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  Issue No 82 Official Organ of LaborNet 20 December 2000  




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Being Michael Costa

Interview with Peter Lewis

Labor Council's secretary on the 2KY sell-off, the Olympics and his plans for the future.


You've announced the restructure of the finances. What is the thinking behind selling off 2KY?

There isn't any ulterior motive behind any of the decisions we make. It is an appropriate time to restructure our assets. The offer from the TAB was a very, very good offer, given that the Labor Council has really not been able to benefit financially to the extent that would be commercially sensible out of its investment in 2KY. It's an appropriate time to look at restructuring those assets.

I'm particularly excited to set 2KM up as the voice of labour. I mean, originally Labor Council entered the broadcasting market to provide a vehicle - at the time a very innovative vehicle to put forward Labor's message - and I think we should return to that. More and more the broadcast market has been segmented over the years and there is a niche for labour in that market and that is essentially what we are seeking to do.

Would you be seeing that running as a profit making radio station? Or is just more a service that the unions would be putting out?

I would see the station covering its costs and I think there is the potential to make a small return out of that, but the main motivation would be to ensure that there is a voice of labour and that that voice of labour is presented in a format that is relevant; that is contemporary and is philosophically sound. In terms of the finances, I am very confident that we could at least meet through advertising revenue, the cost of operations.

One of the other aspects is the renovation of Trades Hall. What do you have in mind there?

Labor Council has been looking at renovating Trades Hall for a number of years. I have in fact been involved in at least two proposals that potentially had the ability to fund that renovation. Unfortunately those proposals have been overcome by the complexities of the planning and financing of that project, and the sale of 2KY enables us to meet our objective there. It has been estimated that it is going to cost between $8 and $10 million to do that. I think that is an appropriate return - or an appropriate application of part of the funds that emerge from 2KY, and I think we can also make it turn a proper commercial return. I would look forward to moving the Labor Council's operations back into Trades Hall. I think that is the appropriate place for them.

There would still be a fair bit of money left over. What happens to the rest of it?

You are right. There would be approximately $15 million left over. That $15 million at this stage I would see being invested in an appropriate financial instrument to generate a return to the Labor Council.

The Labor Council has taken a decision a number of years ago to subsidise affiliation of the Council, and I think if you look at the funding at the moment, we are basically charging affiliates about half of what the real cost of running the Labor Council is. And I think that is appropriate, particularly at a time when affiliates have a lot of pressure on their own finances and there is a shift to strategies to build the union movement with a ? being able to fund that through a subsidized affiliation of the Labor Council.

So, the short answer is we will invest it in an appropriate financial instrument to generate additional resources for the Labor Council. It is up to other people, that is the Labor Council itself, to determine over the medium term how those funds are best utilized in the interests of the Council's objectives.

That really ends the year with a bang. What was your highlight of 2000?

My highlight was the Olympics. The Olympics was a tremendous example of how trade unionism can work. How the principles underpinning trade unions can be applied for the benefit of both the general community and the individual workers that work in particular industries.

We were able to deliver, not only in the lead-up to the Olympics, a construction programme that was before time and under budget. During the Olympics we were able to deliver a workforce that was appropriately remunerated and had certainty in terms of their working conditions, and in addition because of the certainty had a very high level of morale which fed into the broader public perceptions of the success of the Olympics.

I guess one thing about the Olympics was that it was more of an old-style servicing way of going about unionizing a workforce, and there has been some debate about organising in recent times. What is your take on that debate?

Well, I have not been part of the debate. It is a false debate. I have always seen that rganizing is important, as well as servicing, and the balance has to be struck within each individual rganizing n, based on their current density within particular sectors they seek to represent.

Clearly, rganizing ns that have high levels of density have to place a high degree of emphasis on servicing. Those that are struggling to ensure that they keep up with growth in their sector really have to adopt an rganizing model. But they are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary.

