12 February 2014

Grand or compact

Australians who believe in the union movement believe that if you're worried about losing your job, or working harder for lesser pay and conditions, then you should join your union. If you have to join the union which Paul Howes is operating under the Ludwig franchise, then all he wants is a bit of shoosh from the likes of you and to enjoy the kind of all-care-no-responsibility status union leaders had a generation ago.

This speech makes little sense unless you see it as a precursor for the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption. It signifies little thought on the part of the individual from whose mouth it comes, little sense that he understands the nation into whose politics he thrusts himself, and little sense that he has sought to bring others with him - odd for an avowed unionist.
After a week-and-a-half of front page allegations of corruption in some unions there are things that need to be said - and said in the strongest possible terms.

Any union official proven to be engaged in corrupt or criminal behaviour is a traitor.
The fact that he started his speech with this is puzzling. He opened by talking about vision, and rather than making such a vision rooted in his movement's long history he instead switched to headlines from the preceding two weeks. Union corruption has been going on for more than a week-and-a-half, and the fact that it has hit the media is the least of it. The CFMEU, target of recent allegations, are factional opponents of Howes'. How he expected to rise above the muck with a few factional jabs is unclear.

Howes could have referred to the Health Services Union, whose complicated affairs are playing out in an interesting way. Howes himself referred later to corruption and clean-ups in the AWU, matters which were dealt with by others before he became involved. Making Howes out to be Abbott's patsy doesn't make you a conspiracy theorist: it means you understand how politics works, and how people like Howes operate.

Factional goading, then invoking his own irrelevance: a peculiar model of leadership.
In doing this we should be under no illusion – those who act dishonestly from within the union movement are worse than any crook boss.
I would have been impressed with Paul Howes had he gone to Maules Creek and said to John Maitland, Ian Macdonald and/or Eddie Obeid that, even though their proposals would have employed plenty of AWU members, it was all done dishonestly and he and his union weren't going to be part of it. That didn't happen.

I would have been impressed with Paul Howes had he leant across the luncheon table to Michael Williamson and said: this bullshit has to stop. It has to stop today, and if you dare cry "what do you mean?", I'm going to smack you. That didn't happen, so the idea of Howes as white knight, the guy with the answers has to be seen in that light.
There is no place for you in any corner of our movement.
Clearly though, there has been and there is. Howes, a senior official in both the ALP and ACTU, did very little - too little - to set and enforce standards within the union movement. Why such a person might be considered a great leader in such a movement is unclear. Why he would cheer on a wide-ranging inquiry from a hostile government, and do so a matter of days before a crucial by-election, is unclear - especially if you regard Howes highly as a savvy political operative.
The truth is, today we are facing a real jobs crisis.

This country has shed 130,000 jobs in manufacturing alone since the GFC. Tens of thousands more lie just around the corner.

Indeed, 3000 more lie down the road in Shepparton.

Over my seven years as National Secretary I've travelled to many good factories in deep strife.
People trying to work out a solution at SPC Ardmona would have to look at those words and say: thanks for nothing, Howes. Tooling around the country, casting an eye over closing factories, Howes looks at their labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
Some will tell you that our industrial relations system is dragging us down.

And I won't be popular amongst my friends in the labour movement for saying this - but I agree.
When so few employees are members of unions, this is absurd.

Productivity decisions are matters for management. Holden, Ford and Toyota built cars that too few wanted to buy at the price. Healthy little human beans got their sustenance from sources other than SPC. Department stores don't engage their staff, staff don't engage customers, customers shun the stores, while Paul Howes hovers above, understanding little of what he sees. Labour market decisions, and big old-school negotiations of the type Howes identifies as his desired model, are irrelevant to the dopey decisions that have seen productivity stagnate and decline.
Labour market policy is a core pillar of the national economy. It's as critical as monetary policy and trade policy ...

Yet can you imagine what would happen if other key pillars of economic policy were being knocked down and rebuilt so often?

Imagine re-regulating the interest rates regime on a three-year election cycle. Can you picture what that would do to business and household confidence?

It would create disastrous instability. We'd all be crying for it to end.
Wait until Howes finds out that the Reserve Bank board actually reviews interest rates every month. Wait until he finds out that the exchange rate for the Australian dollar against other countries goes up and down several times a second. The idea that he should be puzzled at workplace relations being subject to political debate is the sign of someone who doesn't understand politics, or is trying to misrepresent it.
Business senses an opportunity whenever the Coalition takes office to shift all the rules in its favour.

Unions do the same when Labor gets in. And ultimately no one gets anywhere.
No one? Anywhere? This country has enjoyed almost 23 years of continuous economic growth, during which the federal government has changed four times. Unemployment is less than six percent. Most tellingly for Howes and his warmed-over Resolution of Conflict, industrial disputes are fewer and shorter than they have been since the Accord.
It's become very fashionable of late to praise the Accord of thirty years ago.

Even those who railed against it at the time, now acknowledge it as the critical turning point in the nation's economic history.
What was right for a previous time is not necessarily right for today. Crucially, Howes never makes the case, invoking nothing beyond the kind of hippie-style can't-we-all-get-along sentiment that he decries in the Greens.

Given that he wants a system that transcends what's "fashionable", does he think that description commends the Accord to serious consideration?
A Grand Compact in which business, unions and government all work out a deal that we all agree to live with for the long haul.
Which businesses? Why unions, given their failure to appeal to workers (not to mention their governance issues)? Which government?

On top of this, the government's criticisms of workplace relations practices at the car manufacturers and SPC Ardmona - which Howes is reinforcing - fails for two reasons:
  • No matter what arrangement employers and workers (union-represented or not) hammer out, some smart-alec from Canberra is going to pick out some detail and make all concerned look like they don't know what they're doing. No agreement, no compact, can survive wise-after-the-event posturings from those who weren't involved and who have no real stake in the success or failure of that workplace.
  • This government has a trust issue over the question of jobs. It says it wants high-paying, secure jobs for Australian workers. In practice it seems unconcerned and disinterested when such jobs are abolished. Its members complain that existing jobs pay "too much" when they often fail to sustain their occupants at a level commensurate with this country's social norms and expectations. Howes is stupid to buy into that dilemma while talking about solutions.
Howes is part of the problem.
A Grand Compact that generates certainty and thus confidence.
This would breed the very kind of anti-competitive environment that the Accord existed to resolve, the mutual complacency that mired Australia in the 1970s at the end of another long boom.
That establishes investing in a workforce as a virtue and not a cost.

Where productivity is a shared responsibility not someone else's job.

Where on the job training and development and career planning are the norm.
Now this is a fine sentiment, well articulated but not at all well considered. This is where Howes needed to engage with ideas about the future of work, the very value of human labour in the twenty-first century. Instead, someone like Kate Carruthers can genuinely be said to have thought more carefully and intelligently about such issues than someone who is supposedly a national leader for Australia's working people. It's no surprise that Howes got more publicity than Carruthers, but journalists - people who have faced the very questions of human work and its value that Carruthers raises - have no excuse for giving Howes a free pass for his banalities.

Howes is right to say that these are big and important issues; he is wrong to advance non-ideas that mention but fail to address them. He is wrong to be lauded by journalists as though he had succeeded in grappling with big and important issues, when he has so clearly failed.
We naively believed that everyone being a little bit unhappy with the outcome, delivered the compromise that was sought.

It turns out we were wrong.

So how could things be different with a Grand Compact? Well, obviously, we have a different climate now.
Yes, and the political 'climate' changes all the time, which means that any kind of compact is going to be a product of 'climate' and will inevitably change when the climate changes again. The government has the desire to keep itself in office but does not have what it takes to maintain policy stability. Business does not have what it takes to maintain its market position in a globally competitive market, let alone grow it. Unions represent few workers, and fewer still well or convincingly. All we have is the climate, and the ability to deal with it as best we can.

The idea of a "Grand Compact" is now revealed as a hollow fraud, a gobbet of windbaggery, an admission that it does not and cannot work in any reality beyond the walls of the National Press Club. Did the wait staff and cleaners share a laugh at these contradictory and vapid ideas? Did the journalists not ask them, or fail to consider what such a Grand Compact might mean to what remains of their own industry?
The absence of social capital in our industrial relations system is something of an Australian anomaly – because strong social capital is actually what drives our success in most other areas.
Precisely because unrepresentative swill like Howes seek to abrogate the rights of the system to themselves, I would suggest. A clubby, behind-closed-doors approach of the type Howes would like would diminish social capital rather than raise it.
We need to talk more about 'why Labor', rather than 'how Labor'
This implies that Labor needs to justify its own existence rather than assume a place at the table as of right. It goes against and undermines the rest of the guff about the Grand Compact.
Labor's sole purpose is not to claw back the Lodge in the most expedient way and then jealously guard it for as long as possible.

It wasn't right for the last six years – and it is not right now for an Opposition to death ride the Government of Australia.
Wait, but you said it was. What changed? Are you a weathervane too, like Tony Abbott?
They should understand a lurch back to WorkChoices-style conditions – is nothing but a get-rich-quick scheme.

But a Grand Compact is a golden long-term investment.
Workchoices failed because nobody was making any money from it. As to Howes' proposal for "a golden long-term investment", it is far from clear who (beyond the few participants) would reap the dividends.
But the point is we can't force people into this - we need to take them with us. A Grand Compact can only be driven through the art of persuasion.
Given the inability of Howes and other members of the political class to take people with them, and build political capital, this key phrase is why this proposal is dead in the water. It's why Jonathan Green is wrong to insist on hope that such pie-in-the-sky might afford any kind of sustenance to anyone other than Howes; he may as well ask Tony Abbott to wait at Cheviot Beach until Harold Holt finally emerges from the surf. Green might criticise the form of the criticism against Howes, but the idea that Howes is pulling a stunt in his own interests with indifference to those of others is sound - more soundly based than Green's insistence on good manners to foster what is at best an ill-considered and impracticable proposal, at worst a feeble and much-hyped con.

Howes' political base does not consist of the AWU's membership. It consists of Bill Ludwig and the journalists who report on politics. For instance, Howes well and truly pulled the wool over the eyes of these monkeys:
Union boss Paul Howes has dramatically undermined Bill Shorten's depiction of the Abbott government as anti-worker, proposing unions enter into a new partnership with the Coalition and business to rein in high wages and lift productivity.
Has there ever been an instance where Shorten and Howes disagreed, and Howes prevailed? No. Therefore this lightweight cannot be said to have undermined anyone or anything. When Shorten says:
Mr Shorten on Thursday again declined to directly criticise Mr Howes, but suggested that it was entertaining a "fantasy" if he thought a Bob Hawke-style Accord could be struct between unions and the Abbott government.

"I am not going to engage in some fantasy that Tony Abbott is going to change his spots," Mr Shorten told ABC radio.

Mr Shorten said that he supported consensus on workplace relations.

"It's what I've done for 25 years," the former union leader said. "Do you seriously believe that Tony Abbott is interested in working with trade unions?"
No, but Howes does:
I don't believe for a second that the Abbott Government is un-turnable on industrial relations.

Despite the more cartoonish portrayals, the Prime Minister is far more a politician than he is an ideologue.
I don't believe that the All Blacks are unbeatable in rugby, but I concede that I'm not the guy to beat them. Howes' stated beliefs are one thing, but his confidence in his ability to turn this government is absolutely misplaced. Shorten knows Abbott better than Howes does. Shorten knows workplace relations better than Howes does. Hell, Shorten knows Howes' job and his union better than Howes does. Memo to Kenny and Massola: whenever Shorten disagrees with Howes, Howes is wrong.

It's a standard trick from the US Republicans to attack your opponent on their strongest suit. The Liberals in Australia tend to attack Labor where they feel most insecure. When Pyne accuses Shorten of dancing to the unions' tune, we see that Shorten is a more substantial figure in the union movement than Pyne or Abbott are with business.

