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Denis Shanahan rightly identifies below the diversion from the main game by Abbott and Brandis with 18C and knights and dames. On 18C, James Allan correctly poses the question as to the extent it actually reduces racism now.  

The Financial Review has published a front page lead (below) and a longer praise inside of Paul Howes. One might be excused from being cynical about a claim, made by Howes after announcing he is quitting as a unionist, that the union movement should become “free market”. While it possibly reflects the genuine current feelings of a man who sees the need for Labor to become less directly connected to the union movement, it seems more likely that it is AFR journos who  are hailing him as a desirable future leader of the Labor Party.

The article by Dean Mighell concedes the need for more separation between unions and Labor but paints a defensive picture of unionism – and suggests the need for reform remains strong

Des Moore


Election promises still need to be explained to public

Article by Dennis Shanahan, Political Editor published in The Australian, March 28, 2014

IN the last sitting week of parliament before the May budget, the Abbott government has gone off-message on “debt and deficit’’ and “fixing Labor's mess’’. Politically, it's the worst possible week to become distracted and many senior Coalition MPs know it.

Ironically, the government had come through its first real crisis relatively unscathed last week when Arthur Sinodinos stepped aside as assistant treasurer. This was as a result of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation into ­alleged corruption at Australian Water Holdings, which Sino­dinos chaired before entering ­parliament.

This was, in part, because Sinodinos, while denying any wrongdoing, had stepped aside so quickly to avoid the ICAC investigation becoming a “distraction’’.

Yet, this week, Tony Abbott and his government have created distractions to blur the budget message; bury its vaunted “repeal day’’ initiative on red tape; give Labor a chance to stir trouble among ethnic groups at their expense; become the butt of jokes; and shift the focus from Bill Shorten's decision to continue to refuse to repeal the carbon and mining taxes.

The past weeks have shown signs of revival of the lack of preparation and flawed assumptions that because something was an election promise, it can be wheeled out without a full explan­ation and political justification.

The most telling example of this flawed assumption of public knowledge and acceptance of an election promise was the attempt to “match’’ Labor's decision to pull $1.2 billion out of the Gonski plans for school funding. When it was simply announced that the Abbott government was not providing the $1.2bn because its election promise was to “match Labor's funding’’, it was seen as underhanded and unjustified.

On that occasion, the Prime Minister saw the political reality and provided the $1.2bn, instead of holding on to it as a budget saving. The messy retreat was a lesson not to assume public acceptance just because something is an election promise.

Yet, this week, the government was forced to put on hold its reforms for the future of financial advice, which Sinodinos had started, because it was clear there was community and industry concern that little old ladies would be subjected to pressure or denied protections when they went to the bank.

This was obvious from the start, yet it continued to be championed until Finance Minister Mathias Cormann put it on hold.

Then there was the present­ation of the reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act to further freedom of speech — another election promise. A completely justifiable intent in a great cause, which was well and truly telegraphed before the election.

Many senior Liberals are concerned not just at the substance of the proposals but also at the style and, particularly, the timing.

Why produce complex and easily misrepresented actions which are not at the forefront of the mind of the electorate just when the government is trying to nail the Oppos­ition Leader for keeping the mining tax running into the last weeks of the West Australian Senate election campaign?

The government's arguments supporting Attorney-General George Brandis’s proposal were not designed for popular consumption. They had been argued internally and among lawyers and civil libertarians for so long that a shorthand developed, describing the changes as the “Bolt laws’’. This was a description that would be readily understood at an Institute of Public Affairs or Quadrant dinner but not fully comprehended at an Islamic youth group in Sydney's suburbs.

What's more, while providing freedom of speech is an essential tenet for democracy and a burning issue among many in the cabinet, the launch of the proposals now gave Labor the opportunity to claim the Abbott government didn't care about jobs, and had “twisted priorities’’.

Abbott's appearances on the morning television shows, a gift of entrance to hundreds of thousands of ordinary homes, moved on to the racial vilification changes, in unflattering tones.

He said on the Seven Network’s Sunrise program that “the main thing this government is focused on is making life easier for families and that's why last week we tried to get rid of the carbon tax: the Labor Party voted to keep it, so we're stuck with it for the time being. Yesterday we tried to get rid of the mining tax: the Labor Party voted to keep it.’’

