Date: May 16 2012
A llegations that Labor MP Craig Thomson engaged in a systematic abuse of powers while employed as an official of the Health Services Union have caused the Gillard government substantial damage in recent months, damage which may yet prove terminal. And now the ACTU is having to come to terms with the impact of the HSU scandal on the wider union movement. In her opening address at the ACTU congress in Sydney yesterday, ACTU president Ged Kearney dwelled at some length on the HSU debacle, expressing alarm at what had happened, but insisting the HSU case did not reflect wider union values. That may be true, but those who recall the notorious Federated Ship Painters and Dockers - and the activities of Builders Labourers Federation federal secretary Norm Gallagher - will be wondering not whether this is an isolated case but how many other unions (and those they deal with or represent) have similar governance issues.
The union movement is probably no more or less wicked than other parts of Australia's service industry or corporate world, but it could be argued its links with the Australian Labor Party and its long history as a training ground for aspiring politicians demand of it even higher standards of accountability. The HSU episode, involving as it does the apparent misappropriation of funds to which thousands of low-paid workers in hospitals had contributed, is a particularly egregious example of alleged malfeasance. Many of these workers will be reconsidering their union membership, and few could blame them.
The Thomson affair will be a considerable fillip to the enemies of the union movement, and this, rather than any possible decline in membership, may be its most telling legacy. Tony Abbott, should he become prime minister at the next election, is likely to be lobbied hard to review workplace laws with a view to reducing union influence and activities in the workplace. Mr Abbott is acutely aware that the Coalition's WorkChoices legislation cost it the 2007 election, but the Thomson affair would seem to provide a tailor-made opportunity for a conservative government to ratchet up pressure on the union movement, thus making life more difficult for the ALP. The Australian union movement can take credit for many of the benefits that Australian workers now take for granted, including sick leave and occupational health and safety laws. However, union membership as a proportion of the total workforce is now below 20 per cent and slipping. If the ACTU does not take swift action to ensure the highest standards of governance and accountability are upheld throughout the union movement, that decline will no doubt accelerate.
Change in climate
A s recently as two or three years ago, voters regarded climate change as an undeniable fact with major implications for Australia's future, and were generally supportive of the need for either a carbon tax or a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. Now, however, research indicates the topic is a major turn-off for voters - so much so that that the federal government has seen fit to omit any mention of the words carbon, climate change or clean energy in a new advertising campaign spruiking its carbon tax ''household assistance package''. Instead, says a spokeswoman for Families and Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin, the government wants to focus people's minds on the extra money appearing in their bank accounts.
It's probable the Gillard government would not have implemented a carbon tax at all had it not required Greens support to pass legislation in the Senate, and understandable that it should want to downplay the possibility that voters might be materially worse off after the tax is introduced in July. Many Australians now seem convinced that the threat of climate change is overstated or that attempts to reduce emissions here will have only a negligible impact on overall global warming - a shift that has been the equivalent of political manna from heaven for the Opposition.
If the threat of drought has receded after two years of above-average rains in eastern Australia, however, there is no evidence that global warming is in abeyance. The need for action remains as compelling as ever, which of course should be central to the government's strategy of selling the carbon tax. The government nailed its colours to the mast of global warming two years ago, for better or worse, and this ham-fisted attempt to distance itself from the carbon tax underlines why it has lost the respect of voters.
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