3 May 2018






I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would like to thank Grant, Mark and Justin for inviting me here today to participate in your conference.

Newcastle is a great place with a great working class history. Newcastle has produced many great trade unionists.

It’s pleasing to see that the AMIEU is maintaining the great traditions of Newcastle trade unionism.

Some of you may be aware that I started my full-time union career in 1981 in Muswellbrook as a state organiser with the AMWU.

Prior to being elected as a union organiser I was a maintenance fitter and a delegate for 7 years at Liddell power station.

The station had its problems then, and it beggars belief that the Turnbull government is seeking to keep what is now an antiquated piece of technology in service way beyond its useful lifespan.

This is just another example of an incompetent and ideologically driven Coalition government.

As a newly elected organiser, I had industrial responsibility from Ivanhoe to Tenterfield on the Queensland border.

I had a number of meat works in my area including Walkers at Aberdeen and the abattoirs at Guyra and Inverell.

I was involved in a number of disputes on behalf of the maintenance fitters. I will always remember the manager at Aberdeen meat works who was a huge lump of a man who didn’t take kindly to the demands of my members.

He was arrogant, abusive and he attempted to intimidate whenever he could.

This seemed to be a trait for meat work managers. To say that we had a number of full and frank discussions would be a significant understatement.

So I have some experience in your industry, a tough working environment with uncompromising employers.

There were big challenges for unions in the early 80s but they pale into insignificance against the challenges that the movement has under the current industrial relations regime.

In the 80s there was no limitation on industry bargaining, in fact some of the significant industrial gains such as, shorter hours, superannuation, career paths, industrial democracy could never have been achieved under existing industrial legislation.

Workers were not being imported under short-term 457 visas and being exploited by employers and labor hire companies run by criminal organisations.

After my election as Assistant State Secretary in 1987 my family and I moved to Sydney.

The Metal Trades Federation of Unions would conduct mass delegates meetings and mass meetings of members at Redfern Oval and Lidcombe Oval.

We would hold mass meetings of between 10 and 15,000 workers who attended these meetings to democratically determine and authorise our claims on the employers.

If you were employed in a workshop with limited industrial capacity you knew that the strength of the unions across the state and across the nation would assist you in achieving decent wages and conditions.

You were never isolated, never alone, and never left to the mercy of the employer.

Union membership was strong because the union was strong and legislation was not designed to favour business.

Since then, the misuse of enterprise bargaining, the capacity of employers to terminate enterprise agreements, restrictions on right of entry, restrictions on what you can bargain for and restrictions on workers’ capacity to take industrial action have weakened the trade union movement and increased inequality.

My favourite economist is John Kenneth Galbraith. The Canadian born economist was a leading intellectual and adviser to John F. Kennedy.

Galbraith was a dissident economist. He coined the phrase “countervailing power” and he described the need for countervailing power against the power of the market.

There are a number of institutions that can exert countervailing power, obviously government but also the trade union movement.

Business is well aware of the countervailing power of the trade union movement and their henchmen and allies in the Coalition have attempted to diminish the countervailing power of the trade union movement.

Major corporations continue to make bargaining decisions at the national level and impose these decisions at the enterprise level.

Unions are restricted in exercising countervailing power by industrial legislation that sanctions and makes illegal national level action.

Labor in government must take steps to rebalance the industrial relations system and allow unions to operate as they are intended and that is as a countervailing power to the power of employers.

This is not my portfolio area however as a former union official with 27 years experience and 11 years on the ACTU executive, I consider that I have some practical experience of the problems associated with business having too much industrial power.

The Coalition has used so-called “independent” statutory authorities such as the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the Fair Work Ombudsman, the Registered Organisations Commission and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to weaken the capacity of the trade union movement to defend and promote wages and conditions.

The explosive disclosure by Buzzfeed journalist Alice Workman that Michaelia Cash’s office was involved in tipping off the media about police raids on the AWU offices followed Minister Cash denying on five occasions to the Senate Estimates that her office was involved.

There are still many unanswered questions in relation to this unauthorised disclosure of government information which carries a maximum penalty of 2 years in prison.

It is now undisputed that Minister Cash’s office was involved and an employee of the Fair Work Ombudsman who was also engaged by the Registered Organisations Commission has questions to answer.

Since the scandal has been exposed four employees of Minister Cash including her former chief of staff have resigned from the Minister’s office.

There are now questions relating to the possible involvement of the office of former Minister for Justice Michael Keenan.

The Australian Federal Police are investigating the leak and I look forward to the outcome of the investigations.

In my 10 years in the Senate, I have never seen a government minister lose control as Minister Cash did when she threatened to slur and humiliate young women working in the Labor Party, with no basis.

This demonstrates how low the Coalition will go to attack their political opponents and in particular the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.

This is a government with no economic credibility, a disregard for the Westminster system and contempt for the Australian working class.

It’s unbelievable that Michaelia Cash was until recently Malcolm Turnbull’s pick as Minister for Women.

I want to turn to the reports that the Business Council of Australia is seeking $200,000 from each of its members to amass a multi-million dollar campaign fund purportedly to support corporate tax cuts but which in reality is about supporting Malcolm Turnbull and their mates in the Coalition.

There’s no other way to say this: the BCA have become an embarrassment to their members and a disgrace to the country.

Once upon a time, they might have been taken seriously as an organisation with views on policy, with a contribution to make to the national debate.

They have trashed any intellectual authority, any policy credibility – with their tawdry, shameful, selfish pursuit of a multi-billion dollar tax giveaway.

Their obsession with ripping billions away from hospitals and schools to line their own pockets has consumed them.

Their trickle-down greed has swallowed them whole.

Think about it.

