Interview: Power and the Passion
Unions: Tackling the Heavy Hitters
Industrial: Seeing the Forest For The Wood
Housing: Home Truths
International: Boycott Busters
Economics: Ideology and Free Trade
History: Long Shadow of a Forgotten Man
Review: Chewing the Fat
Poetry: Dear John
The Locker Room
A Place To Call Home
Power and the Passion
Interview with Peter Lewis
Thanks for talking to WorkersOnline. A few of us were surprised to see in the news that you'd joined a union last week, because we'd always thought you were a member, what's the story there?
And in fact I had been a member since 1979 of the Musician's Union and had that membership going for all of my career as a musician in Midnight Oil. As well as that I thought I'd join another one - just to make sure - especially when you consider the area that I'm going to be working in now.
So you see the Alliance as being the natural coverage area for politicians?
Well maybe not the natural coverage area, but there are connections.
You've been a showman all your life. In your few weeks as a budding politician, what are the similarities?
A fair amount of bad food and a lot of uncomfortable travel. A lot of musicians in one way are trying to get through the greasy spoons and hotels and motels until you actually get to do the show. Political life's not quite like that but there is a similarity in terns of being on the move, eating on the run and people wanting to engage with you quite a bit, which fortunately, I really do like. I like engaging with people and so that part of it I find not in the least bit onerous: a typical part of political life and being an entertainer as well. Just that connection with people.
Being a performer is fairly individualistic. Did you ever feel that you had to call on the union in your time while you were working as a performer?
Well I had a bit to do with them at different times, particularly, over a couple of issues. One was to do with actually making sure there was some level of conditions that were OK for performers generally. Even though I didn't get involved specifically in the campaigns I certainly was aware there was a need for active voices and involvement by both the unions and performers in making sure they weren't treated like sheep.
That's not to say I agree all the way through the term with them. We had some differences with them, but I've always fundamentally believed that the right to associate in a union is a fundamental right, particularly where the industry that you're in has got either much greater bargaining power or is not particularly regulated in any way. This is certainly the case with pubs, not so much clubs, put certainly pubs in the 70's & 80's.
Why do you think fewer people have been joining unions these days?
I think there are probably a variety of reasons. One is that we've gone through a period - and I know this from my time at ACF - where people actually aren't joining many things. Our lives are much busier for people; it's a real stretch for people to sort of balance work and family. The idea of joining something so that it works well is an idea that somehow got watered down a little bit. It doesn't mean that people don't support it. I mean the interesting thing at ACF, we saw membership as being important but it was very difficult for us to keep the membership going up because the people didn't particularly want to join. They did want to support the organisation, which was a much less onerous label for people, they didn't have to vote, they didn't have to decide who was their state people on council and those kind of things which I think are important democratically in organizations. For a lot of people that wasn't as important as just saying look I'm going to give the conservation organisation $25 and I hope they look after the Great Barrier Reef.
I think the second reason is that when the amalgamation reforms went through, and I'm not pretending to speak expertly about this, I'm really speaking as someone who's observed from the outside, but when the amalgamations reforms went through, that coincided with quite profound changes to the Australian economy. It meant that there was a push in all sorts of places to try and increase productivity and to also have clearer negotiations between labor and industry and Government. Now some of that I think has proved beneficial and some of it hasn't. You've almost got to sit back from it a little at times to work out what aspects of it were good and which aspects haven't worked out so well. I think some aspects that have worked out well have been to do with the economy and economic reforms but the aspects that haven't is that people haven't seen it as the participation and the role of unions.
The final thing is that a union is sort of seen as an old fashioned kind of thing and we live in an age of marketing and the way things are dressed up are incredibly important. Whether we like it or not that's quite often how the public sees it and I guess there are some issues there about actually getting a message out and communications and marketing. I mean we're all the market place of ideas, whether we're in unions, political parties, conservation groups, you know the local golf club you know trying to get people to come along and be involved. There are some big budgets out there in the commercial world that are marketing them off and there are some challenges there for communications.
In your capacity as ACF chief you've fallen foul of the timber workers union, not the CFMEU as a whole but the timber workers. How has it been to be the target of a union campaign?
Well, I have always understood the very strong need that union officials have to represent their union's interests and there's always going to be some argy bargy, particularly when you've got a contentious issue such as logging. I'd prefer not to call people names in my political life. I've been called plenty in the past, some have been by union officials and we've been able to sit down at the end of the day shake hands and talk constructively so I just take that as some of the colour and movement of the campaign. I don't take it too seriously.
