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December 2004   

Interview: Minority Report
New federal ALP industrial relations spokesman Stephen Smith on the hostilities in store for the labour movement.

Industrial: Girl Power
Tim Brunero looks at how women are making their mark in a once-male dominated trade.

Unions: Made in NZ
Jim Marr looks behind the rhetoric to uncover what the Howard Government has in store for Australian workers.

History: Spirit for a Fair Go
Paddy Gorman looks at the importance of Eureka on the Australian political psyche.

Economics: Fool's Gold
Tom Bramble identifies some contradictions in Howard's economic miracle.

Politics: Worth Fighting For
One of the Left's most influential figures of the last 40 years gives his theory of power ...

Health: The Force Behind Medibank
Public health has always been a core activity for the union movement, writes Neale Towart

Legal: Robust Justice
Former ACTU executive member and textile union leader Anna Booth argues that Alternate Dispute Resolution is one way around the looming assault on union rights.

International: After the Revolution
Has China entered a post-revolutionary phase - and where will it take the world, asks James Goodman

Poetry: The Sound of Unions
Ah, the hills are alive, with The Sound of Unions, muses resident bard, David Peetz

Review: Bad Santa
Billy Bob Thornton's newest role puts the 'nick' in Saint Nicholas and reveals the Satan in Santa, writes Tara de Boehmler.


New Matilda
How Labor Lost the Plot
In his contribution to Australia's new political zine 'New Matilda' , Father Michael kelly argues the ALP is in search of a soul.

The Soapbox
Outside the Tent
Labor exile Lindsay Tanner is warning the ALP to be careful who it gets into bed with.

The Locker Room
Sons Of Beaches
Phil Doyle gets the perfect wave, and waves back

The Westie Wing
150 years since the struggle at Eureka, the fight to achieve social justice, equality and responsible government is just as vital as ever in the neo-conservative Australia, writes Ian West.

Postcard from Harare
Ken Davis, from Union Aid Abroad, on how unions are at the forefront in the battle for democracy in Zimbabwe


Moral Majority
Unions NSW is currently hosting one of the world�s great thinkers in Robert Reich; academic, commentator and Clinton labour secretary; a man with a mind as big as the dilemmas progressive politics face right now.


 Moral Crusade to Save Family

 20 Dead � Stockmarket Applauds

 Karen Gives Howard a Paint Job

 Buckeridge Bill Blocks Entry

 Casual Beach Closures

 Railworkers Scull Costa

 Racism in the Dock

 Go Home Alone � And Other Survival Tips

 Vet Beats Bullet

 Cleaners Clean Up

 Weekend Work Wiped

 Miners Go to the Movies

 Feds Attack Low Paid

 Activists What's On!

 Leadership Skills
 Not A Casey Fan
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Minority Report

Interview with Peter Lewis

New federal ALP industrial relations spokesman Stephen Smith on the hostilities in store for the labour movement.

Research that was done after the federal election suggests only about 49 per cent of union members voted for Labor. What does Labor, you think, need to do to win over the other 51 per cent?

It remains the case that one of the criteria that maximises a vote for Labor is union membership so if you went through characteristics or categories the presence of union membership is always a helpful contribution in trying to get a Labor vote. But, I have said on a number of occasions, in my view, the reason we lost the last election was a good old fashioned hip pocket nerve federal election being skimmed on that quite fundamental basic economic issue about family living standards and making ends meet and as a consequence the more you're under financial pressure the more your attracted to vote elsewhere.

So whether it's a union member or a worker who's not a member of a union, I think one of the essential things we have to do is to enhance our economic management credentials and get people's confidence and trust that we can run the economy so that their own lives will be more easily able to be addressed in terms of their living standards, them sitting around the kitchen table being able to make ends meet.

Do you see linkages between personal working life and broad economic management and if so how do you tap those veins?

Well, often when people speak in macro terms you'd think that there was never any connection. But the whole point of economic growth, the whole point about creating wealth and the whole point about having productive workplaces, is that in the end what that means is that someone's either got a job or they don't. In my view it remains the case that the most important thing you can give to a person these days is still giving that person the chance of a decent job. That gives that person's family the chance of decent livelihood. So whilst you can often or always speak about macro economics, in the end the most important thing is yes we got to make sure that there's economic growth.

But you've also got to make sure that that economic growth benefits all Australians, not just a small proportion but the many. It remains the case, in my view, that the best thing you can do for an individual is give them a decent education so they've got the chance of a decent job. It's also the case in economic terms that one of the best things we can do is to invest in the education and skills of people in our workforce because that will give us a more productive economy and that will help maximise our international competitiveness and economic growth.

But in the end if you don't make sure that that economic growth trickles to all parts of Australian society, then in the end you haven't actually made the difference and that's what I think is the hallmark of a Labor Government, you've got to make sure the economy grows, make sure there's wealth created, but then you've got to make sure that everyone gets a decent chance of sharing it.

The last time there was a Labor Government, there was a very close association with the union movement through the Accord. What is wrong with that model of working very closely to promote to ensure economic growth and economic reform promotes the interests of working people?

