Reserve Bank board.
Furthermore, the Coalition will argue that the battleground between it and the Labor Party is really about "union bosses and union power".
But today only 20 per cent of the workforce in the private sector is still unionised, any form of industrial action is at historic lows, and much of the reforms of both the Hawke and Howard eras are an accepted part of the economic landscape. Under these circumstances, it will be difficult to sustain any portrayal of the unions as being out of control.
The simple fact is the electorate is quite uncomfortable with many aspects of the new workplace laws which make it much harder for unions to muster new members, visit worksites or to take any form of action against rogue employers, or organise collective agreements.
In particular, voters are uncomfortable about the ease with which employers can now axe penalty rates, weekend rates, overtime and other benefits, and the lack of remedy for any form of unfair dismissal even for trivial or vindictive reasons.
And the Howard Government has already foreshadowed further reforms if it wins power.
Courtesy of a recent speech by Finance Minister Senator Nick Minchin to the H.R. Nicholls Society, we now know the Government wants a new mandate to crumble what Senator Minchin calls the final edifice of the old system, including abolition of all awards.
This will create a complete market-based system where a worker has to pitch his or her own case against an employer.
As Mr Beazley pointed out: "It is ridiculous to think that an 18-year-old kid or a working mum can bargain on equal terms with powerful multi-nationals."
During his speech to the H.R. Nicholls Society, Senator Minchin asked the society and other advocates of an American-style system to be patient, acknowledging the deep hostility the current changes have provoked.
"The fact is the great majority of the Australian people do not support what we are doing on industrial relations," Senator Minchin told the society. "They violently disagree."
The astonishing admission of the new system's unpopularity and promise of more to come have given Labor ample ground to run a strong scare-campaign during the coming poll.
Mr Beazley is already fleshing out his themes, warning that he wants a "high-skill, high-tech" nation, while the Howard Government was driving "a wage race to the bottom".
The Howard Government has taken a risk on industrial relations of GST-like proportions with a promise only that it will make Australia ultimately more prosperous.
In the meantime, many thousands of Australians will be forced to adapt to the reality of much more precarious working lives.
It is a fight Mr Beazley is clearly relishing to take on.