Bill Shorten: Out of Touch and Out of Date 1

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Monday, August 10th, 2015
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Another week of political point scoring and 30-second media grabs. Does Bill Shorten really think he is making a case for the keys to the Lodge based on his mediocre sideline commentary?

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Shorten is just hanging on by the grace of Labour’s left, mainly the CFMEU, these days. They are the ones who make the media almost daily due to their bully boy tactics to secure industry wide rollover to their pattern bargaining, price fixing and for some, unashamed lining of their own pockets.

Shorten does not get it. Unions only cover 12 per cent of Australia’s private workforce these days and the numbers are sinking. Former ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty saw it coming in the mid-1980s. Kelty was around when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. Kelty and Hawke saw the need to modernise the way the workforce was represented.

Asked recently why unions had failed to make inroads into the services sector, former ACTU Secretary and Labour Minister Simon Crean said, “I don’t think they have traditionally focused on it. It requires a new style of leadership. It requires an intense understanding of where the jobs and economic opportunities are coming from.”

Shorten is content to play the pot calling the kettle black game in his slanging match with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Calling Abbott out of touch with the electorate will be left to history to judge, but Shorten knows he is effectively neutered. Shorten shows time and time again that he is not the man for the Lodge. How could he be? If he were a Kelty or Hawke, he would be prepared to call the CFMEU for what it is. Imagine what what Kelty or Hawke might have done. They were about setting the agenda, not reacting to it.

From opposition, how powerful would it have been if Kelty got on a plane and flew to WA to find a settlement for the Gorgon LNG project – to get it back on track so it could start earning revenues for the Australian economy? He would have wanted to find out what part excessive labour costs and disruptions had in driving the project cost up from $37 billion to $54 billion. He would want to understand why the project was running 60 months behind schedule and why huge modules – some weighing more than 2,000 tons – all have to be made off shore.

Out of control unions and their claims have made the Australian resource sector amongst the most expensive in the world to invest in. How can new investment be attracted when Labour governments are prepared to fight these investors and not sort out our domestics?

Hawke would have been in tune enough to sense the damage that enterprise bargains imposed on projects like the Sunshine Coast Hospital have done, and the further harm as they are then extorted across the whole of the Queensland construction industry and the nation. He would have worked out that the public eventually pays as the high cost of new infrastructure erodes recurrent budgets for new health and education services. It was Hawke who drew the line in the sand and told the BLF that enough was enough. It led to their deregistration.

Crean would have had the insight to understand that the problem for construction jobs would not come from the possibility of Chinese workers coming to Australia if that’s what the new Free Trade Agreement provided for. He would have been more concerned over the escalating flight of Australian construction jobs to off-shore as our domestic contractors give up trying to improve local productivity declines by trying any avenue to circumvent unsustainable construction costs.

The CFMEU’s Michael O’Connor is just as out of touch as the union’s National Secretary, Dave Noonan. Both promote righteous industrial disruption as if it were the last group hug as the Australian construction ship goes down.

Kelty and Hawke would have been on the phone to construction employers to make it clear that Australian construction competitiveness and productivity was not just a blue collar affair. There would have been a round table where no punches would have been pulled in a focused endeavour to turn things around. They would look back and see that deregistering the BLF and allowing the CFMEU to become the industrial lookalike failed. They would have explored a more viable contemporary alternative. Maybe Martin Ferguson as administrator.

Imagine if they had done this from opposition rather than hedging their bets like Shorten.

At every turn, Bill Shorten just stands on the sideline and whines. Not once has he put his mind to a future blueprint for construction or any other industry. Not once has he joined the dots that one sector of the union movement is exercising its elite power to drive up wages and project costs without a shred of productivity benefit.

While Shorten stands in front of the cameras each day proclaiming how the less powerful worker wages are threatened by recent Productivity Commission recommendations, not once does he imagine how CFMEU pattern bargaining is driving up the cost of roads, schools, hospitals and housing. Not once does he do the maths and imagine that these costs would hang around his neck if he ever got the keys to the Lodge and ensure all his election promises are threatened in some way by their carryover. They hang around for 40 years!

If Shorten truly understood the problems undermining the future viability of construction in Australia, he would have more to say than just blaming Tony Abbott for everything. He would give more credence to the daily exposure of CFMEU corruption and abuse of power. He would be putting a plan of action on the table and challenging Abbott to raise the stakes. He would be challenging the ABCC to demonstrate what a more productive construction industry would look like and how it would be measured. But we all know that Bill Shorten is reliant on CFMEU funding to have a crack at the Lodge. What a futile waste of money and time.

Leadership is about making a call to do something different. Its about defining what different is, and putting the challenges about being different out for enhancement and implementation. A four-year political cycle is not long. You need to hit the ground running. Hawke did it by building a wages consensus and then challenging business to step up. Shorten has no momentum. This sort of momentum is not a choice for him. The CFMEU has got him hobbled. Other unions do as well but he could show his metal by starting with construction.

I remember being at a function where Kelty spoke back in the 1990s. He described a situation with the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz in which the Tin Man asked the Scarecrow which way he should go. The Scarecrow replied by asking the Tin Man for his opinion. The Tin Man said he was unsure, to which the Scarecrow replied “well then, it doesn’t matter which way you go.” That’s Shorten’s problem in a nutshell, and there is not much enlightenment coming from his shadow opposition back bench. None of them seem to get that the Australian public want more than weasel words. They want informed leadership with a credible plan for the future.

Tony Abbott has his own challenges. He and Eric Abetz have yet to show they have a plan to sort out the CFMEU. Deregistration is not an option as the membership would only ascend into control of any other union invited to take over. The public outings of the CFMEU by the Royal Commission and the ABCC provide evidence that something major needs to be done. Its time for some big directional change. Its probably time for Labour to skip a generation and bring in some fresh talent that gets it and makes a better case for change. Its certainly time for the pot to stop calling the kettle black.

And it’s time for Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz to get into the scrum and sort the CFMEU out. It’s time to intervene and stop the major contractors just rolling over and succumbing to the next bargaining agreement. While the CFMEU is rightly held up for extortion by helping to fix the market prices for small contractors laying concrete or erecting scaffolding, the practices of just passing on uncontested EBA costs to clients at the other end of the spectrum is just as perverse. The productivity – or lack thereof – on Australian construction sites is a shocker. That’s why the Adelaide Children’s Hospital and the Gold Coast University Hospitals are now reported as being in the top 10 most expensive construction projects in the world.

Australia’s construction workforce and the industry’s future is being held to ransom by ideological impasses. It is possible to have a well-paid, productive construction industry. Our regional neighbours are getting their heads around this. While our domestic construction industry has been sheltered in the past, this is not the case today. Australian construction enterprises are more likely to be consumed by foreign owners than be the ones competing for opportunities on the new frontier. It’s a tragedy that we will all pay heavily for if our political leaders do not step up and modernise our construction capability.

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  1. Steve

    Firm words but true – great piece David. Shorten is weak and the unions wield ridiculously disproportionate influence in Australian politics.