Well, there's absolutely nothing wrong with making sure that the Labor Party in government works closely with the union movement. I've made it clear that there's a fundamental distinction, in my view, between the fact of the relationship that the party has with the trade union movement and our economic management credentials. I mean our opponents would have us believe that the mere fact of a relationship between the labor party and the trade union movement, the mere fact of us having different industrial relations policies than our opponents, that's the be all and end all of economic management credibility.

Well, industrial relations policies and having policies that lead to fair workplaces but flexible workplaces is just one part of economic management. I'm not one that believes that the relationship between the party and the trade union movement needs to either be revised, reviewed or reversed. There's a qualitative difference between the party after an election saying, well there's an area of public policy we want to review, in this case industrial relations policy, and walking away from the fundamental facts of that relationship.

Before we talk about that review, a lot of people in the union movement aren't that familiar with you, just give us a bit of background, your experience as a union member, and whether you've ever been involved in any industrial action that you can remember?

I'll give you the sketch. Born in Narrogin, which is a country town in western Australia. My dad was with, what was in the PMG, he ended up in telecom, before it became Telstra. We moved from country western Australia into the service in Narrogin in Southern Cross and we moved to Perth where I started grade seven and basically lived in Perth ever since. Went to school, my Mum and Dad still live in the same place, live in my electorate. I went to university, did law, practiced as a lawyer for a bit and as a lawyer I was a member of the nation's second most powerful trade union, called the Law Society, second only to the nation's most powerful trade union, called the AMA , and then went overseas and did a masters at London University.

I came back to Perth, I worked for the Attorney General of Western Australia and then I became the state secretary of the WA branch. And as the state secretary of the WA branch I needed to be a member of a relevant union, having been a member of the Law Society through all of that period I just spoke about. So I checked, as the state secretary of the WA branch, I was also the party agent for electoral act purposes. So the Australian Workers Union in Perth had coverage of what was known as agents, so I joined the AWU. I've been a member ever since.

Other than leading protests by Law students when I was president of the Law Students union in University of Western Australia when we were all about to get shafted for lack of article clerks places to get into the legal profession. What industrial officers and union organisers would regard as hands on industrial activity - haven't been much there.

That's a good background. Let's talk about this review of IR. What do you see the parameters of the review?

I think there are a couple of general points to make about the review. Firstly, the mere fact of the review does not mean that we're going to walk away from the relationship with the movement, doesn't mean we're going to walk away from long standing principles or commitment's, the mere fact of the review doesn't mean that the parliamentary party or, as I said earlier, industrial relations policies being the be all and end all of our relationship with the business community or economic management credentials.

On the contrary, its generally been the case historically, that Australians have regarded Labor as being better at industrial relations policy and better at industrial relations than our opponents, largely because we've always tried to operate on a cooperative framework of consensus and cooperation rather than the Alsatians and balaclavas, which our opponents are always so attracted to. So there are a couple of framework things.

The next general point I make is, I see this parliament in three separate stages. First, the three weeks in the parliament that we're going through, and the need to deal with time sensitive pieces of legislation, Electrolux validation legislation is the only one that falls into that category. Secondly, the first half of next year, where my expectation is the government will only deal with time sensitive IR matters or with fair/unfair dismissal legislation, which they see as a way of trying embarrasses us politically, but which I don't. Then the real part of this parliament shall be when the parliament and the world changes after July 1.

So I see the first sort of phase of the policy review as essentially from the moment of appointment until when the parliament gets up towards the end of this year. This is the time for dealing with things that come along but also making initial contact with people; so I've sort of out and about, making contact with peak organisations, union or business or industry, with constituent groups, individual unions, state or national, individual companies, just making contact and do the sort of things which I've always believed is important to do when you get a new area, which is to start the process of making contact, reading, look, listening and learning, getting on top of the detail.

The second phase in the parliament next year provides a real opportunity to do that and that's where I'll be working extensively, getting out and about, getting people's views and getting all the details in my head, not just in the IR area, but my other portfolio areas. Whilst there's no sort of formal process, where people put in submissions, part of the IR review will go through the economic sub committee of cabinet which we established a couple of weeks ago. This committee has all of the shadow cabinet members with economic interests.

I think the real pointy end of the policy review will come after the 1st July when we see what the government intends to do in terms of having unbridled power, having an unencumbered Senate, and Kevin Andrews has already made it crystal clear that they propose to go far beyond anything that they committed themselves to do at the election or anything they proposed to do as part of the unsuccessful 1996 reforms. It'll be our response to what they do after 1st July which I think will be the most important part of the policy and the policy review and our policy in political response.

Let's suppose that they go the big bang. It's a new territory for an opposition in recent times without having any leverage in the senate how does one oppose?

Well, I mean, it's very hard to talk on the abstract, you've got to actually see what they do. And then you've got to make a judgment and the union movement will have to make the same judgment, the movement will have to make a judgment about what things the parliamentary party regards as being absolutely essential to oppose because its bad public policy or going down a wrong road.

