Firing blanks on industrial relations

This week has seen the ALP attempt to galvanise the union movement to fight for them in order to prevent the Coalition from winning the next federal election. This has meant that union leaders such as Paul Howes have featured prominently in the media.

I thought I’d take a look at how unions are viewed by the Australian public to see if this would have any benefit to the ALP. Firstly, I’m going to look at how the public views unions, then I’m going to look at how the public views industrial relations as an election issue and finally how it all plays out in the national political debate.

Firstly we’ll start with some issues polling from Essential Media Communications from September 10th 2012.

Q. Overall, do you think unions have been good or bad for Australian working people?

19 Mar 2012

This week 10 Sept 12

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Work full time

Work part time

Total good

48%

45%

67%

30%

74%

47%

51%

Total bad

17%

20%

4%

36%

6%

22%

18%

Very good

12%

11%

20%

4%

28%

11%

12%

Good

36%

34%

47%

26%

46%

36%

39%

Neither good nor bad

28%

27%

24%

30%

13%

25%

21%

Bad

11%

12%

3%

20%

5%

12%

11%

Very bad

6%

8%

1%

16%

1%

10%

7%

Don’t know

6%

8%

6%

4%

7%

5%

9%

This is fairly straight forward. A majority of respondents believe unions have been good for Australian working people. Next we’ll look at the importance of unions to Australian working people today.

Q. And how important are unions for Australian working people today?

19 Mar 2012

This week 10 Sept 12

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Work full time

Work part time

Total Important

56%

52%

72%

34%

82%

52%

56%

Total Not Important

35%

38%

21%

58%

11%

42%

33%

Very important

19%

16%

28%

6%

37%

19%

15%

Quite important

37%

36%

44%

28%

45%

33%

41%

Not very important

27%

28%

19%

40%

9%

31%

25%

Not at all important

8%

10%

2%

18%

2%

11%

8%

Don’t know

9%

10%

6%

8%

7%

6%

10%

Again, pretty straight forward. A majority of respondents appreciate the importance of unions to Australian working people. The next question is where things start to get a little interesting.

Q. Overall, would workers be better off or worse off if unions in Australia were stronger?

Total

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Work full time

Work part time

Total better off

39%

58%

24%

71%

40%

40%

Total worse off

30%

17%

47%

9%

35%

24%

A lot better off

13%

24%

7%

20%

15%

13%

A little better off

26%

34%

17%

51%

25%

27%

A little worse off

15%

13%

20%

5%

16%

12%

A lot worse off

15%

4%

27%

4%

19%

12%

Make no difference

15%

12%

18%

7%

16%

15%

Don’t know

15%

14%

12%

13%

9%

21%

This result shows a majority consider Australian working people would be better off if unions were stronger, but it’s not as intense as the response to the previous two questions. A decent chunk of the response is either indifferent or simply doesn’t know. If we were combining the results we could say 60% of respondents consider Australian working people would be worse off, no different or unsure about whether they’d be better or worse off if unions were stronger. If we look at the intensity of response, we can see that only 13% of respondents believe Australian working people would be a lot better off if unions were stronger compared to 26% who believe they’d be a little better off. This is not very encouraging news if you believe in the importance and good that unions do.

Next is another Essential Media Communications Poll from October 22nd, 2012 which looked at trust in organisations and institutions.

Q. How much trust do you have in the following institutions and organisations?

Total

trust

26 Sep 11

Total

trust

12 Jun 12

Total trust

22 Oct 12

A lot of trust

Some trust

A little trust

No trust

Don’t know

% change

The High Court

72%

60%

63%

26%

37%

21%

10%

6%

+3

The ABC

46%

54%

59%

20%

39%

26%

8%

6%

+5

The Reserve Bank

67%

49%

53%

16%

37%

28%

12%

8%

+4

Charitable organisations

61%

50%

53%

9%

44%

33%

10%

5%

+3

Environment groups

45%

32%

36%

8%

28%

35%

24%

6%

+4

The Commonwealth Public Service

49%*

30%

33%

6%

27%

41%

16%

10%

+3

Your local council

na

na

32%

4%

28%

39%

22%

6%

na

Religious organisations

29%

27%

31%

7%

24%

28%

35%

6%

+4

Newspapers

na

26%

31%

4%

27%

45%

20%

4%

+5

Online news media

na

23%

28%

4%

24%

45%

20%

6%

+5

TV news media

na

21%

26%

5%

21%

44%

26%

4%

+5

Federal Parliament

55%

22%

26%

4%

22%

37%

32%

5%

+4

State Parliament

na

na

25%

4%

21%

37%

33%

5%

na

Business groups

38%

22%

25%

3%

22%

45%

21%

9%

+3

Trade unions

39%

22%

23%

5%

18%

32%

36%

9%

+1

Political parties

na

12%

16%

2%

14%

36%

42%

6%

+4

What this table shows is that unions have a very low degree of trust in the Australian community. Very similar levels of trust to the business community. That might be due to the larger dynamics in relation to the changing nature of the Australian economy or it could simply be how the public are viewing the fight between business and unions in the debate around industrial relations issues i.e come to consensus rather than tear each other apart.

