The Australian Jobs and Skills Summit – a union view

By Andrew Dettmar, President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union

The national employment and skills summit which took place in Canberra on 1/ 2 September, was a triumph of participation and leadership for new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. And it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for trade unions – but there is still a way to go.

A tradition has grown up on the part of newly elected ALP governments to hold a Summit soon after election. This reversesthe practice of Liberal/ National Party governments whose stock-in-trade has been their denial of social dialogue. In the end, under Scott Morrison even business leaders were having difficulty being heard, thanks to his peculiar mode of leadership, which as we now know involved him being the (secret) actual minister in 5 portfolios other than his own.

The original 1983 Summit set up trade unions as a key part of political decision-making for the next 13 years of the Labor Government. It reinforced the success of the Bob Hawke model of “consensus” and effectively launched the ACTU/ ALP Accord. Very few women were present at the 1983 summit. While this was noted at the time, there was also a marked paucity of representation from many others: first nations, disability activists, welfare recipients, rural and regional Australia, environmental activists, etc. Participation of representatives of these groups was a hallmark of the 2022 meeting.

To the extent that such a nominated group of unions, businesses and social groups can be seen as representative, the summit represented a very broad cross-section of Australian society. The only body unrepresented was the Liberal Party. While he was invited, Peter Dutton and his team of rejects decided that the best way to mouth any criticisms they had was from outside. After the fact, they complained that they would not want to be associated with “union thugs”. The more things change, etc.

Anthony Albanese successfully set the scene, and his various ministers, led by Treasurer Jim Chalmers, showed significant unity of purpose in the policies that they are taking into government. For those trade unions present – effectively the entirety of the Australian Council of Trade Unions executive – the exercise was well worth it.

The main focus of trade unions in the lead up to the summit was the creation of fairer and more equitable labour laws, but union views on industry policy, training and education, trade, defence, immigration, climate, were also in the mix.

This was reflected in the many “roundtables” set up to feed ideas to the main meeting.

Since the days of the WorkChoices laws under John Howard in 2004, unions’ ability to bargain has been severely ircumscribed. While the worst of WorkChoices was ameliorated by the Fair Work Act in 2009, after the election of the Rudd/Gillard Labour governments in 2007, the basic limitations of WorkChoices remained. This effectively put a stop to any notion of industry level bargaining; on the contrary it opened the way to bargaining processes where companies, especially large ones like Qantas, were able to particularise and individualise employment arrangements in their business operations to the point where people working alongside each other operate on completely different and separate wages and conditions. It also led the way to less and less secure employment  – many suffering from the equivalent of the UK’s “zero hours” contracts.

One of the early keynote speeches on the Thursday was that of Tony Burke the Industrial Relations minister, who stated that following consultation there would be a restoration of bargaining rights to unions to be able to bargain across companies, at an industry level. There would also be significant removal of barriers to bargaining. Currently employers have been able to go around and behind trade unions by refusing to negotiate. Where bargaining has not been successful, they can then threaten and in some cases apply to cancel existing agreements, as a way of upping the ante in negotiations. A perfect illustration of this was provided during the Summit; New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet decided to escalate his long-running dispute with the rail unions by threatening the cancellation of their existing agreement. This has now blown up in his face after the RTBU called his bluff; his brinkmanship has been rewarded by a significant loss of popularity, and he is likely to be trashed at the polls in early 2023.

Another focus of the summit was the issue of skilled migration.

Skilled migration used to be a part of Australia’s consensus-based politics. Our status as a settler nation has been anchored in being able to attract significant migration from other countries, in particular skilled migration. After World War II Australia’s European migrant population was almost totally white Anglo-Celtic, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. This was changed by the mass immigration policies implemented by the Chifley Labour government and continued under successive Liberal governments beginning with Menzies. This consensus remained up until the election of John Howard in 1996. Howard had an unfortunate tendency to kick the racist can whenever he had the opportunity, infamously alienating many Australians and especially those of Asian origin by suggesting a “slowing down“ of Asian migration, in particular Chinese migration, in the 1980s.

