Doing the dirty work

25 Feb 2014

An attack on the unions won’t necessarily have the expected political impact.

FOR BOTH sides of Australian politics, the 1980s has assumed the status of a heroic age. Among Labor figures, this is hardly surprising, since the era was marked by a string of election victories, significant policy innovation and economic transformation, led by two charismatic personalities – Bob Hawke and Paul Keating – and supported by many talented ministers. For the Liberals and Nationals, it is harder to see why the period should be celebrated, except as a magnanimous tribute to the past achievements of their opponents, which they can then, not so magnanimously, contrast with Labor’s recent performance.

But not so, for the conservatives have come to regard the 1980s as the happy era in which they waged war on the “Industrial Relations Club.” The term is Gerard Henderson’s, from a 1983 essay in Quadrant in which he claimed that employer groups, unions, the federal industrial relations department and the Arbitration Commission formed a largely Melbourne-based club that controlled Australian industrial relations. The individuals running these organisations, he wrote, had a “vested interest” in an IR system based on pragmatic deal-making between contending parties. They acted without regard for the economic effects of their decisions, or for the national interest more generally.

In a recent speech to the Sydney Institute, employment minister Eric Abetz compared Henderson (who now presides over that very institute) to Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg five centuries ago. Abetz claimed that Henderson, like Luther, caused reverberations that led to a “Thirty Years War.” (The real Thirty Years War actually broke out a century after Luther’s famous protest, but things presumably moved at a slower pace in those days.)…

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