Moore / Union takes big stick to ‘complacent’ minister

“If the CFMEU can’t get action without taking extreme steps, what can ordinary citizens expect?” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

The CFMEU letterbox flyer… accused the minister of failing workers on the light rail project.

WHEN the CFMEU organises a campaign against a Labor government – something is awry.

Michael Moore.

More than a campaign! The CFMEU blitzed Canberra suburban letterboxes with a leaflet attacking the Workplace Relations Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith. And it worked.

The rest of Canberra must be wondering what it takes to get this minister to respond to the community. If a major union cannot get action without taking such extreme steps, what can ordinary citizens expect?

The CFMEU leaflet accused the minister of failing workers and identified the short-changing of workers employed on the light rail project by government contractors.

The clever part about the union blitz is the way it touched a series of sensitivities of ACT Labor and the ACT government. Protection of workers, the light rail project, failing unions, breaking promises and letting down Labor Party members. The appeal went broader accusing the government of allowing Canberra to be “the wage-theft capital” and of the ACT government of being “partners in crime” with “bad bosses”.

The ACT secretary of the CFMEU, Jason O’Mara, also threatened to expand the campaign to include phone calls and door knocking if the issue remained unresolved.

In 2016 Labor had promised a code to be agreed between government and unions to protect union workers’ rights. The code was to ameliorate the Federal government’s workplace approach under Michaelia Cash.

A draft of the code was released in February and then nothing. The draft code was to safeguard a worker’s right to associate and create an active role for unions in the induction of workers. It was to avoid a trigger that might conflict with the Fair Work right-of-entry provisions. As part of its blitz, the CFMEU also lodged a $700,000 claim in the Federal Court on behalf of workers on the light rail project.

It took a lot more than a crowbar, but finally, Rachel Stephen-Smith moved. If the CFMEU needs to take such strides to move a minister on something that Labor has promised, it raises a series of questions:

  • What chance does an ordinary citizen have of influencing her?
  • To what extent is the approach taken by the CFMEU inappropriate bullying?
  • Is the minister so complacent (or so stubborn) that she will not move until such levers are put in place?
  • Is the rest of the government asleep?

 

Rachel Stephen-Smith finally introduced the Secure Local Jobs Code into the Legislative Assembly, demanding companies hold a certificate committing them to a raft of workplace rules.

She claimed the intention was to “guarantee the highest ethical standards on government-funded projects” and, later, “what we are doing is using our purchasing power to set a benchmark for the standards that we would expect employers to abide by across the ACT economy”.

In introducing the legislation the minister put a brave face on the government’s approach saying: “Canberrans want to ensure that taxpayers’ money goes to companies that treat their workers fairly, that uphold their rights”.

The code will be tested by an Assembly committee now charged with considering the ramifications.

The Liberals’ Andrew Wall has warned the code will “price local small businesses out of the ACT procurement process”. This is something the committee will need to consider very carefully. It will also need to look at the costs to business, the make up of the proposed six-member oversight council and the impact of a registrar to examine the audit certificates required of businesses.

If the minister’s approach up to this point is any indication – the committee will need to work hard to ensure that this code is not simply the work of the department with minimal ministerial oversight. What is needed is a sensible approach taking into account the needs of ACT businesses as much as the needs of ACT workers.

Whatever the outcome, the standard has been set. With a complacent government, it is not enough to simply present facts, rely on evidence and encourage good decision making. In the ACT, the art of gentle persuasion of the “critical friend” seems to be giving way to the big stick.

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