Abbott continued to be challenged on “racism’’ and fell into the insider's shorthand: “We released an exposure draft of legislation which keeps the red light on racism, but which removed the amber light on free speech which had existed since the Bolt case a couple of years ago where, as you know, Andrew Bolt was successfully prosecuted on the basis of an article that he'd written.’’

Directing that argument to a breakfast television audience getting ready for a long commute or day looking after the children was a case of locking the gate after the horse had bolted.

The decision to reintroduce knights and dames honours for “pre-eminent Australians’’ was the most off-message event coming from Abbott all week.

Expecting backlash from his traditional opponents on both freedom of speech and knights and dames, Abbott had factored in a certain amount of turbulence: he and Brandis thought it would work to their advantage in being seen to be attacked by so many groups conservative supporters detest.

But Labor's opportunity to mock and ridicule Abbott broke the Coalition's parliamentary momentum. Abbott is clearly frustrated that Labor is not being punished for obstructing the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes in the Senate but it's no ­excuse to let the government be distracted.

According to media intelligence firm iSentia, the top three federal issues in the media this week after Flight MH370 were the return of knighthoods, racial discrimination and “Senator Sino­dinos’’. No mining tax, no carbon tax, no top-line discussion of Labor's budget deficit legacy.

The importance of these issues will pass but the Abbott government has to demonstrate that — unlik­e the governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard — lessons will be learned from public backlash.

Job losses turned Howes into a free-market unionist

Article by Aaron Patrick and Mathew Dunckley published in the Australian Financial Review, March 28, 2014

Outgoing Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Paul Howes believes the union movement needs to move away from a focus on collective action and accept many Australian workers are more interested in individual rights.

In his only newspaper interview since announcing his resignation, Mr Howes in the Review section of today’s Australian Financial Review explains how watching the aluminium industry hit by a rising dollar and falling prices helped him realise international economic forces can be too powerful for governments to overcome.

Mr Howes said unions should consider supporting more flexibility in the economy and labour market, and worry less about using their clout to resist economic forces. “The union movement has been strong on tying workers to their jobs. Do young people want that?” he said. “We need to ask, how do we use our collective power to empower individuals?”

He said unions needed to consider if they should campaign for more funding for training skilled artisans and blue-collar workers rather than seeking subsidies for their industries.

The comments are significant because the 32-year-old, who plans to leave the AWU in coming months and may seek a job in the private sector, is one of Australia’s most prominent unionists and widely tipped to seek political office for the Labor Party.

The comments serve as a plea to the union movement not to shift to the left under the pressure of declining memberships and a hostile Coalition ­government.

They also reinforce Mr Howes’s reputation for being prepared to challenge conventional Labor thinking.

“When you harness the market in the right way it can be a fundamental force for good,” he said.

“The only good thing about being in the working class is leaving it.”

In the interview, Mr Howes discusses his friendship with former prime minister Julia Gillard and his ­difficult childhood. Ms Gillard describes how Mr Howes became a informal advisor and friend. He declined to say if he wants a political career and was vague about his career plans.

The response from other union leaders was mixed. “Both Paul and I support a market economy but not a market society,” said Transport Workers’ Union national secretary Tony Sheldon.

Rail Tram and Bus Union national secretary Bob Nanva was supportive of unions reconsidering their roles but he stopped short of agreeing with Mr Howes.

“It is critically important that the labour movement is mature enough to continue having the debates Paul Howes has sparked,” he said. “By debating these questions our movement has enjoyed its role in the centre of Australian political debate; that must continue.”

Mr Howes describes the AWU’s five-year campaign to re-unionise a Rio Tinto aluminium smelter at Bell Bay in Tasmania and his realisation, when closures hit the industry last year, that there was little any government could do to save his ­members’ jobs.

Former trade minister Craig Emerson said Mr Howes had the courage of his convictions. “He is a good creative policy thinker who isn’t afraid to challenge existing orthodoxy. Paul speaks from the heart and that makes him an attractive ­personality,” he said.

ACTU secretary Dave Oliver downplayed the significance of Mr Howes’s reservations about collective action.

“It’s not a new concept that unionism isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

He said people joined unions for many different reasons including expert advice, workplace assistance, health and safety and to be part of collective bargaining at their workplace. “It’s not new that unions tailor their advice and assistance to the needs of individual members, in the form of career planning and assistance in negotiating individual arrangements, particularly in white collar industries,” he said.

