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Abbott and the unions

By Liz Ross - posted Thursday, 28 November 2013

In a Jekyll and Hyde act, Tony Abbott's attack-dog persona as Leader of the Opposition, became Mr Nice-Guy as soon as he hit the election trail. The sexism and homophobia (almost) disappeared behind a "dad and daughter" routine alongside support for his lesbian sister. He even had a better parental leave scheme than Labor, though closer examination indicated the taxpayer rather than employers would wear the ultimate cost. The economy was a mess, but by taking away a couple of nasty taxes (carbon and mining), the Coalition would save Australia. The country would be open for business.

What about the workers, then? Where in this beguiling scenario could anyone find industrial relations? While a number of employer groups made no secret of their anti-union agenda, not hesitating to call on the Coalition to take up their proposals, there was relative silence during the campaign. But Abbott had, over the years, left many clues as to what he had in mind if he were ever to gain power again. After all he was the Minister for Industrial Relations responsible for setting up the Cole Royal Commission into the Building Industry, the $60m Commission that triggered the formation of the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Long signalled were changes to the company registration laws specifically targeting unions with increased penalties, restrictions for the Fair Work Commission and the reinstatement of the full provisions of the ABCC (only lightly modified under Labor). Just some of the other Coalition targets were the public sector, penalty rates, increased use of 457 visas and individual contracts, Gonski, Labor's tertiary education cuts and wage rises for low-paid child-care workers. All impacting most on workers.


Since the election a range of think tanks, the latest being the Grattan Institute, have provided the rationale for the government to break their election promises and slug workers – make 70 the retirement age, put a GST on fresh food, force housing debt on pensioners who own their own home – and the like. The government itself has established a number of enquiries, headed up by known right-wing ideologues, to give them cover to break their election promises. In effect the Business Council of Australia has been handed the review of the public sector. The Productivity Commission has a range of investigations under way now including a review the Fair Work Commission – and the Act it operates under, presumably with the intention of stripping it of any pro-worker "bias".

Although the Coalition claims its proposed changes to workplace laws are about bringing the industrial relations area "back to the sensible centre", in fact the real goals have nothing to do with creating a more moderate industrial relations regime. Instead it is primarily about economic questions – profit share and productivity. Under the Howard regime, for example, construction productivity fell away significantly, especially under WorkChoices and during the period of the ABCC. It revived somewhat under Labor and Fair Work, but not to the earlier pre-ABCC levels. At the same time, however, most importantly for employers, the income share of national GDP going to wages dropped, while profit share increased. Also the Howard regime oversaw productivity rises surge ahead of wage rises. It continued under Labor and Abbott is determined to see this pattern continue.

According to Greg Jericho, a regular industry commentator, productivity isn't necessarily the main driver in the employers' industrial relations agenda. "For business groups, if they're honest, the IR battleground is not really about productivity, but profit – and who gets the share of it." He adds that since 2002 "the labour share of income in the construction industry has fallen from around 75 percent to 70 percent" and there's no doubt employers would like to see it fall further.

Whether it's productivity or profit, or a combination of the two, there's no doubt that there is a lot at stake with considerable government and industry investment in upcoming infrastructure and mining projects. The mining boom maybe over (ABARE report 27.11.2013) but there is still a lot of wealth to be made from the production phase.

A strong union movement could gain benefits for their members from this economic growth. And while the CFMEU's report The Australian Resources Boom: Sharing the Benefits published this month concludes that workers have not benefited from the first phase of the mining boom, it should be no surprise that the Abbott government is determined to constrain unions before they can make any attempt to benefit their members out of the production phase, where a combination of mining and transport will be crucial to profits.

I am going to focus now on three areas where the "new management" of Tony Abbott has set its sights. Federal public sector workers, the Registered Organisations Act amendments and the ABCC legislation.


While cuts to the public sector may not have the buzz factor of taking on the blue collar unions, "small government" is a key plank of Coalition politics. In Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales there have been major job cuts and reorganisation of government departments. Tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs, with almost no resistance from the unions and many public services sent out to the private, profit-making sector. In this they are following the neoliberal politics of the Tory government in the UK with its "New Society" model.

Amongst Tony Abbott's first moves was to confirm thousands of job cuts in the public sector, including big cuts to scientific research body, CSIRO. Instead of redundancies as the union, the CPSU, had predicted – a drawn-out process costing millions, the government announced temporary or contract workers would not have their contracts renewed. Full stop. No cost to government. It is estimated that this will cut around 14,000 jobs, the majority of them women. On top of this, the new government is overseeing Labor's "efficiency dividend", a regular device of governments where an arbitrary percentage cut in departmental funding claimed to be the result of earlier and projected productivity improvements. It inevitably means job cuts and in this round is predicted to cut another 14,500 jobs.

And barely a word from the unions. The most Nadine Flood from the CPSU could say is that cuts to the Tax Department would hamper tax returns and impact small business, while government services depended on an efficient Tax Office. Members jobs it seems came a poor second, with the union limiting itself to seeking discussions with the tax office, among others, about how to minimise job losses and where the axe would fall.

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About the Author

Liz Ross is an activist and member of Socialist Alternative.

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All articles by Liz Ross

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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