Looking back on year from twelve months ago, a lot of what you were talking about was getting a closer relationship with the Carr Government, particularly through the State Labor Advisory Council. That seems to have dropped off the radar a bit in recent times. Where is it up to? Where has SLAC gone?

I don't think it has dropped off the radar. I think if you look at the relationship of the State Labor Government to the Labor Council and the broader labour movement, at this moment it is actually very healthy. I have to say one of the highlights associated with the Olympics during the year was the Premier's presentation, or address to Labor Council, post the Olympics. That is probably one of the most significant Labor events I have been to. He was genuinely complimentary and congratulatory of the labour movement's role and I can say that the response from the labour movement to the Premier on that occasion was a tremendous response.

SLAC was always designed to be a committee that worked behind closed doors. It is more an internal committee than a public committee, so it is not surprising that people are not aware of some of its achievements.

But it is still meeting regularly?

It meets regularly, but more importantly, sub-committees meet on a regular basis, and in many ways the successful public sector wage deal was negotiated - was a product of the SLAC process. We resolved a number of quite difficult issues, particularly to do with government approaches to contracting, competitive tendering, and also support for industry through the SLAC process.

So I am very pleased with its progress and particularly the level of access we get through that committee to the Premier and senior ministers.

One change in the last twelve months has been the departure of Jeff Shaw and his replacement as IR Minister by John Della Bosca. Has that changed the way Labor Council does business in any way?

Well, each individual Minister brings a different style to the job, but the basic relationship is a strong relationship with the Minister for Industrial Relations no matter who it is, and that has continued since the departure of Jeff Shaw.

The new ACTU leadership team has been in the job for about twelve months now. What s your evaluation of their performance?

Look, I think it was always going to be difficult for the current leadership, given that they were following some quite significant trade union figures in Bill Kelty and Jennie George. I have to say that one thing that has been pleasing about the relationship is that the ACTU leadership has understood the role of the Labor Council and has made some efforts - welcome efforts - to reach out to us. The ACTU, like the Labor Council, cannot presume that it has a right to exist. It has to remain at all times relevant to its affiliation base, and that is a challenge for all peak councils. I think the Labor Council has had that challenge. I am optimistic that we can meet that challenge, and I think the ACTU is in the same position. It needs to articulate the role of a national peak council, and gain a consensus around what that role is and then seek to implement that in a professional manner. I suppose the early judgment on that is that there have been some initial positive steps in that area.

What about the Howard government and the change in the Workplace Relations Minister? Do you think there will be any change from Reith to Abbott?

I think the government has made a fairly serious miscalculation in relation to its appointments. Tony Abbott is somebody I have known for a number of years and somebody clearly of high intellect, but in certain areas he lacks maturity and it will be a real test of him - of his capabilities - whether he can transcend some of the more ideological positions that he has held in relation to employment issues and translate that into a positive relationship with the trade union movement. If I was Tony Abbott I would be seeking to reach out to the trade union movement and engage them in a constructive dialogue about the appropriate structure.

Another Minister that believes that attacking the trade union movement will lift the federal government's political standing is really in for a shock. All our polling has consistently showed that people do not like government's attacking trade unions. They believe trade unions have a role, and the real issue for the government, given that we will never agree with it ideologically, is for them to sit down and enter into a constructive relationship around issues that are important to the workforce. And the sorts of issues I am talking about are casualisation - the explosion of casualisation; the explosion of insecurity as a consequence of that casualisation; and the need to send a very strong message to the Australian workforce that governments do care and governments are prepared to take appropriate action to ensure that living standards are maintained and that the sense of security that comes from having a social safety net is also enhanced rather than diminished through a campaign of denigrating the social safety net.

What about the federal election coming up next year? What do you think will happen there?