What I do think is important though is that when we approach an issue which has got as much contention in it such as the forest industry has that we do step back and really work to some constructive solutions because sometimes if you dig your heels in and contest change you don't end up delivering a good outcome for your membership. I am of a strong belief that there is a solution from the Tasmanian Forest controversy which we'll see the necessity for no net job loss as Mark Latham has stated quite clearly and which I think is absolutely as it ought to be. A conservation outcome which involves a mix of measures including things like world's best manned pulp mills, increased investment in more heritage protection, increased investment in fine timber work and which stops the decline in employment that we've seen in that industry.
People reading this should be made aware that as ACF President with Executive Director Don Henry we resolved not to oppose the construction of the Tumut Pulp Mill on the basis that we were keen to see a world's best practice mill be built in an area where unemployment was high and there weren't many jobs. We were keen to see it done in a way that was genuinely sustainable which didn't give in to high conservation valued forests that took its timber resource out of plantations. I consider that to be one of our real achievements. I've been back to Tumut since then and the town is going really solidly with a whole lot of employment in place.
The same thing applies across the board for a lot of these disputes about coal versus solar and so on and so forth. The next period in Australian economic political life is going to involve building and supporting sustainable industries that both employ people and are good for the environment. That's the trick. I'm not saying it's easy or it's going to happen over night but I think it's the key. So relations can be frank but the discussions will be productive.
On the issue of change a lot of the issues the union movement deals with are related to economic change; job insecurity, people not having time to spend with their families any more and I guess you've chosen the side of politics that's more for a regulated labor market than a de-regulated labor market. Have you thought much about work and the way we work. Have you got any ideas you'd like to share with the union membership?
I'm not the Shadow Minister for Employment or anything like that and I want to stress that in this interview so these are my personal ideas. I think the biggest failure of the last 10 or 15 years or the biggest trend of concern is the increasing move to part-time away from full-time work. I think that the biggest flaw in the economic growth has succeeded in benefiting Australia's argument is it hasn't created a sense of the world being a security for many Australians. People are as anxious if not more so, we're a happy nation generally, but just if you dive down under the surface there's anxiety there and there's vulnerability for people, particularly in the lower paid end of employment where they are essentially casual employees only. So that's something that I'm aware of and I think that's something that there needs to be resolute action and debate about.
We're were talking a bit earlier about how unions need to re-invent themselves to a younger audience. You've spent a lot of your career bridging the gap between popular culture and politics. What should we be doing?
Well I think the challenge is all about sort of communicating to people about what we're doing and being aware that culture is a really powerful force in the community. You're either shaped by it or you shape it and if you want to shape it you've got to invest in that process. So that's a recognition of the time that we live in and the age that we live in, it requires you to be as much of a culture shaper as a responder to it and in order to do that you've got develop the skills and the tools and spend the money on it.
Do you accept the argument that the younger generation is more individualistic than the past? Do you believe that collectivism is dead?
A kind of collectivity probably has passed but I think a new kind is there and is going to emerge more fully in the future. That's got to be based on people's real interests, concerns and values and sometimes that's something that organizations have to re-frame for people by listening to them as well to understand what their interests and concerns are. I saw so many great examples of people working together when I was working on environment issues and conservation and I'm talking about average Australian's. I'm not talking about this sort of clichéd idea of 'greenies' hugging trees, which is just a classic label from another time. I'm talking about farming communities, you know working to re-plant, re-vegitate their river areas because they know they've got problems with salinity. Its retired people living in North Queensland who are really concerned about what's happening on the Reef and get together and form their groups. It's the young people that went on to the blockade to get involved in the Jabaluka campaign. There were a lot of people working together and there are heaps and heaps of organizations and groups around Australia all the time, they are the glue. Whether they're volunteer bush fire brigades or unions or whatever so there's plenty of collective behaviour and activity going on.
Finally just the cheap Midnight Oil fan question. Was there ever any lyrics to Wedding Cake Island, if so what were they, if not, what should they be?
We knew that Wedding Cake Island sounded better by itself without me singing it. It just has that great Aussie acoustic guitar thing to it . I'm going to see a lot of Wedding Cake Island as the local member here and it is one of the icons that makes the area special. But I also think of Kingsford Smith as being about arriving in Australia, because it's where you first land. I think it's the history of the place. I think it's the story of what happened when Cook came through and I look at the buildings and this is both an old and new part of Australia so you know its an exciting place.
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