|Issue No 60||30 June 2000|
Fear and Loathing in Wollongong
By Peter Lewis
For four days this week, too much unionism was barely enough. We bring you the highs and lows from behind the scenes and inside the bars of this week's ACTU Congress.
We make the long drive down the Princes Highway to the jewel of the South Coast, the home of Christodoulou and the Steelers. The Gong. . The Opening Ceremony sees local school kids and Archie Roach perform songs of welcome and the show begins. Meanwhile frantic computer technicians try to get on line as the Wollongong PABX all but collapses under the weight of 500 union officials with mobile phones welded to the ear.
Like the epic battles that have been played out on the stadium behind the Wollongong Ent Cent, Day One saw the traditional softening up period inside the conference hall. Keynote speeches from Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow, set the scene - a new-look leadership with new ideas. Comber speak of structural renewal; Burrow the need to rebuild a middle class - the real losers of the globalising economy. Unfortunately, a bit of retro reporting by the Fin Review's Stephen Long, transformed the pitch into "a shift back to the Left". It was a shame the line got such a run, it pigeon-holed an organisation that is taking serious step to break that mould.
Meanwhile, we had our own wars to fight. LaborNet set up our humble stall just two booths down from the VC empire - banks of computers, video feeds and very pleasant corporate types. We find out we're staying at the same hotel as the VC crew - a haunted house on the Figtree Hill traditionally home to visiting BHP management. Unable to match the slick, we go for grunge - Powderfinger gives us our theme music and we set to work hacking. Getonboard provided the tasteless shirts, and we blundered our way around the Ent Cent as the garish wide boys of the movement. And the thing is the officials were interested - what was this other deal; Costa spite? Or something of more substance? As we dined that night with the assorted hacks, we felt things were on track.
Opposition leader Kim Beazley addresses the Congress and opens up what will later be the key policy debate of the Conference. Beazley commits the ALP to incorporate international labour standards into its trade policy. The proposition is a step forward for Labor, but not a big enough one for Doug Cameron who is pushing a "Fair Trade, not Free Trade' line which would see the ALP actually imposing tariffs on countries that don't meet ILO standards. No-one misses the symbolism when dug walks out of the hall, during the ritual standing ovation Beazley receives after his address. This is poised to be a key issue at National Conference and the jockeying within the labour movement is important. Cameron is there when Beazley gives a media conference after the speech. They smile and shake hands, but when the cameras turn on him, Cameron puts the boot into Labor's policy. Next up Costa steps in to defend the Beazley line and accuse Doug of grandstanding, setting the scene for a fiery afternoon debate.
The free trade issue will be raised during the International Affairs report, delivered deadpan by ACTU assistant secretary Bill Mansfield. A series of foreign union leaders send fraternal greetings, then sit back to hear why Cameron would impose trade barriers on their countries. To some its progressive international policy - to others it's economic Hansonism. But it is a debate of substance: should we impose limits on global trade? And if so how? Beazley argues free trade as created 1.7 million jobs, Cameron says its' cost 300,000 jobs in the manufacturing industry alone. The question: is will Australian workers benefit from a policy that places a tax on goods that come from countries that don't meet ILO standards?
The actual debate is weird in that everyone is endorsing the Cameron amendment to "monitor" debate around a social tariff. It's the take-out that matters. Cameron could use it to take to ALP Conference as labour movement endorsement of his Fair Trade agenda. Cameron speaks passionately and eloquently, the NTEU's Ted Murphy seconds the motion, with an intelligent and reasoned argument. Then Costa comes out swinging, attempting to distinguish the current debate from Cameron's line, the minority right unions have one of their few opportunities to raise their voices. It's the best theatre of the week and drags on into the evening, but noone's going anywhere.