Next we’ll look at another Essential Media Communications poll from July 30th, 2012 on public views in relation to the Fair Work Act.

Q. Business groups have said that Australia’s industrial relations laws favour workers and unions and should be changed so that businesses can increase productivity and have more flexibility with their workforce. Do you think Australia’s industrial relations laws favour employers or workers or do they balance the interests of workers and employers?

6 Feb 12

Total

30 Jul 12

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Full time workers

Part time workers

Favour employers

25%

20%

25%

16%

33%

22%

16%

Favour workers

24%

26%

12%

43%

14%

29%

24%

Balance the interests of employers and workers

34%

34%

49%

26%

26%

33%

37%

Don’t know

17%

20%

13%

15%

26%

17%

23%

This result shows the majority believe the current industrial relations system balances the interests of employers and workers, but what’s interesting is the partisan responses. Labor and Greens respondents believe the current laws favour employers more than workers and Coalition respondents believe the laws favour workers more than employers, yet there seems to be a fair amount of agreement across the partisan spectrum that the laws find a balance between both groups. This suggests that a message that transcends the partisan divide from either political party would get a positive response from the community. I’ll talk about this a bit more in a minute.

Next we’ll look at industrial relations as important election issue and which political party is more trusted to handle it. For this I’ll use both the last Newspoll and Essential Media Communications poll that asked these questions. We’ll start with Newspoll from February 2013:

Thinking about federal politics. would you say each of the following issues is very important, fairly important or not important on how you personally would vote in a federal election? (issues rated as very important)

Interest Rates Health and Medicare Education National Security Leadership IndustrialRelations The Economy Climate Change Asylum Seekers arriving in Australia Unemployment
% % % % % % % % % %
1-3 Feb 2013 38 80 77 57 62 39 74 35 48 56

This result shows Industrial Relations is not high on the list of important issues in terms of what would decide how one would vote at a federal election. Then we get:

Which one of the (ALP, Liberal and National Party Coalition or someone else) do you think would best handle the issue of industrial relations?

Liberal/National Coalition ALP Someone Else None Uncommitted
% % % % %
1-3 Feb 2013 36 41 4 3 16

This result shows more respondents think the ALP are best to handle the issue of industrial relations but not by much. This is a bit alarming given how often the ALP talk about the threat of a Coalition government bringing back WorkChoices and other forms of draconian industrial relations legislation.

Next we’ll look at the Essential Media Communications results on important election issues and the political party best to handle those issues. These results are from February 11th 2013:

Q. Which are the three most important issues in deciding how you would vote at a Federal election?

Total

11 Feb 13

19 Nov 12

30 Jul 12

5 Dec 11

6 June 11

25 Jan 10

Management of the economy

62%

66%

64%

62%

61%

63%

Ensuring a quality education for all children

29%

35%

26%

22%

26%

23%

Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system

52%

57%

47%

47%

49%

48%

Protecting the environment

14%

14%

11%

13%

15%

16%

A fair industrial relations system

12%

8%

12%

11%

8%

na

Political leadership

14%

15%

25%

18%

17%

23%

Addressing climate change

9%

9%

9%

10%

15%

16%

Controlling interest rates

9%

11%

9%

11%

13%

15%

Australian jobs and protection of local industries

40%

32%

41%

36%

32%

33%

Ensuring a quality water supply

4%

5%

3%

4%

5%

12%

Housing affordability

11%

14%

13%

13%

16%

14%

Ensuring a fair taxation system

21%

17%

18%

16%

17%

14%

Security and the war on terrorism

6%

5%

5%

4%

8%

9%

Treatment of asylum seekers

6%

6%

10%

8%

5%

na

Managing population growth

9%

7%

8%

8%

12%

na

There are many more issues for respondents to choose from in this poll than the Newspoll but again it shows “A fair indutrial relations system” not high on the list with only 12% considering it an important election issue.

Q. Which party would you trust most to handle the following issues?

Labor

Liberal

Greens

Don’t know

Diff
11
Feb
13

Diff
19
Nov
12

Diff
18
Jun
12

Management of the economy

31%

46%

3%

21%

-15

-14

-18

Ensuring a quality education for all children

37%

35%

6%

22%

+2

+5

-2

Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system

33%

36%

6%

25%

-3

-3

-6

Protecting the environment

20%

21%

39%

20%

+18

+16

+17

A fair industrial relations system

39%

33%

4%

23%

+6

+9

+6

Political leadership

29%

37%

6%

29%

-8

-12

-16

Addressing climate change

21%

24%

29%

26%

+5

+9

+7

Controlling interest rates

27%

41%

3%

30%

-14

-11

-18

Protecting Australian jobs and protection of local industries

33%

36%

4%

27%

-3

-2

-6

Ensuring a quality water supply

21%

27%

23%

29%

-6

-7

-12

Housing affordability

27%

33%

5%

35%

-6

-5

-11

Ensuring a fair taxation system

31%

37%

4%

28%

-6

-9

-10

Security and the war on terrorism

25%

38%

4%

33%

-13

-15

-22

Treatment of asylum seekers

20%

37%

14%

30%

-17

-18

-20

Managing population growth

21%

33%

7%

39%

-12

-15

-19

This table shows that one of the only issues where respondents trust the ALP more than the Coalition is industrial relations. But even then it’s only by a margin of 6%. It’s not exactly the margin many in the ALP would like to see in relation to this contest given the amount of time they’ve spent hammering on the issue.

