Howes' grand compact is urgently needed

AWU boss Paul Howes' call for a ceasefire between unionists and businesses is a much-needed acknowledgement of Australia's jobs crisis. A new culture of co-operation is urgent.

Whatever Machiavellian motives one attributes to AWU boss Paul Howes, the actual content of the speech he gave at the Press Club in Canberra was good. Historic, actually.

Howes, well-known as one of the co-conspirators with now-opposition leader Bill Shorten in getting rid of Kevin Rudd in 2010 and smoothing the way for him to get rid of himself in 2013 (Has Rudd walked in to an almighty trap?, June 28) has belled the cat on industrial relations.

Yesterday’s speech – as delivered at least – knocks together the heads of the two sides in the IR war that has heated up so much in past weeks in debates of pay, conditions and productivity at Holden, Toyota, Qantas and SPC Ardmona.

Indeed, the rhetorician who crafted this speech should be applauded for not only its message, but the strategies employed to soften the hard lines being taken by the warring factions of Australian civil society.

To soften the employers and economic dries in the Coalition – currently in the ascendant – Howes emphatically made two concessions.

Firstly, that there were “traitors” in the union movement who should be run out of town, taking their corrupt ways and “immature” power plays with them.

Secondly, Howes conceded that wages and conditions have been growing too quickly in some sectors, whilst noting ABS data that shows wage growth across the board is actually restrained.

So union leaders have asked too much and, in some cases, have profited from the blood, sweat and tears of their own members.

To the other side of the IR wars – workers and left-leaning elements of the ALP – he underscored hard-won benefits on which he has no intention of backing down: “On the flipside, business could concede that on the whole, economy-wide,  wages growth is at the lowest level that is has ever been and industrial disputation is at record lows. Perhaps they might agree – penalty rates and the minimum wage are fundamental planks of our social contract and should remain.”

The real political left in Australia, the Greens, were not appeased by those comments. Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt saw Howes’ comments as a betrayal of workers, and called for the AWU leader and long-term prime-ministerial aspirant to resign.

Bandt said: “Paul Howes should resign as union secretary and join the Liberal Party if he is going to just parrot Tony Abbott’s attack on people's wages."

Strong words, and in this columnist’s opinion deeply misguided.

In past days I have thrown my support behind the SPCA workers, and the principle agreed to by both the Coalition Napthine government and the Victorian Labor opposition, that wages and conditions are very low on the list of reasons that the Shepparton fruit growing and packaging industry is on the point of collapse.

SPCA, and its parent Coca-Cola Amatil, would not in a ‘free market’ tip in an additional $90 million to turn the Shepparton plant into a globally competitive prospect. This is why state Coalition and Labor see a need to get the business case over the line with a one-off grant, saving multiples of that cost by continuing to take tax revenue from thousands of workers, and avoiding the costs of welfare if the industry collapsed.

But that is not the same as lining up with Bandt. Australia is facing a jobs crisis, and the SPCA grant money is one of the best value-for-money interventions for federal or state governments.

The anger that has welled up over ‘corporate welfare’ is legitimate, but should be directed to sectors where the wage blow-outs are far greater, productivity issues far worse, and federal and state subsidies far higher. Yep, the resources sector which – depending on what you lump in as a ‘subsidy’ – gets between $700 million and $4.5 billion in tax-payer funded assistance to make good profits.

If the SPCA battle is about corporate welfare, then just as rebel MP Sharman Stone says, we’ve started that battle in the wrong sector.

But I digress. Howes’ call for a new culture of co-operation in the formulation of enterprise bargaining agreements is the right one. If either management is being screwed by unions, or workers being screwed by management (or corrupt union officials screwing both), the media has a pivotal role in exposing both.

Howes’ call for a ‘grand compact’, though vague at present, is the right call. Business leaders and unionists alike must shake off the habitual tendency to draw battle-lines and recognise the crisis bearing down upon Australia (The Great Australian Reckoning is upon us, January 30).

That crisis, as Howes explicitly says in his speech, won’t be solved by the ‘see-saw’ of shifting from one IR system to another every time government changes.

I think Tony Abbott, with his ‘weak’ promise to maintain the Fair Work Act until 2016 at least, has already recognised that.

That leaves Bill Shorten with a lot of catching up to do before the 2016 election. That is if Paul Howes hasn’t taken his job by then...