By Mungo MacCallum
The Australian’s commentators said it was an olive branch; their headlines writers called it a test and the ABC preferred the term challenge. But for the Labor Party it was a wedge, a threat.
Malcolm Turnbull had declared that he was determined to take on the unions – not only their alleged corruption, but their power. And Bill Shorten and his parliamentary mates could negotiate – by which he really meant capitulate – or he would make it a major issue at the next election, possibly a double dissolution trigger. The language was conciliatory, but inside the velvet sock was an iron foot. Where the unions were concerned, no more Mr Nice Guy.
Shorten replied that Turnbull was obsessed, and perhaps he was; but it could hardly have been a surprise. Bashing the union is, as the saying goes, in the Liberal DNA. It always has been; the party’s founder, Robert Menzies, was prepared to accept the union movement, but only when it was kept in its place. If it got uppity, or active, it was to be slapped down, and of course if it became infected with communism, it was anathematised.
This became the credo of Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria and his shadowy movement, which led to the great Labor split, and it produced the arbitrary division of moderate unions (good, or at least tolerated) and militants (by definition bad). And on this basis the Libs have proceeded ever since.
As prime minister, John Gorton encouraged the imprisonment of a left wing leader, Clarrie O’Shea, resulting in mass demonstrations which included the highly personal message: ‘Cut off Gorton’s penal power’.
Malcolm Fraser mused to his colleagues that the public was just about ready to see other militants in gaol, and set up a royal commission on the waterfront unions, which backfired badly when it exposed the tax rorts of big business.
John Howard was a little more subtle; he legislated to curb the movement, and when that proved ineffective, set up WorkChoices, another serious political miscalculation. And of course Tony Abbott went back to a royal commission of his own.
The primary motive for this ongoing vendetta is simply ideological: the Liberals, and most fervently their conservative wing, enshrine the virtues of individuality, and thus see any form of collectivism as not merely undesirable but positively immoral.
More directly, The Liberals espouse free enterprise: they see the unions as an obstacle, one that could even lead to (shock, horror) socialism. Thus it is the bounden duty of their politicians to degrade the movement, if possible to destroy it; and if it is not to be disembowelled, it must be disempowered, neutralised as a political force.
Turnbull may sound more reasonable; his argument is that his demands are no more than just. The rules must be applied equally to all, to the industrial organisations just as they are to the big corporations. It is an appealing analogy, but a false one: there is a world of difference between the elected leaders of bodies of workers and the largely appointed directors who maintain the giant conglomerates of private capital.
And self-evidently, the rules have never been applied equally. Dodgy union bosses are excoriated, threatened with dire penalties; but company executives engaged in rorts, conspiracy and outright fraud seldom suffer more than a slap on the wrist and the organisations that employ them are allowed to remain pretty much self-regulated. The scandals that erupted among financial advisers to the bank, particularly to the Commonwealth, has simply faded away; requests for a royal commission were dismissed immediately.
But the public, long conditioned by the propaganda of a one-sided media (predominantly run, of course, by the self-interested capitalists themselves) will probably buy the spin. The political debate, and the election campaign that will almost certainly follow it, will be a bit like the All Blacks against Namibia.
The government, or at least the more rational sections of it, know that the union movement is not a monolith; there is still the distinction between moderates and militants. And within the broad church of unionism, there are often serious disagreements, even fierce internecine rivalries. But when it’s attacked from outside, it will generally come together: solidarity forever.
The kind of confrontation Turnbull is apparently presaging will require an equally decisive response, and Shorten and the ALP cannot, and will not, walk away from it. There are many in the parliamentary party who would like to dilute the influence of the unions, and have said so, loudly and publicly; but that does not mean that they are ready to allow the Libs to raze the ground on which they have stood for so long. They have their own DNA to consider.
So far, Shorten and his team have played it by the book; if there are allegations, let us test them, If there is compelling evidence of wrongdoing, then certainly charges should be laid, and the accused tried before the courts. If they are found guilty, then let them be sentenced: that is the rule of law, the Australian way. But until then they are just allegations against individuals, and to smear and condemn the whole union movement is manifestly unjust.
But that is not what the controversy is about: it is to be a trial of strength for Turnbull, a proof of his Liberal credentials. The right fear he is soft on climate change, same sex marriage and many other issues they see as unnecessary distractions: but industrial relations – that is, union bashing – is a core belief. He could not hold them back even if he wanted to, and there is no real sign that he does.
So here we go again; wave the olive branch if you like, but then refashion it into a handy and serviceable bludgeon. The brief period of political harmony is about to come to a divisive and probably highly pugnacious end. Back to the slogans, the misrepresentations, the abuse. It was always going to happen, but it would have been nice to have had a slightly longer truce from the long war without blood.