If there’s one issue Tony Abbott has been very clever with, it would be in relation to his political tactics on industrial relations. Many in the Liberal Party would like to see a return to WorkChoices. It’s a reason many people join the Liberal Party in the first place: to shift the policy needles in favour of the business community and crush the union movement. What Tony Abbott has done by contrast is take a different approach.

Instead of advocating for a return to WorkChoices, he’s attempted to position the Liberal Party as the party that favours a fair and balanced industrial relations system. So whenever he talks about flexibility, it’s framing the issue in terms of the pendulum being tilted too far in one direction. The polling above shows many prefer an industrial relations system that balances employers and workers interests. His message is framed towards this group: the middle. So whenever the ALP say he’ll bring back WorkChoices if he becomes Prime Minister, all he does is say he’s for a fair system and the ALP are for an unbalanced system.

Then he associates himself with people from the trade union movement such as Kathy Jackson who are seen as extremely dodgy to Labor people because he’s trying to frame his message in terms of how the ALP behave rather than what he does. It’s part of the reason he’ll also advocate for the reestablishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. People in the union movement know what that means but communicating it with all the noise and framing it in a way that makes him look extreme is extremely difficult when he’s framed it around the way the ALP and the union movement behave.

And to drive the dagger in as firmly in as possible, he then addresses the National Press Club in January and says things like:

“As my personal history shows, I’ve never been anti-union.

I support unions that are honestly managed and genuinely focused on a fair deal for their members.

That’s why a big part of the Coalition’s workplace policy will be tackling the rorts we’ve seen in the Health Services Union and the Australian Workers Union.

These are the sorts of measures that a less-compromised Labor government could introduce and that decent Labor people would support.

I have never believed that Australian workers are overpaid and will never begrudge the decent working people of our country a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

That’s why our workplace policy will ensure that changes have to benefit a business’s workers as well as its owners, managers and customers – because you can’t have a successful business without motivated workers”

http://australianpolitics.com/2013/01/31/tony-abbott-address-to-national-press-club.html

This sort of rhetoric completely floors people who support the ALP and the union movement as it’s the exact opposite of their message that he’ll bring WorkChoices back and worse. It looks like the “Evil Bunny” all over again but this time, it’s the ALP using the tactics.

The ALP: “A government lead by Tony Abbott would bring back WorkChoices”, The Public: “So what? Look at the way you behave!” … That’s pretty much the dynamic Abbott’s trying to create around this issue and I’d say he’s been quite successful at it.

The problem is only exacerbated when the Prime Minister says things such as the passage below

“I’m not the leader of a party called the progressive party.

I’m not the leader of a party called the moderate party.

I’m not the leader of a party even called the socialist democratic party.

I’m a leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is what we come from.

That is what we believe in and that is who we are.”

http://australianpolitics.com/2013/02/18/julia-gillard-speech-to-awu-conference.html

All this sort of rhetoric does is allow Tony Abbott to firmly plant the Coalition as representatives of the middle in terms of industrial relations and other issues in the national political debate.

Then you see people like Paul Howes on Lateline and the point becomes more profound.

In my opinion, what the ALP should be doing is emphasising the socially democratic, progressive, moderate side of the party. A party with unions attached to it but not one where they’re calling the shots. After all, collective bargaining is a democratic right! It’s not just a plaything for political parties to score points. These are people’s lives and living standards we’re talking about!

The union movement during the Hawke and Keating governments did three very important things that were painful to their membership but were in the best interests of the nation:

1. The Prices and Incomes Accord

2. Ending 100 years of Centralised Wage Fixing and shifting to Enterprise Bargaining

3. Compulsory Superannuation

If you listen to Paul Keating as often as I have, you’ll eventually hear him talk about how he had to put the union movement in a headlock and pull out their rotten teeth with a pair of pliers in order to get some of these things done and he’ll include extreme amounts of praise towards Bill Kelty who was the head of the ACTU at the time for making those sacrifices for the greater good of the nation.

These reforms allowed the union movement to survive in this age as well and made certain that even with the massive cultural and economic changes, the purpose of unions and the right for employees to collectively bargain was enshrined in the Australian social contract.

I think a lot of this history is either largely forgotten by the current ALP or is simply not understood or appreciated.

A lot of the rhetoric from the ALP on industrial relations is filled with good intentions. Fairness is very important to Australians but at the same time, most of the political points being made against the Coalition are simply firing blanks and while Abbott maintains the framing that the Coalition aren’t going to bring back WorkChoices if they form government (regardless of whether people believe him or not), that will continue to be the case.

Advertisements

One thought on “Firing blanks on industrial relations

  1. Drag0nista February 23, 2013 at 8:25 am Reply

    Reblogged this on AusVotes 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: