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Dean Mighell: Kevin ran away after first shots

The Australian Thursday, July 05, 2007

DEAR Kevin,

Watching your overreaction to comments made by NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson at a private meeting, I’m left wondering whether you really understand the harsh reality of industrial relations. Surely the test of a robust democracy is the quality of the dissent. What is so odd about a union leader promising a push to win changes to an industrial relations policy under a Rudd Labor government? Yet instead of greeting Robertson’s colourful comments with a smile, you resort to pious bullying while accusing union leaders of being bullies (writes Dean Mighell).

It has been four weeks since I reluctantly agreed to resign from the ALP, after also making colourful comments at a private meeting. I was in shock at the swiftness and savagery of my forced removal from the party.

My resignation followed the publication of comments made in November last year at a private mass meeting of Electrical Trades Union members.

At that meeting I recounted the union’s recent history of bargaining outcomes and I skited about outmanoeuvring employers in negotiations way back in 1993. During the meeting I made some disparaging comments about officers of John Howard’s Australian Building and Construction Commission taskforce. I concede my description of them was in poor taste.

I was not aware my address to union members was being taped by a media company. Nor was I aware the tape had been sold to the ABCC. I only know that it found its way to Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, which duly published its contents. On the day these comments were published you sought my immediate resignation, giving me a mere five minutes to make my decision. Reluctantly, I resigned from the ALP because I did not wish to see the media and the federal Government engage in a beat-up that detracted from the community’s focus on the Work Choices legislation. At the time, I made it clear that in coercing my resignation, you were making a damaging mistake.

First, you meekly submitted to a government-engineered scare campaign, allowing the policy focus on Work Choices to be derailed. Second, you established a standard of behaviour that very few people, whether in boardrooms, union meetings or political life, can meet: swearing and boasting to colleagues about outmanoeuvring another in a negotiation is now a hanging offence.

This stance is difficult to reconcile with your attitude to comments made by Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones in the wake of the Cronulla riots. On December 7, 2005, Jones expressed his approval of the following email, sent by a listener: “My suggestion is to invite the biker gangs to be present at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, the biker gangs have been much maligned but they do a lot of good things ... and wouldn’t it be brilliant if the whole event was captured on TV cameras and featured on the evening news so that we, their parents, family and friends can see who these bastards are ... Australians old and new should not have to put up with this scum.”

When Jones’s comments were found to have breached broadcasting laws by inciting racial hatred and violence, your only response was to state that nothing Jones had done would cause you not to continue to appear on his radio show.

The decision you took four weeks ago is now coming home to roost in the form of a government-sponsored anti-union scare campaign. The scare campaign focuses on outmoded images of “union bosses”. The only thing missing is a few pictures of communists hiding under beds. If only the ALP was holding the Government accountable and offering the electorate the choice of Howard’s worn-out ideas or real Labor values. Instead of falling for Howard’s trick and allowing him to deflect attention from Work Choices, you should be reminding Australians of the good things trade unions and their members do every day.

Trade unions represent nearly two million people who make an enormous contribution to this country.

In the hands of a talented and committed Opposition, Work Choices is political gold. This is legislation that destroys job security, enshrines non-negotiable Australian Workplace Agreements that have cut remuneration for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable employees, and overwhelms employers, unions and employees in a suffocating mass of red tape.

When you spoke passionately about how Work Choices was devastating family life and redistributing power from the weak to the strong, the polls went with you. But in recent weeks you and your colleagues seem to have had second thoughts about promoting a fairer alternative. If it weren’t for the narrowing in policy difference between the parties, the ALP’s lead in the polls would be even greater.

There is no shortage of material for you and your colleagues to work with. You surely haven’t forgotten how unpopular Work Choices is? A recent ABC Four Corners report exposed 18,000 employees working on identical AWAs in a workplace culture that has systematically and methodically stripped them of their humanity. Even their toilet breaks are monitored. The report suggested that such a culture contributed to the suicides of two well-regarded employees.

What is the ALP’s position on this issue? Neither I nor the Australian people, have a clue. The silence is deafening.

Once again, as an election looms, I fear we are looking at an Opposition that chokes and lapses into defeatist, navel-gazing at the first sign of controversy. Instead of falling for Howard’s tired and discredited wedge politics, Labor should trust the people. Look at how the Australian people have scorned Howard’s invasion of indigenous communities as an election stunt. Look at how they’ve rejected Work Choices in one opinion poll after another. It’s time for you to grasp the nettle, Kevin. Australians want a real Opposition leader, not a pale imitation of Howard.

Dean Mighell is the southern states branch secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.

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