August 10th 2002


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The future of the Australian Democrats

Latham steals limelight from lacklustre ALP

New Zealand Labour forced into new coalition

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Rob the Builder / Mayhem in Lilliput / Fear of wages

ECONOMY: New agenda needed to address social breakdown

WA Liberals' new policy positions

Could India help in Afghanistan? (letter)

Clerical scandals: another view (letter)

Families now a luxury (letter)

COMMENT: Stalin's heirs live on ... in Australia

BIOETHICS: American stem cell expert to visit

UNITED STATES: Why Bush ended funding for UN population control agency

LAW: International Criminal Court decision to dog government

BOOKS: Our Posthuman Future, by Francis Fukuyama

BOOKS: The Price of Motherhood, by Ann Crittenden

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Shirley Nolan: a case for euthanasia?

Books promotion page

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STRAWS IN THE WIND:
Rob the Builder / Mayhem in Lilliput / Fear of wages


by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, August 10, 2002
Rob the Builder

The Cole Royal Commission Inquiry into the Building and Construction Industries - surely one of the most under-reported proceedings of importance within recent memory - is regularly turning up evidence of an industry riddled with rorts, malpractice and extortion which, according to the construction giant Transfield's submission, is costing the industry, nationwide, an estimated $7.5 billion per year. This is equivalent to 20 per cent of the cost of each project.

As the Commission tours Australia it is uncovering a web of improper payments to militant unions, by construction firms desperate to avoid strategically targeted strikes ... these designed to cause maximum loss, financial and professional, to the company concerned if it doesn't surrender. The variety of subterfuges, such as training schemes run by the union which do not occur, are simply examples of a culture of intimidation, collusion to deceive, and union blackmail. The Commissioner said he would be making many recommendations to the Government.

This has been an unusual Royal Commission. Both the unions and the major employers virtually refused to co-operate, with union leaders daring the Commissioner to charge them for contempt. But Commissioner Cole and his helpers, obviously drawing upon much information supplied by employers and employees within the industry, have quietly gone their way and amassed a great deal of damning evidence. One important breakthrough has been the recent decision of Transfield to break ranks, and to supply evidence, and a major submission of its own.

Very soon after Commissioner Cole started work, it almost seemed as though Mr Howard was losing interest, or getting cold feet, while the Minister responsible, Tony Abbott, had gone unusually quiet.

So much so, that Mr Cole asked pointedly whether the Government, which had set up the Inquiry, was really prepared to give him the help, and the facilities necessary for the successful execution of his tasks. And that included getting, by one means or another, greater compliance by the employers and unions, with the wishes of the Commission. Some progress seems to have been made.

We know why the unions concerned don't want the spotlight directed upon the building industry - but why have the employers, in the main, resisted the desire of the Commission, and the public, to find out how things are done in this vital part of the economy?

After all, there had been repeated complaints by employers, and harassed workers, of illicit union pressures and intimidatory behaviour. The excuse for buckling under was normally the absence of unity among building firms, so unions could pick them off one by one; or the lack of political protection, or proper legal redress.

But this Commission, like Cain's disciplining and reform of the old Builders Laborers, and Howard's and Reith's cleaning up of the waterfront, is perhaps the only occasion when employers and independent minded workers can secure the return of justice and normality to their collective existence. Transfield Corporation thought so, and besides supplying vivid examples of waste, obstruction and malfeasance by a number of powerful unions, provided its own blueprint for change.

Catherine Towers has written up this 45-page submission in a recent Australian Financial Review, and did an excellent job. I'll just quote important bits of her summary.

It says that "unethical behaviour is encouraged as a solution to short-term commercial problems. Industrial relations disputes which include the inability to ensure the continuity of operations, unlawful industry action, pattern bargaining campaigns, and spurious health and safety issues [my italics], cost the industry $7.5 billion per annum".

So ... occupational health and safety regulations should be turned over to the Commonwealth; protected industrial action in support of pattern bargaining outlawed; increased penalties for unlawful conduct by individuals; and the deregistration of organisations which have engaged in unlawful conduct, set in place.

Transfield calls for a Statutory Enforcement Agency similar to the ACCC to investigate and prosecute breaches of the Workplace Relations Act. The agency ought to be required to monitor the activities of registered organisations and their officers and, where consistent patterns of unlawful conduct are established, to apply for temporary or permanent deregistration.

Seems an excellent basis for a wide-ranging discussion by all interested parties, which include the public (i.e. the consumers, the milch cows in the whole affair). But, the politicians kept quiet, the media whispers about the subject sotto voce, while our public media affect not to have heard of it at all. "Anyway, what about the stolen children overboard - isn't that more important?" And few builders are throwing their helmets in the air at this exercise in constructive frankness. What gives?

