Some of the biggest decisions by a Labor government are made without any fireworks when hundreds of the party’s most faithful members gather every few years for a national conference that approves the ALP’s policy platform and endorses its direction.
That means the debates in Brisbane at the end of this week, including hard-fought arguments on the AUKUS alliance and climate change, are only part of the agenda for Anthony Albanese and his ministers when they decide the policies that will shape the rest of this term of parliament.
One of the smoothest debates ahead of the conference, according to union officials, has been the discussion on industrial relations, even though this issue is vital for workers and their wages and existential for the labour movement as a whole.
Most union leaders have been reluctant to turn this into a flashpoint because they do not want to put the prime minister in a corner and force him to accept or reject their demands in public. They acknowledge that these conferences are different when Labor is in power; humiliating the leader makes no sense.
In Canberra, meanwhile, union officials and industry chiefs have been gathering this week for a very different conference. The Committee on Industrial Legislation, a low-profile group of negotiators from all sides, has been meeting behind closed doors to argue over the early draft of a workplace relations bill that will be put to parliament in the next few weeks.
This is about political battle on an entirely different scale because it is not about the dividing lines within the party but a potential fracture in the community. It is about power and money and the next election. And it pits Albanese and the unions against industry chiefs who are spending millions of dollars telling voters that the draft law – best known for its “same job, same pay” tagline – will push up prices at the supermarket.
Peter Dutton watches from the sideline in the hope that the argument over workplace law will spread fear and doubt about Albanese on the domestic front once the Indigenous Voice is decided.
The meeting in Canberra was the first face-to-face discussion over the draft law between the union and industry negotiators. Most of the details remain secret because these consultations come with non-disclosure agreements – a legal manoeuvre that dampens open debate over specific measures – but the broad goals are clear.
The key elements are: the “same job, same pay” provisions which would prevent employers signing up contractors who are paid less than regular workers doing the same job; rules to give casual workers a stronger right to become full-time employees after six months or so, giving them benefits such as annual leave; and measures to restrict “gig economy” jobs using casuals and contractors in fields such as food delivery and transport.
Business chiefs are especially worried about a provision that would criminalise wage theft – the very provision union leaders believe is so important to stop employers underpaying their staff until they are found out. Woolworths, Coles, Suncorp, David Jones, Grill’d, the Super Retail Group and the Commonwealth Bank are among those that have been caught out for underpaying their workers.
Then there are the provisions on a union’s right of entry to a workplace. This is no longer about a tough-talking union boss walking onto a construction site. The law is changing for the digital age, so the arguments are about whether unions can demand access to pay records to find a list of employees and check what they have been paid.
Employment Minister Tony Burke is about to reveal his plans in detail so he can put the draft law to parliament after it resumes on September 4. He will speak to the National Press Club on August 30 to outline his plans.
Wages have lagged inflation for years, so Albanese and Burke must find a way to turn this around by the next election and meet their pledge to “get wages moving again” – the woolly language that can only mean moving up, not down. The argument from employers is that the draft law could hurt the economy by loading employers with higher costs.
“They have not made the case for any of it, and none of it drives productivity or adds to wages,” says one business chief. This is fundamental because productivity growth in this country is so feeble – and the Labor blueprint to turn that around is a very sketchy work in progress.
Albanese is in a strong position on industrial relations. When voters are asked to rate the two major parties on this issue, 38 per cent of voters say Labor is performing best and 25 per cent prefer the Coalition. The gap has narrowed during the year – it was 43 to 22 per cent in January – but Labor launches this next debate from a position of strength.
Some of the business fears cannot be tested, yet. BHP, for instance, claims the workplace changes would wipe $3 billion from the value of its South Australian mining projects, but it cannot possibly calculate this with any precision when the draft law has not even been put to parliament. Burke says the industry executives are claiming he will do something he will not do.
The real dynamic, however, is about the distrust between Labor and business. Albanese delivered a warm speech to the Australian Industry Group in Melbourne on Monday night, and he has known some business leaders for decades, but most employer groups are watching him warily. The Business Council of Australia just hired a former Liberal adviser, Bran Black, as its new chief. The Minerals Council of Australia and other groups are funding a text campaign against the workplace laws.
Albanese and Burke got the better of the employer groups last year with the first tranche of workplace law – the “multi-employer bargaining” requested by ACTU secretary Sally McManus. The business groups look back on that with frustration. They believe they were not prepared and not united, so their goal is to be more assertive this time around.
How much will business spend to counter these laws? If the economic pain is $3 billion for one company alone, the advertising could run all the way to the election. “Let’s just say we’ll keep going for a long time,” says one executive. “As long as it takes.”
Albanese will emerge from this week’s Labor conference with an endorsement from the party faithful despite the friction over AUKUS, climate change and other policies. Burke will have the support of the union movement in a workplace debate on Friday afternoon because the unions are – so far – getting what they want. Consensus without fireworks: that is the outcome for a Labor conference when the party is in office.
The greater contest is outside the conference. It is between unions and business, Labor and the Coalition, and it is about who holds power in the workplace. It is also about how far Albanese and Burke can go in giving the Labor faithful everything they want.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.
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