Eric Abetz is eating Shorten's lunch

The employment minister is talking more sense on unions than the Labor party. Bill Shorten needs to take a stand or risk losing the industrial relations fight to the Coalition.

In British writer Ian McEwan’s critically acclaimed tele-movie The Ploughman’s Lunch, a young journalist tells a wealthy land-owner and his socialist wife: “There's no reason why a socialist shouldn't like comfort, or own a wood, or be very rich. The problem is making all that available to everybody.”

That was back in the Thatcher years, and that statement of political naivety was one of the reasons the production was lauded as “undoubtedly the most politically aware film produced in Britain since the war”.

But it’s not only fictional Poms who can have such thoughts. That kind of thinking seems to have infected a certain breed of unionist, and today’s papers are full of news of the Abbott government’s determination to force them to see the error of their ways.

While unions stand accused of strangling productivity at Qantas and Toyota, the industry in the spotlight today is the construction industry, where “making all that available to everybody” means deals between unions and corporations to charge way over the odds for construction projects.

For the record, I don’t have any problem with a hardworking concreter or electrician being “very rich”. Hard work and initiative should be rewarded, and there are plenty of white-collar workers who live luxurious lives, despite having neither.

But the union movement is supposed to “make all that available to everybody” – and of course, as a nation we can’t all own a wood.

What can we own? Well, subject to the lending restrictions of the big banks, the answer, in a national sense, is a multiple of what we earn – and an average full-time worker on normal hours earns $74,000 a year, according the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

In a major speech to the Sydney Institute yesterday, employment minister Eric Abetz set out, in great detail and at great length, why he thinks many unions are pushing wages and conditions in some sectors way ahead of what workers in other industries can take home.

And Abetz, significantly, made the call that Bill Shorten should be making to reshape the ALP as relevant to contemporary workplaces, and to reinvigorate the reforming spirit the party and unions had in the 1980s.

Abetz said: “Employers and unions must be encouraged to take responsibility for the cost of their deals, not just the cost to the affected enterprises, but the overall cost in relation to our economic efficiency and the creation of opportunities for others. If this is not done, then we risk seeing something akin to the ‘wages explosions’ of the pre-Accord era, when unsustainable wage growth simply pushed thousands of Australians out of work.”

He added: “Paul Keating once said of one of [ACTU boss Dave] Oliver’s AMWU predecessors, George Campbell, that he carried the scalps of 100,000 unemployed metal workers around his neck”, in reference to the early 1980s wages explosion that he and his union had initiated.

“Mr Oliver and the union leadership owe it to their constituency to seriously consider whether they wish to be similarly responsible for the scalps of thousands of unemployed former auto worker members.”

I hope readers have spotted already what has happened in the short few months since the Abbott government took office. Despite promising not to make dramatic changes to the Fair Work Act until after the 2016 election, they have come out swinging, and are taking the fight to Labor in the very way Shorten should be taking the fight to the Coalition.

At this rate, Abetz will own what was previously the “industrial relations” debate.

He asked: “Who stands up for the individual? Who stands up for the individual enterprise? Who stands up for society’s needs? Who stands up for the unemployed? Who stands up for the economy’s needs? It was in recognition of this concern that the prime minister shrank my title to simply that of Minister for Employment. In the past, too great an effort has been placed on massaging two sectional interests [unions and employers] whilst overlooking both the individual and the common good.”

That is not a return to WorkChoices. And if Abetz is smart he will start to put better numbers into his speeches than he used last night.

Instead of complaining about a couple of thousand dollars of entitlements here, or a few hours off work there, he needs to show workers toiling far below that $74,000 average income how many indolent fat cats there are far above it. And not the ones in pin-striped suits.

Grace Collier today explains in The Australian the union enterprise bargaining agreement process within the building industry, and its inequitable outcome: everyone gets paid too much, and other Australian businesses and taxpayers who fund construction projects are ripped off.

At this point in time, it would appear that Bill Shorten has let slip from his hands the debate that Labor should own. 

It was Shorten's job to put the back-room dealings with unions of the Gillard-Rudd years behind him. It was Shorten's job to start publicly planning for a new Accord (post-2016) and show how he is talking recalcitrant union leaders around.

A man sometimes held up as the ‘next Bob Hawke’ is letting Eric Abetz eat his lunch.

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