The Australian Financial Review

Unions, ALP must take initiative

Article by Dean Mighell published in The Australian, 28 March, 2014

DON’T underestimate what the upcoming royal commission into unions will examine.

The last one was a full-frontal assault on construction unions, the means by which the ends, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, could be implemented. It didn’t touch the relationship between unions and the ALP. This one will.

It’s always good sport to demonise blue-collar unions in the press. Tony Abbott, Employment Minister Eric Abetz and former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard all used it to advantage when it suited. This will happen again and, no doubt, some murky stories will emerge.

The worst aspects of the ALP-union relationship will be brought out and the Australian Workers Union is a specific target for a reason. They will attack the union slush funds — how they were obtained, who don­ated, how they were spent and on what. Importantly, they will look at who ran them and why.

We need only to look at the way the Prime Minister attacked Gillard over her tenuous and unproven relationship with the AWU decades ago to read the play. It will be no different for Bill Shorten, and one wonders why Paul Howes chose the timing of his imminent departure as the national head of the AWU.

The Liberals have worked out that attacking workers’ conditions a la Work Choices is a disaster and that by attacking and ultimately restricting unions they can have the same effect long-term.

Moreover, they have worked out that the underbelly of the ALP-union relationship is a very easy target. All you need is a royal commission to ask the questions when you already have the answers. It’s the way they work, and a more shameful political stunt can’t be imagined.

I do not believe there has been any unlawful conduct in terms of so-called union slush funds. However, the lack of morality of these often employer-funded slush funds for ALP purposes is a way of political life for some.

ALP factional games involving the use of union slush funds to run candidates in unions has been going on since Noah was a boy. There are plenty of serving ALP politicians who have much to answer for. Sadly, in almost every instance, the factional warriors who run interference have one goal: it is not the interests of the union membership but the bloc of ALP votes that is the prize.

One only has to look at the Health Services Union to see this at its worst. Its elections are fought out between candidates backed by one ALP politician or another. If unions couldn’t affiliate to the ALP, does anyone seriously think Michael Williamson and Craig Thomson would have been “placed’’ in that union? Would their values system or lack of it be the same? No.

It has been a long-established practice for the ALP Right to place its factional appointees from university into a “sponsor’’ union. They are expected to exchange loyalties, progress to parliament and be called to account by the union and, more important, the faction. The list of those who have taken this path is significant. It is this conflict of interest that undermines unions and, ultim­ately, the ALP. If there were no affiliation process but instead a real and demonstrable mechanism of workers consenting to affiliation individually, it would restore independence and credibility to the relationship.

There must be a serious debate on the relationship between the ALP and unions. In Britain, they are looking at a model where unions can affiliate only on financial members who specifically and individually “opt in’’ and agree to have their dues deducted for affiliation purposes.

This is a fair and equitable relationship between the union, member and party.

It’s a far cry from our affiliation model, where unions affiliate on behalf of retired or resigned members and over-inflated members as opposed to real, financial, members.

The ALP and union movement must address this for the betterment of both or it will be done for them.

I am not advocating the end of the relationship between unions and the ALP, far from it. Unions should, and will, campaign in the interests of their members. Sure, it will end the near-automatic car­eer path for many union leaders. However, they can put up their hand with any rank-and-file ALP member and have a shot.

When given a secret-ballot vote in the privacy of their own homes, Electrical Trades Union Victorian members returned 57 per cent of ballots and 87 per cent voted for their union to be independent. The ballot was conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, not the union. A case for both sides was included in the ballot. ETU members loved the chance to have a say.

When the union movement acted independently, at least on the surface of it, in the 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign, it galvanised workers and the community in arguably the most effective political campaign in Australia’s history not run by a political party. When Labor won government, the campaign died, along with many ALP promises to restore working people’s rights.

Unions don’t need to be a formal part of the ALP to fight effectively for workers’ rights: they are stronger and more effective when independent.

The debate on affiliation should be held by the ALP and the unions before any royal commission findings.

By taking the initiative, a fair and democratic outcome can be achieved, one that can withstand scrutiny and encourage real rank-and-file participation. ALP members recognise the problem, union secretaries understand the fun­damental flaws and lack of integrity in the process.

