Monday 19 November 2007

Union heavies who scare me

CairnsBlog contributing writer Sid Walker, tells us his thoughts about the Unions... hold on for the ride.

Like many Australians, I have a soft spot for Julia Gillard.

Unfortunately, some of her ex-boyfriends scare me.

Michael O’Connor, for example, has been a pro-woodchipping, anti-environmentalist heavy in the CFMEU for many years. He’s played no small part in delivering the atrociously high levels of native forest logging that still persist in Australia – most notoriously in Tasmania.

The CFMEU, since its inception, has been a serious drag on the ALP’s environment policy. I don't doubt there are many fine people in this very large union, even among its national leadership - but a coterie controlling timber industry policy have consistently white-anted Labor’s ability to develop progressive policy over native forests. O’Connor is one of them. The union has a lot to answer in other environmental policy areas too, including climate change.

Because practically the entire world now accepts we are in dire straights over climate change, extremist environmental reactionaries seem to have lost some of their grip over Labor's climate change policy. Thank God for that! Even so, Labor’s schizophrenia over the future of the coal industry signifies the CFMEU’s continuing malign influence.

Labor’s policy on the fate of native forests in the southern states, on the other hand, is an area where ‘CFMEU Rules OK!’ is a fitting summary of the state of play.

Large-scale logging of native forests still occurs in NSW, Victoria - and worst of all in terms of scale, in Tasmania. Blame for this does not attach solely to the CFMEU. But I have little doubt the union would happily accept credit for this, which it sees as an ‘achievement’. The union leaders involved are so one-eyed they truly consider the continuing assault on native forests an achievement. When I last heard their smug greenwash, they called it ‘sustainable harvesting’ or some such thing.

I don’t often feel in imminent danger of physical assault, but once upon a time – sometime in the previous century - I met a certain CFMEU heavy in the corridors of Parliament House Canberra and told him he cozied up to the bosses over the native forest issue.

The offended apparatchik indicated with body language that comments like that merit what Londoners call a ‘bunch of fives’, but I'm glad to say he remained a gentleman and restrained himself. Well trained by Julia, perhaps? Anyhow, I’m glad I didn’t cop a knuckle sandwich, but would gladly repeat the remark if the opportunity ever arises again. I have more grounds for believing it now than at the time. The truth can be painful, but sometimes it needs to be ventilated.

The number of workers employed in the Australian native forest timber industry hasn’t amounted to much for decades – not since the general demise of the native forest sawlog industry due to generations of gross over-cutting. The residue of this destructive industry could be closed down and the workforce generously compensated and/or found suitable alternative employment. It is a very affordable option – and has been since the 1980s if not before. Relatively few unionized workers would be affected. In spite of all this - and showing blithe contempt for massive community campaigns over native forests in the last quarter century - short-sighted union bosses clung to an industry model that has proved highly profitable for a very small number of companies, but grossly detrimental to the environment and the overall public good.

Far North Queensland is a place where we can truly say “been there, done that!”.

We had a native forest logging industry here too, until a generation ago. Who now mourns its loss? “Of course we don’t log our native forests”, we smilingly tell tourists, especially envious visitors from the south.

Instead of forging links with conservationists, who've always supported generous compensation arrangements and alternative employment options, including jobs centered around truly sustainable wood growing - a clique in the CFMEU took the strategic decision, years ago, to cozy up to the (biggest of) bosses and support their ugly and rapacious plans for broadscale logging of native forests, mainly for low-value woodchips. The currently proposed major pulpmill in Tasmania, of course, would yet further entrench native forest destruction.

In that beleaguered little island, the union’s stranglehold over ALP forest policy (along with the direct influence of Gunns itself) has generated a morbid two-party consensus which permits continuing environmental pillage on a vast scale.

It sucks. Bigtime!

Gillard’s previous leader - Mark Latham - had a much better take on forest policy than her current boss or one or two of her old flames, for that matter.

It was rebellion from CFMEU heavies that fatally undermined Latham's chances in the 2004 election.

Pundits and 'insiders' quickly pinned the blame on Latham and his ‘risky’ policies - and spun the election away from Labor's grasp in the last couple of weeks of the campaign. There is, however, an alternative view. This is that a few union hacks (with plenty of help from the media itself) recklessly played havoc with Latham's credibility. Shows of disunity on the Labor side during election campaigns are usually subject to retribution. What occurred in the final weeks of the 2004 election was a huge breach of party discipline. But with the demise of Latham’s leadership after the election, it went unpunished.

Discipline during Rudd’s campaign has been tighter. But would these CFMEU hard cases have pulled the same stunt on Rudd, had he committed Labor to stronger forest protection or promised to review the deeply unpopular pulpmill proposal?

