Features Australia

A solid dose of aggro

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

This isn’t an easy confession to make in the pages of this august publication, but I grudgingly admire the ACTU’s Sally McManus.

Don’t get me wrong. There is little in McManus’ ideological outlook to recommend itself to a sentient being. Her suggestion that wage rises not linked to productivity increases will help deal with inflation is as bizarre as her suggestion that we should pick and choose which laws we obey.

However, McManus has been appointed to lead the ACTU, not to win the approval of pearl-clutchers. She knows what her constituency is and is unswerving in her fidelity to fighting on its behalf, even if that entails the advocacy of dubious proposals.

Examine what occurred following her first television interview, when she volunteered that ‘I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking’ those industrial laws that she and her union brethren perceive as ‘unjust’.

The subsequent reviews would be the stuff of nightmares for most ambitious public figures. But Sally McManus isn’t looking to be the next Bob Hawke, or Simon Crean. Her audience is an increasingly small — but nonetheless vocal — band of hardcore union activists. When they hear themselves being compared to Martin Luther King in the struggle against injustice, then naturally, they are flattered. Of course, the comparison is ridiculous. Dr King’s life and work has been meticulously examined and although the man himself never laid claim to perfection, no evidence has emerged of him calling people ‘f—ing dog c-nts’, as officials of the CFMEU routinely do.

Had Gandhi had access to modern communications technology, it’s hard to conceive of him using it to advise a woman she was a ‘rat’ who ‘hangs out with pole dancers and one day hopes to be one’ — another charming epithet to fall from the lips of a senior CFMEU office-bearer in Victoria.

Yet, confronted with the question of the CFMEU’s attitude towards women when she addressed the National Press Club in March, McManus didn’t miss a beat. She told the audience that ‘if my brothers were on a building site, I would like it to be a CFMEU building site’.

No word, alas, on how she’d feel if it were her sisters on-site instead.

It was a bravura performance from ‘Won’t Lay Down Sally’, who used the speech to pledge that she refuses to ‘keep my head down’, and to declare herself a unionist ‘first, second and third’.

Increasingly, all despondent conservatives can do is look and wonder where are the warriors possessed of such combative spirit on our own side of the political divide?

At best, we get a day or two of tut-tutting about how ‘extreme’ unions are, followed by tepid warnings about how the Labor Party is ‘dominated by unions’. The plain fact is that Australians are not convinced that militant unions are economically destructive. Not anymore.

This is partly because unions are more skilled at presentation than they once were, but the larger problem is that conservatives ceased to fight the IR battle, because of an irrational, all-consuming fear that someone might use the phrase ‘WorkChoices’.

This reticence is especially curious in the case of the Turnbull Government, because two of its biggest policy triumphs have been in IR — the abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal and crushing the attempted union takeover of Victoria’s CFA.

Yet inexplicably, there’s been little attempt to use these victories to craft any narrative which links those examples to the perfidious influence of unions in other industries. Norm Gallagher’s BLF, Robe River and Dollar Sweets are, in political terms, ancient history. A child born at the time of the 1998 waterfront dispute is now old enough to vote.

It’s almost ten years since the Coalition lost an election fought on WorkChoices. Things have changed quite a bit since then — not least of which is the fact that the unemployment rate today is significantly higher than it was on the day John Howard was defeated, and the dreaded WorkChoices was in effect.

So, where is the public articulation of the fact that the Labor Party’s radical re-regulation of Australia’s workplace laws (at the behest of the ACTU) bears at least some of the responsibility for this?

Conservatives can’t possibly hope to win the political battle if they keep allowing its terms to be set by opponents.

The lead up to this year’s Budget was another painful case study, with weeks and weeks focussed on what the Turnbull Government is going to do about ‘housing affordability’.

Section 51 of the Constitution does not list ‘housing’ as an area of Commonwealth responsibility. As we know, things that aren’t specifically mentioned there are the responsibility of state governments. So, why has the current federal government allowed itself to be set up as the villain of the piece?

Increasingly, the Liberal Party appears sundered from any desire to fight, and instead pursues consensus as though that were an end in itself. For all the myth making about Bob Hawke’s ‘consensus politics’, he didn’t build his legacy by ending fights; he did so by winning them. Having a fight is no bad thing, especially if you can do it on your terms.

Conservatives need to make it clear that elections have consequences, and stop pretending the federal government is a benevolent fund there to protect voters from their poor choices at the state and local level. People want more affordable housing? Fine — get them to stop electing state governments that can’t manage land supply, and local councils that push anti-development agendas. They want cheaper gas? Great. Turn the blowtorch on state governments that impose idiotic bans on gas exploration.

In January 1994, after the Liberal Party had lost its fifth election on the trot, John Howard wrote that his side of politics could ‘do with a solid dose of anger’.

Twenty-three years later, it’s not a dose of anger the Liberal Party needs, but a solid dose of aggro. Our opponents seem to have worked out what (and who) they are fighting for. If Sally McManus can manage it, it’s surely not beyond Australia’s most successful political party.

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