The Politics    Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Swinging and missing

By Michael Lucy

Swinging and missing
Today’s attacks on Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are both aimed at the wrong targets

When Bill Shorten ran the Australian Workers Union a decade ago, he made a deal over Melbourne’s EastLink tollway with the construction company Thiess John Holland. Workers on the project would be paid a higher rate, in exchange for fewer days off. This cut TJH’s costs overall, as it let them complete the project sooner.

And the AWU would also do well from the deal: according to evidence to the Trade Union Royal Commission from Julian Rzesniowiecki, a TJH executive, $300,000 would quietly be paid to the union for its trouble, via various false and inflated invoices. Rzesniowiecki claims that this deal was Bill Shorten’s idea, though it was implemented during the reign of his successor at the AWU, Cesar Melhem. Shorten has denied all knowledge of the arrangement, and at this point it appears to be a question of his word against Rzesniowiecki’s.

In other news, Labor senator Sam Dastyari attacked Malcolm Turnbull for having investments in funds registered in the well-known tax haven of the Cayman Islands. Dastyari took care to say that Turnbull’s investments were legal, but questioned whether they were appropriate. (This was tied in to an attack on Turnbull’s opposition to Labor’s proposed legislation on tax transparency.)

In response, Turnbull released a statement saying that his investments are in overseas managed funds to avoid potential conflicts of interest, and that he ensures that all his investment returns are properly taxed in Australia. Like Shorten, at this point it looks like Turnbull has done no wrong.

But in both cases you’d have to say that it’s not a good look. Both cases show up discrepancies between how we like to think of Australian society and the way it really is.

In Shorten’s case, there are still a lot of Labor voters who think fondly of unions (though they may not be members themselves), and like to consider Labor a left-wing party that represents workers. But since 1983, when Bob Hawke wrangled the ACTU into the Accord (in which unions agreed to keep down their wage demands, in exchange for government efforts to keep down inflation), the role of unions has more and more become that of brokers between capital and labour, rather than workers’ representatives.

Rightly or wrongly, we tend now to think of work for wages as a collaboration between employer and employed for mutual benefit, rather than a hard-fought bargain between unequal parties with differing goals. As a consequence, unions are expected to cooperate with employers rather than acting against them.

Shorten’s deal with TJH is a reminder that Labor is the party that pioneered third-way centrism. If you think union bosses should work more against employers than with them, the modern ALP is not the party for you. If you don’t like what Bill Shorten did, your problem may be more with the state of industrial relations in Australia than with the man himself.

As for Turnbull, he complained in Question Time this afternoon that Labor was campaigning on “the politics of envy” and “trying to whip up a class war”. The choice of words is over the top, but the substance is right: by bringing up the PM’s offshore investments, Labor is trying to remind the public that he has a lazy couple of hundred million stashed away. This in turn ties in to Labor’s ongoing attempts to highlight Australia’s growing inequality (much of the drive for which presumably comes from Andrew Leigh, the shadow assistant treasurer and former economics professor, who has worked extensively on the history of inequality).

But there is, of course, no law against being rich. Turnbull’s behaviour is perfectly legal, and he pays the tax he owes. Even if he does try to keep his tax bill down, so what? Kerry Packer’s infamous comment of 1991 has become folk wisdom: “If anybody in this country doesn’t minimise their tax they want their head read.”

So again: if you don’t like what Turnbull has done, your problem may be with the laws around tax and offshore investment. And if you don’t think much of Turnbull or Shorten, well: we get the leaders we deserve.


Today’s links

  • Liberal MP Craig Kelly is unhappy with the quality of the paintings in Parliament House.
  • Environment minister Greg Hunt is spruiking renewable energy.
  • Christian Porter, the new social services minister, has hinted at cuts to carer and disability payments.
  • George Brandis has introduced yet another “tranche” of counter-terrorism laws. They will affect children as young as 14, create some new offences and may prevent people accused of crimes from seeing the evidence against them.
  • Labor has dropped most of its objections to the proposed China-Australia free trade agreement.
  • The threatened species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, has written to both Brigitte Bardot and former Smiths frontman Morrissey in response to their concerns about a planned cull of feral cats.
  • Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and some other candidates for the Democratic nomination for next year’s US presidential election have had their first debate.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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