Attacking unions isn't a substitute for good policy formulation

Demonising unions and targeting the Opposition Leader threatens to derail Malcolm Turnbull's "new politics" narrative.

Show comments

Under a moonlit sky in January 1891, George "Mulga" Taylor, an organiser with the Queensland Shearers' Union, cycled some 60 kilometres from Clermont to Logan Downs. His mission: to warn fellow shearers that pastoralists were shipping non-union labour from the southern colonies to Queensland's central district ahead of the coming shearing season. 

Thus began the 1891 shearers' strike, an oft-violent dispute that raged over four months. 

Some believed Queensland was on the brink of civil war. Arrayed against wealthy pastoralists and colonial governments that used armed troops to protect strike-breakers, the shearers were humiliated. On May 1, 14 men, including Mulga Taylor, were sent to trial at Rockhampton on charges of conspiracy. A conservative judge sentenced all but two to three years' hard labour on St Helena Island prison. According to legend, aggrieved shearers responded by founding the Labor Party under Barcaldine's Tree of Knowledge.

Australian politics 125 years later still conforms to a "Labor versus the rest" paradigm. Policy settlements have ebbed and flowed but this political fault line remains defined by attitudes towards unionism. The strategy adopted by Malcolm Turnbull's government indicates that the 2016 federal election will prove to be no exception. 

Most significantly, there is Turnbull's attempt to make political mileage out of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. On the heels of the commission's controversial five-volume final report, the Prime Minister threatened a double-dissolution election should the Senate not pass proposed laws to create a Registered Organisations Commission and re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. 

Team Turnbull is fighting a war against ALP-affiliated unions on several fronts. On Monday, Liberal MP Dan Tehan called for legislation banning unions from paying fines on behalf of officials, who, he claimed, wore penalties as a "badge of honour", and for the government to ban from holding office unionists who have been fined. 


The same day, the government flagged moves to introduce legislation allowing employees to choose their own superannuation fund rather than one stipulated by enterprise bargaining agreements. 

Assistant Treasurer Kelly O'Dwyer argued this would be a means of wresting control of "money that belongs to workers" from, presumably, industry super funds controlled by unions.

There is nothing subtle about this anti-union strategy. These pieces of legislation are a means of tarring the Bill Shorten-led ALP with the corrupt brush of a few. 

The government hopes the opposition will distance itself from unions, notably the CFMEU. In this unlikely scenario, Labor would be deprived of vital election-year funds. 

Alternatively, the opposition will be portrayed as beholden to "union bosses".

Labor has accused the government of seeking to destroy unions to pave the way for a renewed attack on penalty rates and working conditions generally. And, indeed, the pragmatic Turnbull might well be careful for what he wishes for. 

For instance, instead of a mere building and construction commission, Senator John Madigan, among others, has flagged a desire to establish a national corruption watchdog similar to NSW's Independent Commission Against Corruption, a body whose ambit would spread far beyond that of chasing unionist bad apples.

A politically motivated royal commission instigated by the Fraser government also provides a cautionary tale. The 1980 inquiry overseen by Frank Costigan QC was tasked with investigating alleged criminal conduct within the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. Violence and graft on the waterfront were unearthed, along with employer tax evasion courtesy of "bottom-of-the-harbour" schemes. 

This proved a huge embarrassment to the big end of town, including Coalition-friendly companies.

Conventional wisdom holds that Shorten, a former state and national leader of the Australian Workers Union, is susceptible to Turnbull's strategy. But the next election will be decided by swing voters on the basis of the economy, jobs and job security, national security and bread-and-butter matters such as health and education. 

Pursuing an anti-union agenda may be regarded as politically indulgent. 

And although union membership is declining, Australians are not per se opposed to organised labour. The writer and historian Hilaire Belloc's cautionary advice to "always keep ahold of nurse for fear of finding something worse" is apt in this context. 

Consider too that this is a government partial to the Productivity Commission's recommended removal of Sunday penalty rates but which refuses to rule out increasing the GST from 10 to 15 per cent. 

Valuable lessons might also be gleaned from Tony Abbott's downfall. The Coalition's strategy following Turnbull's demise as opposition leader in 2009 was almost entirely negative. In 2013 this was enough to win office, given the scale of Labor's internal problems and inability to explain its economic management. 

Yet this was no substitute for an effective governing strategy. 

As Abbott adopted the mantle of the prime minister and pursued the disastrous 2014 budget, the polls turned against the Coalition. They never recovered, despite the royal commission and repeated government attacks on Labor's union links.

Since his ascension to the top job, Turnbull's rhetoric has stressed national optimism, sometimes comically so. Demonising unions and targeting Shorten with charges of guilt by association, however, threatens to derail Turnbull's shiny "new politics" narrative.

Just eight years after the shearers' strike, the union-backed party of Queensland workers took office, producing the world's first such government (albeit lasting only seven days). In 1901, Mulga Taylor began a colourful political career following his election to the West Australian parliament. By 1910, notwithstanding countless anti-union scare campaigns, federal Labor ruled in its own right, another world first. Be careful what you wish for indeed.

Nick Dyrenfurth is the author of several books on Australian politics and history and has worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter.