It’s time the CFMEU adopted a new union business model.
The current Royal Commission into Unions highlights the need for change and the challenge for governments to now play a constructive role in this endeavour. In my view, it’s a challenge that only a non-Labor government could address. The question is, will the Abbott government be up for it, or is this exercise just an ideological beat-up?
The Federal Government has recently agreed to broaden the scope of the Royal Commission into trade unions and give it an extra year to run its inquiries to deal with "unfinished business."
The CFMEU and the BLF have been centrepieces in this and similar enquiries over the last 30 years. All have evidenced lawlessness and the consequential disruption to construction productivity and costs. This time. the solution must involve more than a beat cop. It hasn’t worked historically.
But the Federal Government perseveres by initiating a joint police task force to further uncover illegal activity within Victoria's unions. The Coalition maintains the Royal Commission has received significant evidence of criminal conduct, including widespread instances of physical and verbal violence, cartel conduct, secondary boycotts, contempt of court and other institutional orders.
It seems that the opposition has finally come on board. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he lobbied for the police task force nine months ago and does not understand what has taken the Government so long, but this is something Labor could not do in government.
At least now everyone agrees this is pretty serious stuff - everyone, that is, except the CFMEU.
Despite the evidence, the CFMEU is resigned to claiming that this is all a political beat-up. But denial is not an option here. The CFMEU leadership now seems so much part of the problem that they are beyond a role in the solution. Playing out the extended Royal Commission and setting up a new beat cop is not going to change the need for a plan to move forward at some time, so why not now?
Former Victorian Premier Denis Napthine’s call for deregistration of the CFMEU is not a practical option, so it will be interesting to see where incoming Victorian Premier elect Daniel Andrews will stand on all of this. Kowtowing to the CFMEU will not be a good look if that’s what happens.
Deregistering the BLF in the 1980s only saw the migration of that membership to the CFMEU and AWU when Norm Gallagher was wreaking havoc across the industry. All that achieved, then, was a period of industry destabilisation as the CFMEU became more like the BLF and the industry tolerated much of their business as usual behaviour in the forlorn hope that things would get better. It didn’t.
It must now be possible to separate the functions of beat cop from forward looking action as to what to do long term. Unions have an important future role in representing the interests of construction workers, particularly as construction work embraces new construction methods and the technologies now driven by global construction markets from which Australia is no longer immune.
The way forward must be to resolve the core functions and persona of what a modern effective worker representative organisation may look like. Surely it must be about helping to define what future construction work will look like, to influence how the necessary skills will enable the current workforce to transform and for the next cohort of construction workers to be attracted to an exciting, productive and well rewarded part of our economy. The CFMEU currently fails this test.
A modern CFMEU could help shape a blueprint for the industry’s future in collaboration with their counterpart employer associations who are similarly floundering with these transformative challenges. It’s in the national interest. The Abbott government should be minded to put this challenge on the table to both sides and be prepared to invest even part of what they have in Royal Commissions to encourage this to happen. There should be milestones and accountability for both.
I believe the government should enact legislation to put an Administrator into the CFMEU for the next three to five years. The Administrator should be an authentic Labor proponent who has the insight and ability to tackle the hard issues and take the way forward up to all sides. It’s a tough gig, but it’s an investment that could create a transitional model for other unions and employer associations to emulate.
Bold political leadership by the Abbott government and the Shorten opposition in this instance is critical. It’s a precursor to setting the construction industry on a more productive course. It’s fundamental to starting to measurably improve construction’s performance and drive down its costs. It’s about saving thousands of construction jobs and creating new opportunities long term.
My vote for the Administrator gig goes to former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham. He has a lot to say about these issues in his new book, The Political Bubble. It’s a far more worthwhile role than being appointed to head up a water board or a diplomatic posting. Latham is authentic Labor, he is about reform and such a gig could be good for all. The challenge will be to see if the Abbott government and Labor are up for this sort of bold leadership.