It’s time it changed for the better. If they don’t do it, I suspect I know who will.

Dean Mighell is the former Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.

18C not stopping racism, says law expert James Allan

Article by Stefanie Balogh and Patricia Karvelas published in The Australian, March 28, 2014

Rising Tide

Racial Discrimination Act complaints. Source: The Australian

THE section of Australia’s racial discrimination laws at the centre of a heated debate over bigotry and freedom of speech has done nothing to curb racism, a leading law professor says, as Bob Hawke appeals for Labor’s original protections to remain untouched.

Amid unease among some Liberals at Attorney-General George Brandis’s push to scrap provisions in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the breadth of exemptions on new racial-vilification rules, University of Queensland Garrick professor of law James Allan said the changes were already enough of a compromise.

“The idea that this little law is going to do anything is garbage, to be totally honest,” Professor Allan said.

A senior government source said it was unlikely that Senator Brandis’s exposure draft on the changes would remain intact, with more protections likely to be adopted during the consultation process. “This is not the end of it,” the source said.

Mr Hawke came out yesterday against the laws, the former prime minister telling The Australian: “There is no case for weakening the law.”

And Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose Wentworth electorate in Sydney’s east has a large Jewish presence, revealed that he had expressed strong views in cabinet over the government’s moves.

Mr Turnbull said he disputed the argument there should not be any limitations on free speech, warning that history had proven “hate speech” was dangerous.

“I think because I’m a member of the cabinet, and I do have some strong views about it, I think it’s probably better that I don’t canvass views on specific drafting issues generally publicly,” Mr Turnbull said.

“But I am very, very strongly of the view that hate — you know, people who peddle racial hatred — seriously undermine the stability and the harmony of our country.”

Senator Brandis, who denied he had been forced to water down his proposed amendments, has released draft changes to the Racial Discrimination Act that scrap Section 18C. The provision makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate other people or groups of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

The government would replace section 18C with provisions making it unlawful to vilify or intimidate others on similar grounds, but there are broad exemptions.

Professor Allan said section 18C was achieving nothing. He said that while he didn’t believe racism had risen in Australia, if it had “then the idea that 18C is doing anything is palpably ridiculous”.

“They want to say we are a seething cesspool of racism and yet this little civil liability provision that gets the odd Bolt case once in a while is going to fix it — it’s palpable nonsense,” Professor Allan said.

The government pledged at the election to repeal section 18C “in its current form” after it was used against News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt in 2011.

Professor Allan said there were no hate speech laws in the US and it was a destination of choice for minority groups around the world.

“I tend to be quite sympathetic to the arguments the Jewish lobby makes here, but on this one they’re just bonkers and they know they are wrong too because they know life is good in the US,” he said.

Professor Allan said that “in the long run, letting people rip is the best protection for minority groups”.

He added that by silencing people, “it doesn’t get rid of the problem, it drives it underground, it turns them into martyrs, it’s very short-term thinking”. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s annual report on anti-Semitism last year listed 657 reports of racist violence directed at individuals or Jewish facilities in the year to September.

The figure marked a 21 per cent increase on the previous year.

But the council’s executive director Peter Wertheim strongly rejected that the rise in anti-Semitic behaviour demonstrated section 18C was failing to stem racist attacks.

“I think that is drawing a very long bow,” Mr Wertheim said. “If the murder rate goes up do we scrap murder laws?”

Australian Human Rights Commission figures show the number of complaints received under the Racial Discrimination Act has risen during the past three years.

In 2010-11 there were 422 complaints made about racist behaviour under the act.

That figure rose to 477 the following year, and to 500 last year.

While almost 30 per cent of complaints of racism to the commission related to the provision of goods and services, 27 per cent related to racial hatred.

Mr Wertheim said that, in the same period when racist attacks rose, 18C was used effectively to have “large volume of grossly racist material” removed from websites such as Facebook.

“The current law has worked well since 1995,” he said. “Many hundreds of cases have been successfully conciliated in the Federal Court.”

Indigenous man Wesley Aird, a former member of John Howard’s indigenous advisory council, said he supported free speech, arguing legislation would never stop racism.

“I am in favour of free speech and firmly of the view that no amount of legislation can stop idiots saying stupid things,” Mr Aird said.

Additional reporting: Sharri Markson, Lauren Wilson, Christian Kerr

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