My prediction is that provided Labor can resolve some of its short-term internal issues, that Labor is in a very good position to win that federal election. All the indications are that the global economy is starting to slow. The Fed Reserve decision to look at cutting interest rates is a clear example of that, which means that we are highly likely to have an election that is in the context of economic uncertainty. Now, Labor needs to ensure that it projects a set of policy positions that provide the community with the reassurance that they are firstly able to govern in a unified way, and secondly, that they understand that insecurity is a critical underpinning concern of the electorate.

What can anyone do about insecurity?

They can do a lot. They firstly cannot continuously attack the social safety net. Every time you attack the social safety net people feel insecure because many people rely on the social safety net as the basis of firstly, their sense of security that if things go wrong they will at least have a set of protections, and secondly there are a great deal of people still, that actual rely directly on the social safety net for their livelihood.

The federal government has continually placed pressure on the social safety net. Now, that is not an argument against appropriate restructuring and re-focusing on the social safety-net, I think that all sides of politics would agree on that. But to continually attack people who are recipients of benefits, as being either malingerers or bludgers on the system is really not an appropriate role for a government to take. Governments should encourage, should support and should reward, rather than criticize, denigrate and attack.

Finally, the speculation is that you won't be around a lot longer. What sort of shape do you see leaving the union movement in?

Firstly, I have made it very clear that I won't be around at the next State election, which is two-and-a-half years away, which means that at least for the next two-and-a-half-years I may well be at Labor Council, so I reject all that speculation that I am leaving.

In terms of my legacy, I think I have done a number of things. I have built on some of the positive restructuring that has occurred in the past in relation to the factional structure. I don't think anybody that is associated with the Labor Council today under my leadership would believe that it runs factionally. I think it has been a very positive move and I actually think that over time that will pay dividends in the Labor Party. People are not focused on the issues rather than personalities and ideological position. I think that is a very positive move.

In terms of the Council itself, with hopefully acceptance of the proposals I am putting up at the AGM next year, I will leave a very financially secure Labor Council. In fact this Labor Council will be the most secure peak council in the country. We are in a position to lead a renaissance of the trade union movement through both our resources and personnel - and I take a lot of pride in that.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 82 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Being Michael Costa
Labor Council�s secretary on the 2KY sell-off, the Olympics and his plans for the future.
*  Unions: Millennial Milestones
In a year of highs, some trade union stories stuck in the collective consciousness. Here's ten of the best.
*  International: Eric Lee's Year in Review
The editor of Labourstart looks back on the global issues that mobilized labour in the past 12 months.
*  Organising: Dispatches from the Field
Despite the 'Botsmanesque' critiques which have been levelled at Organising, it would be hard to deny that the year 2000 has seen more and more unions in NSW latch onto the approach - at least in principle anyway.
*  Economics: Who Gets Gold??
At the end of this Olympic year, Sydney Uni's Frank Stilwell charts the winners and losers in the new sport of redistribution of income.
*  Politics: Election 2000: The Winner is Gridlock
In the last in his series on the US Federal Election Campaign, Michael Gadiel, our roving reporter, gladly signs off.
*  Satire: Chaser Launches Book
In the great tradition of repackaging old material to cash in on Christmas, the team from The Chaser & Silly 2000 has produced its first book.
*  Review: Cultural Wasteland
The spotlight was on Australian culture in 2000. But was it a missed opportunity, asks Peter Zangari.

»  Mad Monk's Secret Union Past
»  New Life for Trades Hall
»  Top Cop is Our Organiser of the Year
»  All We Want for Christmas
»  Summer for Social Justice
»  Unions Return to Mosh Pit
»  Unions Head West
»  Big Bastard Censors Dissidents
»  South Coast Labor President Steps Down
»  As a Died in the Wool Westie Steps Up
»  Dying Workers' Asbestos Plea
»  Workers at Centre of Turn Of the Century
»  Truth about S11 Starting to Come Out

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  The Greatest Team Ever?
»  ABC Online Did Strike
»  Why Nader Vote was not Wasted
»  John Scrooge's Christmas Gift

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