When was the last time the BCA said something constructive about our country, something interesting about Australia’s future?

These days it’s just an incessant chorus of complaint –one long, sad, self-obsessed whinge.

Talking the nation down, talking working people down, minimising the sacrifices of middle and working class Australia, arrogantly dismissing real challenges with the cost of living and saying that the one thing Australia needs is to make our richest companies richer.

Apparently workers just have to put up with the lowest wages growth on record, cuts to penalty rates, shrinking job security and relentless off-shoring and out-sourcing.

Miners can keep on dying from black lung disease.

Building workers can keep dying on construction sites.

The working class have to work till they are 70 while overpaid finance sector executives ruthlessly exploit their customers and retire in their 50s with multi-million dollar golden parachutes.

Vulnerable people and labor hire casuals can be exploited for the “benefit” of shareholders … but the BCA can’t go another minute without a massive cheque from the Australian taxpayer.

The BCA are not just single-issue group, they are a one dimensional organisation.

They are a one-trick pony, blinded by the dollar and with a one-track mind.

Australians are onto them.

Let me give you an example from my portfolio.

The BCA like to say they care about Vocational Education.

They are strong on rhetoric when it comes to VET – but when you get behind the platitudes you are left with half-truths and distortions fuelled by ideology and self-interest.

Last year they released their vision for education and training to great fanfare.

The CEO, Jennifer Westacott, dedicated a speech to VET at the National Press Club. 

I don’t doubt her commitment to the power of education.

However I do not share the BCA’s vision for vocational education and training.

The BCA is all about what employers want and nothing about what employers should do.

They call for:

•           a lifelong skills account which is funded by government and worker debt

•           better market information

•           greater modularised learning

•           and making sure TAFEs have a level playing field upon which to compete

These are all market solutions and they miss the point entirely.

The truth is that market competition in VET – the very system that BCA continues to lobby for – has destroyed trust and reliability in our vocational education system and damaged our TAFEs.

The competitive market model of training delivery has put corporate profit above quality, collaboration, depth, reliability and transferability.

Big players in the training market like Careers Australia took $600 million of taxpayers’ money over the course of four years, left tens of thousands of students with nothing to show for it except crippling debt, and sacked a thousand workers. But not before paying out $44 million in dividends to its shareholders.

The most telling aspect of the BCA’s education and skill policy starkly exposes their self-interest. That is their complete failure to call for increased investment from employers in vocational education.

The BCA expects individuals and taxpayers to invest in making themselves endlessly adaptable and infinitely flexible.

They say nothing of the contribution that business should make to ensure lifelong learning, either in terms of paying fair wages for the skills their members benefit from, or by directly investing in training.

They ignore the need for business to better utilise the skills and knowledge of workers, they ignore their own failure to design and provide good jobs and develop management systems and work organisation that maximises the benefits from workers skills and knowledge.

While they lament the decline in apprenticeships they make no mention of the Fair Work Ombudsman audit report that showed over one third of employers with apprentices are underpaying them.

The only role they ascribe to employers is that they be given more control over what people learn.

They praise the VET system in Germany where there is a long culture of German employers investing in skills. That is not a culture the BCA seeks to replicate in Australia.

From time to time, they put out a tepid, two-line press release saying that Australia has a problem with TAFE and apprenticeships.

But they never talk about the hundreds of millions this government is cutting out of public TAFE.

They don’t show any interest in the set of policies Labor has put forward to boost apprenticeship numbers, to rebuild public TAFE and renovate campuses around the country.

They’ve never put up their hand and said – how about we get our members, Australia’s biggest employers, to take-on more apprentice or more TAFE graduates.

I’ve never seen them run an advertising campaign in favour of Vocational Education.

Instead they spend all their time, money and energy pushing for their richest members to get billion-dollar hand-outs.

Handouts that they claim will create more jobs and increase workers’ wages even though they could not provide any evidence of this to the Senate Estimates Committee.

And now they’re going to be running election ads.

I note Jennifer Westacott’s claim that BCA isn’t a partisan organisation.

Maybe she’s right.

They are beyond partisan.

They are blindly ideological, they are dogmatic, they are economic militants, and policy vandals.

They are a national joke – with a multi-billion dollar punch line.

BCA are the political equivalent of the worst kind of soccer hooligan: repeating the same chants, setting off flares, no interest in the contest, just hoping to pick a fight and get some attention.

From now on, I’ll be treating their periodic temper-tantrums in the opinion pages of the Financial Review and the Australian with exactly the level of respect they deserve – zero.

They can go back to their echo chamber and they can plan their next million dollar ad campaign, but it won’t help them - because Australians can spot self-interested phoneys a mile away.

Malcolm Turnbull and his big business mates have lost the plot. Their self-interest excludes the national interest.

I look forward to the next election where trickle-down economics, $80 billion-dollar taxpayer funded giveaways to big business and the banks and this divided rabble of a government are under the political spotlight.

Labor will go to the next election as a united, progressive political party focused on the key issues of inequality, health, education, housing, skills and apprenticeships.

We will put TAFE at the centre of vocational education and training.

We will make sure young couples trying to buy a house are not subsidising investors who drive up the price by using negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions that benefit them at the expense of young people trying to set up their first home.

We will make Australia a fairer, more egalitarian society.

We will make sure that Australian workers have access to jobs, and business cannot simply bring in overseas labour without proper labour market testing.

We will restore penalty rate cuts and stop the hardship imposed on hard-working families who depend on penalty rates to put food on the table and shoes on their children’s feet.

Once again I appreciate the opportunity to address your conference and wish you well in your deliberations and your campaign for more jobs in the industry, employment security and an end to exploitation of overseas workers.


Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra