Features Australia

Manicurist nation

Our thuggish unions are no better than American beauty salons

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

Do you lie awake at night fretting about the prospect of a Manicure Gone Wrong? A bungled pedicure? I do. I have mani nightmares. The local shellac parlour may as well be the Malaysia Airlines departure lounge.

It’s not all senseless suffering, though. For nail specialists, as it turns out, have a great deal to teach us about what ails the Australian body politic. And not just its extremities.

The lesson starts in the United States. In Illinois, manicurists require a licence to practise; electricians do not. Are hangnails a greater threat to the Windy City than faulty circuitry? Do legislators there share my mani-pedi-phobia?

Apparently not. According to University of Chicago professor Charles Wheelan, established manicurists demanded a regulatory barrier-to-entry to stave off upstart, start-up competition. So the lacquer lobby persuaded lawmakers to introduce prospective licensing requirements, making it harder for newcomers to open a salon.

As Nobel laureate George Stigler put it, ‘every industry or occupation that has enough political power to utilise the state will seek to control entry.’ Hence taxi drivers’ attempts to eradicate the Uber-menschen.

It gets grimmer. Another Nobel economist, Gary Becker, has shown that small groups like nail artistes are particularly well placed to exact boondoggles of our political system. Wheelan summarises Becker’s point: ‘all else equal, small, well-organised groups are most successful in the political process. Why? Because the costs of whatever favours they wrangle out of the system are spread over a large, unorganised segment of the population.’ That’s how US spending bills end up with 9,000 earmarks for pet projects.


Having digested this week’s supplement to the Index Verborum Prohibitorum, you’ll be au fait with the racist connotations of the Nixonian term, ‘silent majority’. So here’s the implication of Becker’s thesis, in polite terms: clever minorities tend to get their way over the taciturn preponderance of the populace.

Is this just another kooky American phenomenon, like the National Rifle Association or David Leyonhjelm (the shoot-from-the-hip Senator for the gun-crazy US state of New South Wales)? Not so fast. Australia has its own pedicure posse. It’s called the trade union movement.

With a membership rate of just 17 per cent of the workforce, unions are apparently 99 per cent in charge of one of our two major political parties. Not long ago, they engineered the defenestration then refenestration of a Labor Prime Minister.

Indeed, it has been said that the unions’ ‘ability to exert great control on the Labor Party ought to be taken as a given.’ That’s not from a Liberal Party attack ad. It’s from the ACTU’s own submissions to Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon.

Incidentally, the ACTU had a curious follow-up. On the one hand, Heydon’s agreement to give the Sir Garfield Barwick Address was slam-dunk evidence of his partiality — sorry, apprehended partiality — to the Liberal Party. On the other hand, they said, nobody could possibly guess the political leanings of former High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, who had previously given the selfsame Address. ACTU President Dave Oliver may well share my anxiety about pedicures, but shooting his own foot off seems a disproportionate prophylactic.

Then again, disproportion is the name of the game. CFMEU members make up less than one per cent of the workforce. Yet that union has proved itself a dab hand at political ventriloquy. Sometimes, when Mr Shorten mouths the script of its anti-ChAFTA TV spots, it looks almost as if it is actually Mr Shorten who is speaking (do ventriloquists require a licence?).

Labor’s opposition to the ChAFTA is textbook manicurism. Unions feel threatened by an influx of Chinese workers. Those unions are small. They are well organised. And they are not big on labour market competition. Meanwhile, a free trade agreement is a blanket tax cut for consumers and exporters. Former US Treasury secretary Robert Rubin called the trade agreements of the Clinton presidency ‘the largest tax cut in the history of the world.’ But which interest group will take up the cudgels for such a diffuse, ill-perceived benefit? Cheaper steel lacks the telegenic fascination of potential job losses. So the CFMEU winds up with an influence out of all proportion to the narrow interests it claims to represent.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Labor Party has opposed an Asian trade deal. Go back to 1957. Australia is condemned to xenophobic isolation by an Anglophile despotism. First contact with Asia is but a glint in Gough Whitlam’s eye. And the Menzies government concludes a trade deal with Japan.

The Labor opposition leader was one H.V. Evatt. He had stepped down — or up, depending on your perspective — from the High Court to enter the federal parliament. He seems to have been chums with Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact fame). And he was later appointed Chief Justice of NSW by a Labor government. The hypothetical fair-minded lay observer never batted an eyelid.

Evatt thundered that the 1957 Australia-Japan Commerce Agreement would kill Australian jobs. Like premature reports of Mark Twain’s death, Evatt’s prognosis was greatly exaggerated. Here is John Howard’s take in The Menzies Era: ‘Labor’s position on this issue owed everything to its continued subservience to the unions, which demanded adherence to a narrow protectionist line for the manufacturing industry, even at the cost of developing a trade relationship of huge long-term benefit to Australia.’ Again, this is pure manicurism.

Evatt can perhaps be forgiven for some genuflection to the unions, given that the rate of membership in the 1950s stood at around 60 per cent. I can’t explain comrades’ desertion of the movement since that time. Hang in there, become an officer, and the membership rewards seem pretty clear: exotic holidays, private school tuition for your kids, high-class hookers, a lazy parliamentary seat or two.

But we can explain the continued, disproportionate influence of trade unions. Those bruisers in overalls wearing CFMEU badges are manicurists at heart. Charles Wheelan hit the well-varnished nail on the head: ‘In politics, the tail can wag the dog.’

Daniel Ward is the winner of last year’s Spectator Thawley Essay Prize

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