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ACTU: we're not feeling neglected

TV interview, 'Insiders' with Barrie Cassidy, ABC TV

Remember Work Choices and the campaign that was generated to oppose it? Remember? Here ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence delivers that body's post election preferences in regard to Work Choices and the ALP government's 'lite' version of same.

But heres' a suggestion: if you are sour on Work Choices and want it torn up completely, don't go holding your breath if you are waiting on Lawrence and co to to facilitate the tearing up.

Watch the interview on the ABC website .

BARRIE CASSIDY, PRESENTER: Well, the trade unions dominated the debate during the election campaign, and they spent a lot of money in tandem with Labor on the WorkChoices issue. Joining us now is the Secretary of the ACTU, Jeff Lawrence.

(to Jeff Lawrence) Good morning, welcome.


BARRIE CASSIDY: You spent $30 million or so on advertising, that must have been a significant boost to Labor, what's the dividend from all of that?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Well I'm not sure about that figure, Barrie, but there was a significant trade union spend, that's true. And the election was really important, because we think it meant the rejection of WorkChoices, I think that's absolutely clear, and what we want to see now is fair industrial legislation put in place, and I'm confident that will happen.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Was part of the dividend simply survival, because that in itself would have been an issue if the Coalition had won?

JEFF LAWRENCE: I don't think that the trade union movement would not have survived, the trade union movement would have survived, but we do have an opportunity now, we've got an opportunity to build a fair society in Australia and we've got an opportunity to work with the Government, and for that matter, to communicate with employers.

So there is a real opportunity to change our country for the better.

BARRIE CASSIDY: I want to ask you about that communication a little later on, but what do you want from the Government on WorkChoices? If Kevin Rudd does no more than what he says he will do, is that okay by you?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Well we have a policy, and it does have some differences to Labor. We will continue to argue of course for our policy, but Labor has made its decision fairly clear, and I do believe that they have a mandate for that policy, and I'm sure they will proceed with it.

The legislation of course will contain all sorts of issues, and deal with all sorts of issues in detail. So there will be a process of discussion with the Government over the next six months or so.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So you except their mandate, but what's the greatest irritant to you? What area would you like to see changed?

JEFF LAWRENCE: It isn't so much areas to be changed, I think there is a need to talk about the implementation of various issues, there are all sorts of matters that surround the key areas of policy where discussions are necessary.

The central issue for us, though, is the future of collective bargaining. The question of collective bargaining and how it operates in Australia and its relationship with freedom of association, those two really key international rights, they're the things that we'll be talking about most during next year.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And you're satisfied you can do that within the framework that the Government has spelt out?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Absolutely, yes. One of the really central commitments that Labor has made is the whole system of good faith bargaining, the way in which Fair Work Australia will work in the implementation of that system, to help it actually operate. So collective bargaining, freedom of association, are central parts of Labor's policy, and will be central parts in the new system.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you have any problem with the two-stage process that Julia Gillard has outlined? That's something that she didn't outline until after the election, and of course the second stage doesn't come into effect until 2010.

JEFF LAWRENCE: Well the two-stage process was announced in August, when Labor announced its implementation plan. So we've known that was going to occur for some time, we knew that there would be a transition Bill. Clearly, we want to make sure that both parts of that legislative package are in place as soon as possible; that's a priority, and that's what we'll be working towards.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, the restrictions on union rights to enter workplaces will stay, restrictions on strikes will stay, are you comfortable with that?

JEFF LAWRENCE: We would like to see some discussion about some aspects of those policy areas, as I say, there are lots of details to work through there, but we believe we can work with the Government, we believe we can talk to employers to get a practical method of implementation in place.

BARRIE CASSIDY: You say your confident you can work with the Government, but there is no formal relationship or formal dialogue put in place as yet. In fact, Kevin Rudd was asked about it in the Press Club, and he said he hadn't given it any thought at all. Do you need some sort of formal working relationship with the Government, or are you just going to wing it?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Well, no, we're not going to wing it. There will be, and there should be, I'm confident, a formal relationship. The Australian Labor Advisory Council - ALAC - is actually part of the Labor Party's rules and constitution, so there will be a process of consultation. But there will also be consultation with employers, so we just need to work on that, there are lots of issues that will be dealt with in the next six months.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But you're not feeling a bit neglected, Julia Gillard has already spoken to the Australian Industry Group, and there is a consultation group in place to allow for dialogue between the Government and business?

JEFF LAWRENCE: No, we're not feeling neglected. We'll be there, we'll be there expressing very strongly and very firmly our views and our values, and we'll be expressing that to the Government, but as well as that, we'll be in a public sense arguing for our position.