Those who keep faith with Howes will be further dismayed once they realise that his statements are not positions of principle, but contrarian look-at-me poses. Howes' speech is Labor's version of Cory Bernardi's book. If Howes is so powerful, why can't he bring other leading unionists with him? Where is the Labor politician who agrees with Howes' promise to the extent that Howes does, who can cultivate the loyalty that Michael O'Brien showed to Don Farrell? At least Bernardi knows how to win a Senate seat.

To talk Howes up is to fail to understand politics, and if you don't understand politics then what are you doing in the press gallery?

To his credit, Mark Skulley isn't a press gallery journalist but here he demonstrates some of the weaknesses of that debased form of journalism. First, the straw man of McTernan was a weak hook for that article. Second, if you're going to talk about "conspiracy theorists", let's look at this:
Howes wrote an inside account of the 2010 election, Confessions of a Faceless Man, which gives an insight into his preparedness to shake things up, even on his own side. As prime minister, Rudd was asked by the Liberal, Christopher Pyne, to comment on criticism of Labor’s asylum seeker policies by Howes.

The book recounts how Howes was affronted that Rudd told parliament that he had not read the comments: “It was a humiliating blow. I hadn’t been expecting him to agree with me, but to dismiss my views out of hand because they didn’t suit his own thinking was typical of Rudd’s attitude to those around him in the wider labour movement.”
Pyne was shadow minister for education. It's entirely possible that Howes put Pyne up to that question - and before you start, see Kerry-Anne Walsh's The Stalking of Julia Gillard for an example of the Opposition asking Rudd, as Foreign Minister, to bag Prime Minister Gillard under the guise of a cross-party Dorothy Dixer. Howes' profession at being shocked, shocked at Rudd's disloyalty ought not be taken at face value.

Saying Howes is the sort of person who'd set up a Liberal to make a Labor PM look bad, and that said PM could see through it and give Howes a taste of his own treatment, doesn't make you a conspiracy theorist; it shows you understand how politics works. If you understand how politics works you are better able to comment on it than someone who gets starry-eyed about a set-piece confection at the National Press Club.
But the boss of Australia’s biggest union, Joe de Bruyn, has rejected Howes’s idea of a grand compact as “fanciful and na├»ve”.
Such an assessment must surely colour Howes' speech, Howes' judgment, and Howes himself.
But Hawke built consensus, while Howes strikes out on his own in often dramatic ways.
It's a basic political skill to bring others along with you. Any fool can strike out on his own in often dramatic ways. Building consensus and bringing people with you is essential to the realisation of a 'Grand Compact'; striking out on your own less so.
But some of the points Howes made in the speech this week were praised by commentators as varied as Alan Kohler, Jonathan Green and former Liberal strongman Peter Reith, who reckoned he was setting himself up as a potential Labor leader “with backbone”.
None of those people will help Howes win a seat or raise a cent to help any campaign he might run. When he was as old as Howes is now, Bob Hawke was an endorsed Labor candidate for Parliament. Howes is no closer to realising any dreams he might have in that direction, no closer to learning the lessons that Hawke learned at that unsuccessful tilt, and it is unlikely that the Liberals would fear Howes anything like as much as their forebears did Hawke.
[Howes] still evidently enjoys the occasional speech – and has really stirred the possum this time.
He has done nothing of any lasting value. Howes' speech can be dismissed in three words: wanker's gonna wank. A really significant speech would have seen union, business and government leaders consulted beforehand and offer real support, evidence of real heft on Howes' part that is clearly lacking. Plenty of big news (e.g. the Toyota shutdown, the failure of the dire budget predictions last year, this government's palpable fear of regional electorates) went begging because journos got sucked into this bullshit by someone with a big mouth but little actual clout.

Is Australia's future grand or compact? It can't be both because Howes, like his brother-from-another-mother Tony Abbott, hasn't thought through the issues. He can't help us with the policies and the social capital necessary to realise a bright and prosperous future. He can't have a bright and prosperous future at our expense, like Tony Abbott has. When journalist foist a media tart upon the rest of us they foster resentment of not only the tart, but the media. Get your hand off it Howes, wake up to yourselves journalists, tell us what politics is really about and enough with the half-baked sideshows.