The debate delays Chris Clarke's Virtual Communities presentation till early evening when we were planning to be flogging our deal at a nearby restaurant. Clarke and Costa talk during the afternoon, the young executive looking just a tad spooked by the getonboard presence. Clarke does hand over a few shares to the ACTU for an education fund, but the expected equity announcement isn't delivered. Instead, Combet argues unions have equity by virtue of the investment of the super funds. Don't know about that one.
The Trade debate continues with more jockeying for the correct spin. The amendment passes unanimously, but the players have their own lines. Costa issues a release saying Cameron has been rolled. Then Cameron replies - only problem is he needs a computer. A magic moment as the AMWU spin doctors hop on our getonboard Gateway computer to bag our boss - now that's a free trade debate, Doug!
Meanwhile Bob Hawke and Geoff Clark address the Congress, as the union movement reinforces its commitment to reconciliation. Things are running smoothly until ABC radio reporter Ron Fuller rushes up to seek reaction to news that Jeff Shaw has resigned from the Carr ministry. The significance is that Costa has dibs on the seat, but Jeff has gone early. Costa rushes off to "consult with colleagues", while leadership aspirant, the TWU's Tony Sheldon shoots early. I'm running around the center trying to work out what's actually happening - for the first time in two years I regret not having a mobile. Those who have watched the LaborNet team run around Congress like we own the joint, now watch us attempting to handle the chaos. I think they call it catharsis.
The word 'computer' is off the radar for a day as our immediate future hangs in the balance. The only option is to drink, which we do with feeling as the afternoon melds into the evening and the glittering Conmgress dinner. Christadoulou silences his doubters by pulling off the impossible dream of the Rock Eisteddford meeting the union movement, it's hip and cool and very un-ACTU. Or is it? The night ends with 200 union officials dancing to Soft Cell's Tainted Love - there's Jennie George and Shazza getting down, Combet using his limbs to full advantage, Joe de Bruyn, John Coombs, they're all up there. Or was it a drunken mirage??
By Thursday the Congress is racing through the agenda in a bid to clear town by sunset. Industrial policy runs user-pay for non-members up a flagpole - a totally defensible policy that no Labor Government appears prepared to touch. The expected stoush on non-union agreements is quelled and it's a relaxed Greg and Shazza show that prepares to give the final presser of the Congress. Is that Combet practicing a few King Fu moves before it kicks off? They should be pleased, the policy has remained on track and there has been genuine goodwill on the floor. Only the coverage blue between the CFMEU and AWU threatens to ignite - and this is referred to the Executive to be fought another day.
The best bits of the Congress were about ideas. That's been my conference takeout. The ACTU positioning itself as a body prepared to promote debate not control it. In a world where the interests and priorities of white and blue collar workers are often different - it sometimes takes more than a one-size-fits -all approach. Debate on issues of substance like trade, even computers, have been productive - they should continue. By holding the reins, but not too tightly, the new ACTU leadership team has - in that very act - created a new culture. Wollongong was a successful Congress. Now the real battle begins.
Interview: Turning Tides
ACTU President Sharan Burrow reflects on the disappearance of the middle class and what the union movement can do about it
Unions: Fear and Loathing in Wollongong
For four days this week, too much unionism was barely enough. We bring you the highs and lows from behind the scenes and inside the bars of this week’s ACTU Congress.
Politics: The Group Hug
Opposition leader Kim Beazley came, saw and conga-ed. Here's what he said to the ACTU Congress.
History: Unions and Family Trees
Trade union records may not be the first port of call for a beginning family historian, but down the track a little, these records could bring to life an ancestor who previously was just a name printed on the page.
International: Fiji Bans Lifted
Fiji employers are expected to start reinstating all their workers over the next week, now that Australian union bans have been lifted at the request of the local union leadership.
Review: Room to Manoeuvre
Full employment with a highly skilled well-paid workforce is a realistic goal for Australia, despite the supposed constraints of globalisation.
Satire: Satan Subpoenaed To Cricket Inquiry
The King Commission of Inquiry into cricket match-fixing yesterday heard evidence from Satan that he never influenced Hansie Cronje to accept bribes.
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