We won’t know. Clearly, Rudd had no enthusiasm for a repeat experiment. In this, he may have been influenced, in part, by Julia Gillard.

Contrary to conformist insider opinion, Mark Latham's forest initiative for Tasmania was a major step in the right direction and for the public interest. The fact that Labor lost the 2004 election - and the spin most pundits have since applied when explaining the defeat - means Australia's forest policy to this day remains in a pre-civilized era, at least in the southern States. It's a great shame – literally – and an issue that won't go away.

The 2004 CFMEU betrayal leaves a very bad after-taste. Interestingly, in late January 2006 Glen Milne wrote an article in the Australian, which is commented upon here and here. I can’t find Milne’s original via Google. It may have disappeared from the web – or perhaps The Australian never published it online.

These two must-read articles refer to shenanigans prior to the 2004 election by O’Connor and co so treasonous – from a traditional Labor perspective - that the mind reels.

The role of the media itself also raises eyebrows - or would in a society where media watch meant more than a 15 minute weekly TV program. Larvatus Prodeo reports there was a subsequent letter to the Australian, that commented:

  • IF Glenn Milne knew all about the underhand deals going on in Tasmania before the last election (”PM out of the woods”, 30/1), he had a duty as a journalist to report this important information to The Australian ’s readers before the election, not wait until the Liberal minister for forestry Ian MacDonald got the sack. It seems he has let his loyalty overcome his journalistic principles.

Spot on! Some ‘reporter’! No wonder he thrives somewhere near the epicenter of the Evil Empire of Oz.

I have general sympathies for unions and respect their many achievements on behalf of workers, but cringe when I see the Coalition’s ads warning of the consequences of union power if the ALP wins office throughout the continent.

I know at least one case where it rings true.

Trouble is, in that particular case, John Howard is on the same lousy side as the ‘union heavies’ he excoriates.


Anonymous said...

Haven't had a lot to do with Unions in my working career, but recently joined a Queensland Public Sector Union along with many of my colleagues over a fairness and conditions issue.

I was surprised last week to recieve a phone call and to learn that many of my colleagues as well as myself, got a phone call at home after hours from the Union to sure up votes for the Labor Party in the upcoming federal election.

Personally, I refuse to vote for any party willing to and giving the green light to a pulp mill in Tasmania, so that rules out the big players.

So it seems that the Union is still trying to control its "comrades".

Anonymous said...

Sid, these CFMEU heavies that you are saying rule the environmental policies of both sides of politics, particularly the Labor side, are doing what their members ask and pay for them to do. Not all CFMEU members mind you. I definitely want to see forestry stopped while my kids can still see trees. It is interesting to note that both parties have backed this pulp mill though. I agree that there must be a change and soon, however we need real options for the workers and the communities that have relied on timber for over a century. Tourism is a great example you used. But there must be more options. How many of these big tough men would make adequate tour guides? Great start but we need to keep working on it with a bi-partisan approach to solving the issues.
We arent all thugs either mate. Regardless of what the propoganda in the media is saying, the union movement has moved a long way from the old tough guy days and the bad apples (that exist in any organisation) are being dropped. Whether thats far enough for you is your decision, but have you seen any violent strikes/protests over workchoices? Go back 10 years and it may have been different, but thats not how we operate now. We are just as pissed off for sure, but we wont accept violence in any manner.

Antipulpmiller, you have every right to turn down helping either major party if you so desire. I believe that your union, like mine is (right or wrong to us)a little more concerned with Work Choices at the moment than a pulp mill. You joined over fairness and conditions reasons, as did I and thats why i did volunteer to help. I feel however that if you want to make a difference you need to be involved. Just because i will vote for Rudd, doesnt mean i will accept the destruction of our earth at the rates it is being destroyed now. Unfortunately its one battle at a time and until we have a government that even recognises there is an issue we cant stop it. The greens obviously see this, hence their prefernces to Labor.

Anonymous said...

This is a cracking read, only half through. You 'northies' might not fully appreciate, that Sid while holding down the very draining Executive Officer position of the NSW Nature Conservation Council was effectively sainted by NSW politics down here. You can see he reads very diplomatically here too - 'bunch of fives' indeed.

This witness by Sid looks the nail on the head, dead straight aim to me. Sure we have similar environmental politics but the history should also be truthfully written, especially if the world really does go to hell in a handbasket, people have the right to know how we got to such a miserable pass.

In the case of the logger CFMEU - careful what you wish for, you won the destruction of forests in NSW but you helped f*ck everyone's future in the process. Lose the war? You bet.

Tom McL, 10 years member Australian Services Union Sydney(for better or worse).