  1. Hi Paul you have dissected Howes speech to the press club with such forthright and apt description of this unimportant squid.
    I will go back and re-read your piece again because every one should recognise how lightweight he is and has not got the connection to business leaders as Hawke not only had in Australia but internationally

  2. "Wanker's gonna wank". You couldn't have hit the nail more squarely on the head with the aid of an electron microscope.

  3. Great piece Andrew. You have nailed Howes. He appears to be another self-absorbed pretender with his eyes turned backwards for inspiration.
    Grand compact indeed. So grandiose.

    I found the Kate Carruthers analysis terrifying and riveting.

    I had not realized until recently that professional jobs are disappearing from Australia at a rapid rate. The debate seems to be about manufacturing jobs, particularly at the blue collar end.

    I have no confidence that the government has any plan to guide Australia through a time of tumultuous change. Tony Abbott is mind-numbingly banal on the matter: Australia is a resilient country, Australians are creative people, better jobs will turn up blah blah. Nothing of any substance whatsoever.

    1. That's just it: there has to be a plan, and there isn't one, so all the spivs are stepping into the vacuum.

  4. Interesting article. The lack of back up Howes brought with him really was telling. Its true, and I didnt even think of it: Why in the hell would you talk about a grand compact, but forget to tell the Opposition/Union Leader?

    I found Shorten's comments on the rigidness of Tony Abbott interesting. As pointed out a recent article by Mungo Macallum on the ABC comment section, Abbott would very quickly change his tune if it was in his interests. Abbott dismisses unions as being necessary at all, so why would he conclude that there is any benefit to him, the LNP or the country generally by being forced to deal with them, or worse, share glory? Attacking him on self-interest and flakiness seems like a hit that would hurt Abbott more because it is closer to the truth. The whole, Abbott is a prick and wont play ball schtick was tried for the past three years and failed.

    The whole premise of Howes speech was that we need to improve productivity to improve wages. As you note, that is a management problem. Australian businesses have had it too good for too long and are the equivalent of an obese person mulling over whether to join Jenny Craig. All whinging and whining but no action.

    What do you think of Abbott's actions in this light? Is he sending a message for upper management to pull their finger out of their collective arses? And crushing union related industries is just cream.

  5. As perceptive as always, Andrew. (It's really quite flattering to have one's own assessment of this supported ... )

    Howes is no Bob Hawke, that's for sure.

    1. Remember how Hawke bolstered his cross-party credentials with endorsements from people like Sir Peter Abeles? Howes just doesn't know where to start.

    2. Howes is not totally off the planet. A less gormless and unsure of itself government would have sat down with the car industry (as Bush/Obama did) including unions and negotiated. Instead we had the reverse of 'in place of strife'. Less out of neo liberal purity than a cabinet unable to go beyond fighting old PR battles.

  6. Howes wants to take us back to the 70's and have a re-run, Abbott wants to take us back and do what Fraser had the sense not to do; that 49% of Australians think this is ok is very depressing.

    The question is what to do, I believe Rudd/Gillard had some sort of plan, NBN to support whatever that would bring, a price on carbon to encourage investment in clean energy (there is work in building them there windmills), a tax on mining and a tax relief for other business so they could invest in whatever. The rejection of tax relief by business underlines how difficult the problem is; the rejection of some sort of plan by the majority of Australians leaves you wondering; what in the hell do you do?

    Abbott the lost years.

  7. Howes these days is consorting with the likes of Janet Albretchsen and Michael Kroger. Head of a major Union at the age of 28 - the guy has absolutely no experience or perspective. Will no doubt eventually be put to pasture and find a home in the Op ed pages of the 'Australian' where he'll blather away about the excesses of the left and fade away into utter irrelevance.

  8. As much as I admire and respect your writing Andrew, I simply could not read so much about Paul Howes. It's not you, it's him.

  9. Lachlan Ridge19/2/14 12:44 pm

    I worked with Paul Howes. You, sir, are no Paul Howes.

    Thank Christ!

    It is worth noting just how many people occupying positions that affect public policy appear to be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder or are straight out sociopaths.