Howard’s attacks on Asian migration enabled the rise of Pauline Hanson in the 1996 election when Labor was ejected from Office. While Hansen may have been dis-endorsed by the Liberals, she still won, and has managed to parlay that into a 25 year career representing the extreme right, and racist and assimilationist policies. Howard‘s worst efforts as prime minister occurred in the early 2000s. When his WorkChoices legislation was passed he also decided to introduce and accelerate temporary skilled migration visas, without any significant controls or limits. While these visa workers were supposed to address skill shortages, their employment masked the under payment and significant exploitation of many Australian workers who would refuse to work for the low wage, insecure jobs on offer.

Again, while this situation was ameliorated under the Rudd and Gillard governments, the temporary skilled migration rort continued. Under the Liberal/ National Party governments of Abbott/ Turnbull/ Morrison, any notion of Govt control of skilled migration became a farce; employers and migration agents ignored any notion of fair dealing, leading to massive exploitation and in some cases abuse of vulnerable workers. Their interest was less in assisting people to get a new and productive life in Australia and more in making millions from the misery of others. Unfortunately for Morrison, the pandemic closed borders and halted temporary migration in its tracks.

The new Labor government at the Summit emphasised the importance of permanent skilled migration. It was noted that, if there is a need for temporary skilled migrants, they must be paid a fair wage (and have the benefit of union protection) and notused as industrial cannon fodder to suppress wages.

The summit showed that such a policy is not only possible but can be implemented. Unions in particular will be watching with interest, while participating in setting up consultation and control measures. We need to ensure that temporary skilledmigration only occurs in an area of actual need and the workers who come to our country on this basis are not exploited and are given the same protections as Australian workers.

Another major announcement was PM Albanese’s announcement of funding for 180,000 vocational training places through government-funded TAFE colleges, and developing new ways of looking at technology and skill formation. Part of this is restoring workers’ voice to vocational training arrangements.There was also a new focus on climate, energy and environment.In a complete reversal of the climate change denialism of the previous Liberal/ National Party administrations, Labor is serious about environmental sustainability. The 43% reduction in emissions by 2030 is a good start, but much more needs to be done.

There will be many who invest significant and perhaps unfounded hope in the Summit and its outcomes. It will of course be used by the Labor Party in government as a way of ensuring that the issues that they raise and prosecute through the parliament have been subject to consideration by a broad cross-section of Australian society. in this Albanese he is somewhat similar to Hawke, who prided himself on consensus. While consensus grammatically requires the giving of consent, at no time could it be said that everybody consents to the changes. This form of “manufactured” consent, is classic social democracy. There is an important point to be made however from the Hawke and Accord years which is not present at this point in time. Hawke came to power after a significant period of Conservative government under Malcolm Fraser. Australia’s balance of payments was shot, we were suffering from a major drought in the eastern states, there was over 1 million unemployed out of the workforce of less than 10 million, and there were major problems in the sustainability of Australian industry.

Unions decided in the 1980s that the way forward was to try and reach agreement with Labor, and to develop a structural way of dealing with policy. The resulting ACTU/ALP Accord was a unique document in Australian history. Whilst it more than ran its course (for instance in 1995 I was involved in the negotiation of Accord Mark VIII, never implemented due to Labor’s fall) it was a process which in its early years particularly was productive and resulted in significant reforms in industry development, industrial relations, skills and training, education and others. Not all were positive. There is a small industry in Australia dedicated to denigrating the Accord, much of which simply reproduces Trotskyite criticisms from the early 1980s. Whilst it became an excuse for inaction by some in Labor and trade unions in the 1990s, it was nevertheless a vital and dynamic process in the 80s. And a lot of hard work.

We do not have an accord this time around, nor is one in prospect. I am hopeful that the development of policies which we have been instrumental in creating through this new government, and a very comprehensive process of labour policy development done in concert with trade unions as social partners, will lead to a new way of doing business.

However the most profound change with the election of the Albanese government, and exemplified by the summit, is that this government is prepared to listen and to participate. Scott Morrison with his five ministries was fond of saying we are there to govern. In response to any criticism especially from his own side his favourite trope was “I am the Prime Minister”. The paucity of thought behind this approach to government led to the significant impoverishment of Australian political life. Whilst I make jokes about employers finding our telephone numbers after nine years, many union officials are dealing with employers who make similar points: they did not even talk to them, their natural constituency. Government under Scott Morrison was not interested in anything but it’s own very narrow agenda to retain power.

There is a long way to go of course with Labor, but this makes for a very good start.

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