The long-time power base of Labor leader Bill Shorten – the Australian Workers Union – has called for him to silence his critics by putting forward policy alternatives to the Abbott government.
With some rumblings over Mr Shorten taking a bipartisan approach on issues like national security, the AWU has launched a national campaign to reserve part of Australia’s domestic gas for domestic use.
AWU national secretary Scott McDine argued that the domestic price of gas was expected to triple in coming years, as big resource projects came on line to liquefy local gas and export it to Asia.
Mr McDine told the AWU’s biennial national conference on the Gold Coast on Monday that his union supported gas exports, but that every major producing country had some form of reservation for domestic use.
“We are the only gas-rich nation that allows multinationals to completely destroy our massive national advantage of affordable natural gas,” he said.
Mr McDine said he was discussing the campaign with cross bench senators and will take the plan to the ACTU congress in May, followed by the ALP national conference in July.
“I know there are critics of Federal Labor at the moment, critics of Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen, who are saying they are not coming up with any credible alternatives on policies at the moment,” Mr McDine said.
“That’s Labor not putting forward something positive.
“Well, here’s a surefire way to silence critics – start putting forward a policy on domestic gas reservation.”
While the AWU argues that rising gas prices will lead to heavy job losses in manufacturing and squeeze household budgets, the idea of a domestic reservation is hotly opposed by the major resource companies.
Labor frontbencher Gary Gray – a former ALP national secretary and ex-Woodside Petroleum executive – has also criticised the plan.
Some Labor MPs would be wary of getting major resource companies offside, which would risk a re-run of the campaign by mining companies on Labor’s resource rent tax which dogged the Rudd and Gillard governments.
But Mr McDine said the AWU would target key state and federal seats on the gas reservation plans, along with national advertising.
“And, yes, to Gary Gray in the federal seat of Brand, that does mean you also,” he said.
AWU national president Bill Ludwig said the union would not give up on its campaign: “Sometimes it’s better to forge policy and drag the party with us rather than wait for the party to catch up.”
Mr Shorten, a former AWU national secretary, who addressed the union’s conference dinner on Monday night, will be treated like a favourite son.
But with Prime Minister Tony Abbott making a modest recovery in opinion polls Mr Shorten has started laying out policy differences with the Coalition, which included Labor’s $2 billion tax crackdown on profit shifting by multinationals.
Any crackdown of corporate tax is welcomed by the union movement, with the AWU conference on Monday passing a motion calling for the “big four” accounting firms to be banned from making political donations based on advisory roles on corporate profit shifting.
The AWU says the four firms’ – PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Ernst & Young and Deloitte – contribution to Australian political parties rose by about 20 per cent to $551,498 last year.
The union argues that the “vast majority” of these donations went to the Liberal Party, with the biggest donors being KPMG and PwC.
The AWU’s national conference passed a motion supporting a tougher line on corporate tax avoidance, including the big four accounting firms.
One irony not mentioned in the motion is that the AWU’s former national secretary, Paul Howes, last year joined KPMG as a consultant on non-taxation matters.
In Canberra, Mr Shorten said Labor had supported some measures in the 2014 budget but not others, such as proposed cuts to family payments and the GP co-payment.
“But when it comes to fairness what we won’t support is the government breaking its promises and hurting ordinary Australians,” he said.
“But we have been bipartisan on a range of matters and we continue to do so.”