Tribal war between Gillard and the union movement
The improbably named Ark Tribe is on the verge of creating the first real schism between the Rudd Government and the union movement.
The knockabout building worker is in court in Adelaide today facing charges of refusing to answer questions to the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of six months jail.
If convicted, Tribe will become the first trade unionist to be jailed since the 1960s. when Clarrie O’Shea was locked up for refusing to disclose internal union documents, sparking a general strike.
To understand this impending headache, a little history lesson is needed.
In 2001, then IR minister Tony Abbott announced a Royal Commission into the building industry, following a Four Corners report featuring allegations about corruption by a string of colourful industry figures including Tom Domican.
The ostensible charge was of massive lawlessness in the building industry, although the real agenda was to bust the CFMEU, which the Howard Government had targeted alongside the MUA as a barrier to its economic reform plan.
Twelve months and $66 million later, and despite extraordinary powers and resources including more than 100 staff, Terence Cole handed down a report that recommended a massive zero charges of criminal behaviour against union members or officials. (In fact, the only actual charge was one of perjury by a witness who lied about sleeping with a sub-contractor’s wife).
What Cole did deliver the government though was a general finding of widespread but undefined ‘lawlessness’ in the industry and a recommendation to establish a body with the standing powers of a Royal Commission – that is, the power to compel people to give evidence.
The Howard Government used this body, the ABCC, to constrict union activity, including visits to sites to conduct safety inspections. Labor in Opposition made it official policy to disband the body and remove these powers.
Then came the ‘union bosses’ scare campaign in the lead-up to the 2007 election. In an effort to distance himself from overweight union officials who swore a lot who kept turning up on the front page of the Australian, the PM scrapped the policy.
Despite ongoing pressure from both the union movement and sections of his Caucus, the ABCC remains and while Labor is winding it into its new Fair Work Australia organization, there are growing concerns the powers will remain in place.
These concerns were only heightened last week, when Julia Gillard appeared to revel in the hostile reception she received at the ACTU Congress as she was seen to confront the union beast head-on.
While the Canberra press gallery is giving Gillard glowing accolades for her performance,they may have missed the personal dimension that the Tribe case injects into the debate.
Ark Tribe may be scruffy, he may even be smelly after a hard day on site, but he is a citizen – and locking citizens up for sins like maintaining the confidentiality of a union meeting are not a good look for any government, let alone a Labor one.
How will the public respond? What we know from our polling is that 73 per cent of voters believe that construction workers should not be treated differently from other workers; with a similar number supporting the abolition of the ABCC.
The message for federal Labor may be that the time to be worried about perceived control by ‘union bosses’ has passed; the Rudd administration has clearly established its independence in this regard. Moreover the cost of maintaining its position on the ABCC becomes that much higher once people begin to be locked away on Labor’s watch.
Labor politicians have a keen sense of history and the idea of jailing rank and file union members for what is effectively civil disobedience will weigh heavily on many MPs shoulders over the weeks to come.
Disclosure: Peter Lewis does work for Ark Tribe’s Union, the CFMEU.
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