And so our campaign, the Your Rights At Work campaign, will continue, we've made that very clear, and what that will be about is us talking about the role of unions but also the role of unions in society, why it is important that there are strong unions, why it's important that the trade union movement grows. One of the reasons is we just don't want to see a repeat of WorkChoices.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop have indicated that they are willing to talk with the unions, now I don't think John Howard had a meeting with Greg Combet, or with the secretary of the ACTU, in 11 and a half years, I don't think Joe Hockey did. Is this new?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Let me say Barrie, we are prepared to talk to anybody, at any time, to advance the interests of Australian workers. So I'm not sure what happened in the past. There is a consultative mechanism, and certainly since I was elected as secretary, there was one meeting, which Joe Hockey was at which I attended.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yes, but this might be a one-on-one arrangement. Are you curious to why they might be doing this?

JEFF LAWRENCE: I'm not too keen on one-on-one arrangements, Barrie, I think there needs to be broad discussion with all parts of society, and clear the role of the Senate and Parliament in terms of getting legislation through is important, so we want to engage in that.

BARRIE CASSIDY: I think it's fair to say Kevin Rudd is no trade unionist. Do you expect the likes of Greg Combet and Bill Shorten to look after the interests of the unions within the caucus?

JEFF LAWRENCE: I don't expect anybody to look after the interest of unions, unions will look after their own interests, and we'll be standing up for the things that we think are important.

I do think that it is a very good thing that we have, in the Federal Parliament now, people who have been in the trade union movement quite recently, because lots of changes have happened with the trade union movement, lots of changes have happened with the economy, and it is a good thing that there are people who have gone into the trade union movement, into Parliament, like Greg, Bill Shorten and others, who've got very recent experience of the sort of challenges that unions have confronted.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What's their brief? What are their riding instructions?

JEFF LAWRENCE: They haven't got any riding instructions, they will carry out their role in the Government, in accordance with the position of the Government. What we'll be doing is talking to the Government, and those people who are responsible, and of course Julia is the responsible minister, and she's the main person that we'll be talking to, and the main person we've talked to.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What do you do now, about your image? The Coalition, they may not have won the election, but they knew enough about community attitudes to make unions and their connection with the Labor Party a huge issue.

JEFF LAWRENCE: Well, that issue and that campaign have been rejected by the Austrailan people. There has been the most vicious anti-union campaign that I have ever seen, all of those TV ads in red and yellow and black that we saw every night, and in fact, in electorates, marginal electorates. That campaign has been rejected.

So the role of trade unions has actually been recognised by the Australian people. Australian people know that unions have stood up to the interests of all Australian working families.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But we can't be certain why people voted the way that they did, do you think that perhaps you need to modernise to broaden your image? The image that we saw during the election campaign with people like Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald, the thuggery was there, for everybody to see. Are you worried about that, and do you think you need to tackle that issue?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Barrie, those sorts of diversionary campaigns focused on a couple of individuals, not at all representative of the broad Australian trade union movement, just did not work.

The union movement will be continuing to articulate what we stand for, and what we stand for is the protection of Australian working families. That's been shown in the election campaign, what we're about is getting rid of WorkChoices, we've done that now.

We will be continuing to talk about our role in the public sense. We will talk about why it's important that there are strong unions, why it's important that unions grow. So we'll continue to put out that public message, as we have, the trade union movement covers a very broad spectrum of industry in society, and it is representative of these industries.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But do you still need to be alert to people like Joe McDonald, into the future?
JEFF LAWRENCE: Look, individuals don't matter here, what we're about is making sure that Australian working families are protected.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So is there a place for say, Dean Mighell, do you have some sympathy for him and do you think perhaps that he should return to the ALP one day?

JEFF LAWRENCE: The question of Labor Party membership is matter for the Labor Party, and it's a matter for Dean. The ACTU will stand up for officials and for unionsts who have their rights infringed, and we will continue to stand up and argue for all workers and all unions who have been attacked.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And just finally, how do you feel, then, about the prospect of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard? You've now seen them develop an industrial relations policy, and they'll now be running the country for at least three years, are you comfortable with that, or do you think that they might now draw a bit of distance between the Government and the unions?

JEFF LAWRENCE: No, I think that Kevin Rudd has run a fabulous campaign, I think Julia has been and will be a really able Deputy Prime Minister, we're really looking forward to working with this Government. I think there is now a tremendous opportunity for the trade union movement, but more so, there's a tremendous opportunity for Australia, if there's more communication between unions and employers, we can address some of the skill deficiencies and some of the other areas where we've lagged behind over the last 11 years.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So do you plan to talk to the employers about that? About boosting the dialogue between unions and employers?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Absolutely, and that will start before Christmas. So what we're about is just trying to make sure that we sit down with everybody in society, and of course employers are an absolutely key part of society to make sure that we get the legislation through, and that we have an industrial system which is one which provides for the sort of rights that exist all around the world, and they're the sort of rights, particularly collective bargaining and freedom of association, that have been suppressed and denied during the Howard years.

BARRIE CASSIDY: It won't be easy, because you went at each other fairly aggressively during the campaign, with your advertisements on both sides?

JEFF LAWRENCE: Look, people are professionals, people have got their own points of view, what needs to happen is that we sit down in a room, we put those points of view, and we come up with a position that is for the benefit of all parties.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

JEFF LAWRENCE: Thanks, Barrie.

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