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Why Trade Unions Should Support the Liberal PartyThe Essential SMSF Guide 2012-13Email Marketing For Planners
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Why Trade Unions Should Support the Liberal Party

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John Robertson

Paul Howes could be angling to be the next Liberal Prime minister after Tony Abbott. However daft this thought might be, the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and policymaking may be better off if it were true.

In responding to the decision by Alcoa to close its Point Henry smelter, Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes said quite openly the government was not to blame for the closure of the smelter. Global conditions were at play over which no party had control.

A few days earlier he had made a headline grabbing speech at the National Press Club in which he decried the politicisation of industrial relations and called for some form of grand bargain that would allow all political sides and unions to work together for better employment outcomes.

Some said he was simply piqued at being blocked in his bid to replace Bob Carr as a New South Wales senator. Others described his view as a fantasy. Alternatively, he was manoeuvring to carve out his position as an ALP leader in waiting.

Whatever the reasons, this was mould breaking rhetoric. For decades, Australia had been used to union leaders like Bob Hawke being in the vanguard of the attack against the "Tories" before joining the political fray more directly. There was a seamlessness between the two arms of the one labour entity.

The standard rhetoric had the Liberal Party as the party of big business and Labor as the party of the workers. Marx and Lenin were hovering somewhere in the background.

Meanwhile, in counterbalance within certain sections of the Liberal party there has been a deep-seated hatred of trade unions motivating its inclination to sustain the rhetorical warfare between the two.

Tactically, this divide works against the interests of organised labour when its political arm is out of power. As under the Howard government, union influence on policy wanes considerably. Unions can oppose and criticise but have little point of engagement in pursuit of their members' interests. On their party's return, they use up the following years regaining lost ground.

Howes is edging toward the idea that this is wrong. Members' interests should not be put on hold simply because the ALP is on the wrong side of the parliament.

Union leaders like Howes are also seeing that policy making is at a critical stage. Qantas, Ford, Holden, Toyota, Alcoa and SPC Ardmona have symbolised in rapid succession some of the hard decisions governments and unions have in common in stabilising manufacturing employment.

The new Abbott government is attempting to put some steel into the backbone of employers who had too readily inked unsustainable employment contracts in the belief that their bad decisions would be papered over by supportive governments or, worse, had never had a second thought about their consequences.

The smart union leaders recognise they must find a way to play a role in defining the new way of conducting industrial relations while their party is out of power.

The new government is less passionate about industrial relations than the Howard government. John Howard himself had been an enthusiastic opponent of what he had called the industrial relations club. His dislike of the personalties probably exceeded his commitment to change in the workplace but he did have warriors like Peter Reith itching to take the fight to the unions.

The current ministers are more inclined to put the onus on employers to set the tone of industrial relations by coming up with productivity enhancing deals within the current framework or showing exactly where the deficiencies exist and putting the case for change. They have bruises to show from employers going to water when the fight got tough, leaving supportive politicians marooned politically.

If Abbott could overcome the union haters in the Liberal ranks, he could steal a permanent advantage over the ALP by inviting Howes and others like him to join the discussion to come up with a framework that allowed greater flexibility in workplace conditions without reflexive shouts of 'Work Choices'.

Warren Mundine has joined with Abbott on indigenous affairs policy. Howes could do so on industrial relations. Interestingly, both had their coveted Senate endorsements knocked on the head by the New South Wales branch of the party before their conversions.

The next step in this evolution would be to allow unions to decide from time to time which party they would support. Once they opened up this possibility, they could gain increased leverage over Liberal policy making. They might never switch but the simple threat might keep all parties on their toes. Union influence on ALP policy might be raised if the ALP could not be assured of their unthinking commitment.

The step after that would permit a union leader to be openly a member of the Liberal Party and to enter parliament on its behalf without fear for his life. With strong left-right ideological divides having largely broken down, this becomes a possibility.

As the connection between business and government is being redefined, there is no reason why the role of unions should stay anchored implacably in a nineteenth century capital versus labour adversarial model.

Modern unionism owes it to its members to get the best deal for them not do what is best for the ALP. It is more readily evident today that unionists have more in common with the interests of the modern corporation than pursuit of the nineteenth century ideological divides which still motivate their relationship with a single political group on whom they cannot always rely for support because of the ebb and flow of electoral cycles.

Meanwhile, Liberal Party members should consider putting aside their open contempt for unionism to recognise where their best interests also lie.


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