Many of the big building and construction companies like the sweetheart relationships with state governments, especially state Labor governments, and are prepared to take on board predatory and even tyrannical unions as part of the deal.

In return for donating to the Party and surrendering many things to the union, and allowing their workers to become captives (albeit it pampered ones) - the big boys get the inside running on lucrative contracts. The waste, the delays, the handouts are passed on to the taxpayers or to private users, who may not have wanted these extravaganzas in the first place.

Thus the Melbourne Federation Square execration, still uncompleted, costing twice or three times the original estimates, will probably have to be explained to future tourists as our tribute to New York: the scene on September 12.

Honest builders, small contractors and independent-minded workers, get nothing from all this. They, like us, are the meat in the sandwich. But not everyone likes thick, dark bread. Nor does the federal Government, who is supposed to be tricked and bullied into picking up some, at least, of the tab.

Tony Abbott's refusal to do this, unless the work observed Commonwealth industrial regulations was an attempt to check this cross-governmental leaching and industrial malpractice. He objected on our behalf.

Incidentally, the pouring of public money into prestige icons and headline-grabbing schemes for changing the face of Victoria - like endless cosmetic surgery - are but one consequence of economic rationalism: with its destruction of so many genuinely productive enterprises, so many jobs and occupations, the turning of professions into adjuncts of "business" - bonfires of the principles and the primacy of the appetites - that we have a new type of crisis. A world without work: defensible, self-justifying work.

So ... anything that provides work and generates economic activity is OK. Dubya has his arms race; the global movement of drugs constitutes ten per cent of world trade; others have their people smuggling and cheap labour for greedy, distant employers; 200,000 young women and children are being moved into Europe each year as sex workers; vast fortunes are to be made raiding human embryos; so our governments' attempts to prime the pump are pretty innocuous by comparison.

But the argument that something is OK as long as it generates money and jobs is a dangerous one. (Hitler used it, and kept his promises. But the story cannot end there. Policies have consequences.)

Mr Cole has to see that everyone has his turn at the table and that those footing the cost of the repast aren't grossly overcharged and can afford this generosity.

And how is a state like Victoria paying for this? More and more by encouraging gambling, and drinking, and phony sports happenings requiring more stadia; and smiling upon the decriminalisation of drugs and the institutionalisation of prostitution via red light districts. All of which "generate wealth" ... for some, and jobs ... "for some". And taxes? Too high a price? The media doesn't think so - certainly not our public media. But there have to be better ways of arranging our social and economic affairs.

Meantime we should encourage Mr Cole to defang our latest crop of vampire bats. They won't starve to death. They'd just move on and grow new fangs.

Mayhem in Lilliput

The inevitable disintegration of the Democrats, and the exit of its most politically adult and publicly-spirited player to the world of relevance, leaves what in essence had become the Lord of the Flies. Democrat supporters will move to the Greens. In this country it is a distinction without a difference. A product of the '60s, with its infantile communist view of politics as being something about Feelings and Attitudes, not facts or rational choice, but also in tune with a newer world of hype, with everything tokenised and turned into theatricality - pretty well describes the Democrats.

The hard choices, the grave political problems of our time, and any time, become for them morality plays, suitable for a performance in a village school. So for over 20 years all we have been given is a handful of slogans, bumper stickers.

Occasional attempts by a Democrat leader or actor to engage in the genuine political process, to suggest that politics is often a choice between comparative evils of which you choose the least harmful - are greeted by storms of quite genuine indignation from the party's few members.

In a party advocating participatory democracy (remember?) they have not welcomed any prospect of a mass membership, so became a secret garden, with a strong door; a garden wherein they played at politics. Food was regularly passed over the wall by Labor, corporate friends such as Eros and, of course, muggins (the taxpayer). When the bell rang, they trooped out and helped vote down whatever the Government tried to do - mandate or no mandate.

Then they'd go back to the serious business of play. The most popular game? "Let's imagine this is the high moral ground". There are quite a number of our citizens not in the garden, but of the garden; always open to seduction by parties which promise to square the circle, but also to delegitimise those who do things or have things. It's not what you do but what you stop other doing that's important. Just watch the Greens perform - but that can keep.

The fear of wages

A number of societies - Tasmania, South Australia and New Zealand - repay study. Two - NZ and SA - have had long periods of real prosperity punctuated by major downturns in their economic fortunes.

They have been encouraged to believe it is all due to bad governors: so you change them. If nothing happens, you change them again. If stagnation continues you fish around for new parties with policies - like, "Keep the Bastards Honest"; "A slab in every fridge, a stolen car in every garage"; "Lifelong arts scholarships for housewives with nothing to do"; "Sack a timber worker a day"; "Close down commercial fishing". Recognise this?

This art of political bargain hunting on someone else's card is most advanced in Tasmania, but New Zealand with its plethora of parties and coalition politics is catching up.




























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