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Unions deserve a place in Turnbull’s ‘sensible centre’

malcolm turnbull
The PM says he governs from the “sensible centre”, but his union bashing has real consequences. Photo: Getty
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It will be revealing to observe Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conduct following his “sensible centre” speech in London. He appeared to be throwing down the gauntlet to his right-wing colleagues when he declared that their party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies, had always intended the Liberals to be a progressive party, not a conservative party.

The pointed history lesson was given in the context of leadership tensions stoked by an increasingly outspoken Tony Abbott. In distancing himself from the Abbott lunar-right Mr Turnbull has placed himself at the Menzian centre of Australian politics.

But is Mr Turnbull telling us about the PM he has been, or the PM he wants to be?

Voters have abandoned Mr Turnbull precisely because the progressive prime minister they were expecting failed to materialise. He is seen as charming, urbane and eloquent, but also as indecisive, irresolute and weak.

But perhaps the London speech was a herald of things to come, a declaration that he would no longer be cowed by recalcitrants in his party.

Turnbull 2.0 would be welcomed by Australians – particularly if it means an end to the divisive class war that has become part of the political narrative.

Both sides are at it, but while Bill Shorten’s sniping at millionaires and billionaires rarely draws blood, the government’s hostility towards trade unions has real consequences.

Mr Turnbull claims to represent the progressive centre, but unfortunately the union movement has always been excluded from that centre.

Successive Liberal leaders – most notably Malcolm Fraser and John Howard – waged war on trade unions. Likewise, union bashing is the Turnbull government’s political weapon of choice.

Mr Turnbull did not sound the model of a progressive prime minister when earlier this year he expressed outrage and horror after newly elected ACTU secretary Sally McManus defended the right of unions to take unlawful industrial action. This was an affront to the rule of law, an apoplectic Mr Turnbull bellowed in Parliament.

More recently we have the Liberal Party “exposing” that industry superannuation funds have paid $50 million to unions over the past decade.

A new website, The Fair Go, provides an “interactive tool” that enables visitors to “check which unions each industry super fund is supporting”.

The Fair Go, a faux news site “powered by the Liberal Party of Australia”, presents its anti-union bile as bylined articles. An article by “staff writers” thunders:

“In a time of unions campaigning against the rule of law (something the ACTU Secretary openly admitted on the 7.30 Report in March), and threats against public servants and their families (most recently by a CFMEU official at a rally in Melbourne in June this year), it is only fair these payments are known to savers.”

The Turnbull government – which apparently has just discovered the connection between industry super funds and the trade union movement – has identified the super funds as a way to get at unions.

It unsuccessfully introduced legislation that would have mandated independent directors on industry super fund boards, even though the government was unable to demonstrate that having union nominees on the board had compromised governance or performance. The bill was blocked by the Senate.

The government is also sympathetic to a Productivity Commission report which would make it harder for industry funds to become the “default” fund for workers, ostensibly to provide more competition, but clearly intended to disadvantage the union-backed funds, which have generally out-performed the retail funds.

It must surely be time for Australian politics to move beyond the “capital good–labour bad” binary.

As recently reported in The New Daily, just 10.1 per cent of private sector workers are union members and 38.5 per cent in the public sector.

But trade unions have done and continue to do much public good, often representing the most vulnerable and lowest paid workers in the community.

Perhaps as Mr Turnbull contemplates his future as a progressive leader in the Menzian tradition he may wish to ponder the words of the man himself, spoken upon his first election victory as Liberal leader in 1949 and resonating loud and clear today:

“We represent all the people, not just the ones who voted for us, but the ones who voted against us. And the real thing we have to produce is not only national prosperity but national unity.”

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine.

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