THE nation's union leaders paid tribute to Bill Kelty at a dinner on Wednesday night. Paul Keating, Kelty's political partner through the '80s and early '90s, was there to honour his friend. He characterised the former ACTU secretary, a truly enigmatic figure, as one of the nation's greatest ever unionists.
Kelty was secretary from 1983 until 2000, a period that spanned the life of the Hawke and Keating governments and the first four years of the Howard era. As a public figure, Kelty was a foundation member of the less-is-more school. His media appearances and speeches were few and far between. As a consequence, when he spoke in public, it often had an impact.
Not much has changed. He showed this week that he still has the capacity to issue a powerful message. Essentially, on Wednesday night, he told the Gillard government, the Labor Party and the unions to wake up to themselves, to stand up and fight and to take responsibility for their failures.
Kelty's message carried heavy freight; few could doubt his Labor credentials. During the Hawke and Keating years, he gave two important speeches that bookended their time in office. In 1983, only weeks after the Hawke government was elected, his contribution to the national economic summit paved the way for business, the unions and all but one of the states to sign up for a common policy prescription to find a way out of a deep recession. Kelty had pledged that the unions would moderate and even stall their wage campaigns in the interest of reviving and transforming the economy. His appearance helped to set up the new Labor government for a period of considerable success.
The other significant speech came during the dying days of Labor's 13 years in power, at a union rally at the Melbourne Town Hall in the 1996 election campaign. The Keating government was headed for defeat, and Labor and the unions knew it. Kelty addressed the prospect of a Howard government. He warned that if the Coalition wanted to wipe out industrial protections for workers in favour of individual contracts, a dispute the previous year at Weipa over private contracts would merely be ''the first sonata''. Looking across the stage at Keating, he said: ''If they want a fight, if they want a war, they'll have the full symphony - all the pieces, all the clashes and all the music. I am not sure it will be the 1812 Overture, but I will tell you what, Paul, it will not be Mahler either.''
It took a while, but Kelty's warning of a full-scale war eventually came to pass. The ACTU's campaign against John Howard's WorkChoices laws - exactly the type of legislation he had been talking about in 1996 - played a major role in ensuring the removal of the Coalition government in 2007.
What Kelty told the ACTU dinner this week was the sort of straight talk that has eluded the labour movement, and, in particular, the federal government, for far too long. When he was ACTU secretary, Kelty always saw Labor's mission as being tougher to effect than the Coalition's. For the ALP, being in office was inevitably hard graft, and it was to be expected that circumstances and enemies would conspire to frustrate it.
In his speech, Kelty harked back to the economic conditions facing the previous Labor government and noted how confidence in the ALP had been lost. ''Real pressures on living standards, high unemployment; but we never, ever lost a sense of hope and trust that governments and unions would see it out and there would be a better future. Today, we have better economic conditions, but that hope and that trust has retreated.''
He was utterly dismissive of the excuses now being trotted out by the Labor Party and many of its supporters for the federal government's poor standing. ''I've got to be frank: it's too easy to blame the media, too easier [sic] to blame the playthings of politics. And there's no purpose blaming the opposition for doing what, after all, you would expect them to do, and that's to beat you.
''In a sense, I think we make politics just simply too hard. The truth will normally do. This is a transition in the Australian economy that for many people will be very hard, but the truth is also this: that the very best people to manage that transition is a Labor Party, it is unions, it is managing in a Labor way.''
Lastly, Kelty deplored the defeatist mindset that has taken hold across the government and the unions. ''It is too easy to accept defeat, too easy to say the Labor Party will not win. [Keating] won when nobody said he would win. So whenever people say you're put down or you're going to get beaten or you're going to get destroyed, the one thing you always should say is: 'never without a fight'.''
This was a profound critique of the Gillard government's political outlook, for several reasons. Only a day earlier, Julia Gillard, in her own address to the ACTU, had put the government's unpopularity down to public anxiety in the wake of the global financial crisis, opposition scaremongering and the media. On the opposition, she said: ''I understand that Australians have been screamed at now by the opposition for more than a year. They've been told that they need to be very afraid, they've been screamed at relentlessly, and we all know a good fear campaign when we see one.''
On the media and its ''dramatic reporting'' she said: ''… I do understand, as I'm sure you understand as well, the frustration that can come from the headlines in the daily newspapers where, when you look at those headlines, with all of their horror, the schlock and horror that modern media reporting runs to, that the achievements of this minority Parliament aren't seen for what they are.''
Kelty repudiated Gillard's assessment of her own political plight, although he stopped short of nominating the root cause of Labor's malaise. But little effort is needed to work out where his analysis rests. If the Liberals, Nationals and media are not to blame, surely only the government itself is left.
The Prime Minister's course is clear: more of the same. And then more. No change. She will keep going, she will not be deterred. It's 15 months since she confirmed that the government had committed to the Greens' preferred policy of a carbon tax.
Since then, Labor's collapse in every available opinion poll has been calamitous. In the 15 Nielsen/Age polls in that time, the Coalition's biggest lead after preferences was 22 per cent and its average lead has been 12.6 per cent. Its smallest lead was 6 per cent in February this year, when speculation about Kevin Rudd returning to the Labor leadership was at its height.
Once Rudd was dispatched by the caucus at the end of February, the Coalition's lead returned immediately to around its normal level of 14 per cent. Just to make it clear, that's a 57-43 result - potentially one of the greatest wipeouts in federal political history.
What is the caucus going to do? At the ACTU congress, the Prime Minister's message to the unions was to ignore the government's rampant unpopularity in the community and to focus instead on the process. ''We have a plan for the country. We are getting on with the job. I am determined that we deliver that plan because it will make a difference for all Australians.'' She then recommended that Labor and the unions ''stiffen our spine and we get on with the work that working Australians want us to do''.
There is no doubt about the Prime Minister's determination and her personal resolve. But there is a point when toughness and resilience become stubbornness, all too often a demeaning, self-defeating quality. Kelty called on the labour movement to fight. Gillard called on Labor people to stay clam, and blame the media and Tony Abbott's scare campaign.
Who will the caucus listen to?
Shaun Carney is an associate editor.