Those things where our attitude might be, well you know, on balance we would not go down this road, but its not something that in a sense you'd die in a ditch for, those things which you might even support. I mean there may well be some things that may well be sensible changes, I'm not holding my breath for that, but I think the key judgment will be if you just plug a hypothetical situation out of the air and the government decides to do a hundred things, a judgment has to be made whether you oppose a hundred things or whether you oppose the five or ten things which are the most insidious and the most obnoxious on the basis that focusing on those gives you the best chance of getting community support.

And having no protection of the Senate, the only public policy protection that you have is either by get community support and staring the government down, which I frankly regard as unlikely, or more importantly, winning the next election and winning the next election, making it clear in the run up to that election what parts of the changes you propose to reverse or amend.

I guess the other side of it is a positive agenda, what work can you do to start developing an agenda for work in the future?

I think that's, in very many respects, that's always the big challenge, it is possible that the government goes off in a particular direction on July 1, that our political and policy responses say well he's gone down that direction but we are not going to focus on going down that direction or where the thing should be brought back to. We may take the position that we think, in a changing Australia, a changing economy, a changing world, there's an entirely new and novel and different direction that you can go into, so that's where you work out your positive policy and positive political agenda.

I have made the point that Mark's been saying that we've got to try and make ourselves, in a policy and political sense, relevant to people who don't necessarily come into contact with unions, or the industrial relations systems, franchisee, contractors, home business owners genuinely small business operators running from home, that's sort of stuff. I've made the point; we haven't even had a conversation with those people, let alone trying to craft out the policies that might be of interest or relevance to them.

But to what extent do you think their issues with big business would be different to those of employees of large companies?

I think it will be the case that for very many of those people, their issues will be complexity of regulations, duplication of regulations, taxation arrangements, competitive arrangements in terms of their relationship with big business or suppliers. So there's a whole array of issues there, which bear no relationship what we would regard as industrial relations or the workplace relations act, which a lot of these people don't have any day to day contact with industrial relations or unions, or the industrial relations systems. So there's a whole potential pot pourri of public policy, which can be attractive to those people and can end up getting their policy in political support.

Finally, I guess the areas where there's real concern at where Labor's heading around AWA in particular, what's your thinking at the moment around?

Well, we started the flexibility in bargaining with instruction of enterprise bargaining and in the last election we were very strong on not wanting to go down the AWA road. And Mark's given a couple of speeches recently where he's made it pretty clear that our starting point is enterprise bargaining and collective bargaining, we see an ongoing role for and ongoing respect for collective bargaining. But the AWA issue is an issue that parts of business are very hot to trot on, so that forms part of the policy review. But Mark's made it pretty clear, as have I, that our starting point is enterprise or collective bargaining, so I'm not seeing that as an iconic issue and frankly I'm surprised that in a number of areas that the AWA has become such an iconic or threshold issue: there are plenty of more relevant issues around the place as well.

Finally, one last question. Let's pull out the crystal ball, how important is the next five years in what we do with industrial relations to the way we work in 20 years time?

Well I've been traveling around the Commonwealth as a member of Parliament and as a shadow minister in various portfolios over the years, and every workplace I go to whether its an office, or a mine site or a factory or a production site, my experience is always when you speak to people on the ground to employees and to management, that the places where you get most productive activity are those places where essentially you've got a friendly and happy and cooperative workplace and that's often about the relationship between the employers and the employees.

If the employees and employers, if the management and the workers don't have confidence and faith and trust in each other, it doesn't matter what the fine print of the industrial relations legislation is, in the end you won't have a productive workplace. So the most important thing is to make sure that you've got co-operative and productive workplaces, whatever the detail is. That's why, as I said earlier, Australians have taken view that we're better at IR than our opponents, because the notion of a cooperative workplace and cooperative arrangements have always been our style rather than our opponents.

In terms of productive economic activity the nation now takes the benefit of 14 years of economic growth, we take the benefit of the reforms that the Keating Government's made and that essentially opened up our economy and made us internationally competitive. The Howard Government has been very complacent about our international competitiveness and we're seeing that now they've essentially relied upon the economic growth that's come from our changes and the state of the Australian dollar, because they've done nothing to take us to the next level or see the next wave of productivity improvements, they're now starting to worry and complain about the state of the Australian dollar.

We need to take ourselves to the next wave or the next level of productivity gains, which is about investing in the skills and education of our workforce, investing in research and development, investing in better use, more efficient use of infrastructure, investing in better information technology infrastructure, reducing the complexity of regulations so that we're more productive, they're all the big challenges.

And industrial relations legislation, workplace legislation, plays a key part in all of that so setting ourselves up at the start of this century to get the next level of international competitiveness is very important. We've survived historically, economically as a nation through being a great trading nation and being an attractive place for overseas capital investment and the only way that occurs is by being internationally competitive and other than taking the benefit our reforms, introducing a GST and trying to flog off Telstra, the government's economic policy is essentially being, take the benefit of the economic reform and not do much else. Well, we may well pay to our cost, if we don't pretty quickly start to invest in all those intellectual and physical skills, which will take us the next level of productive activity.


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