The raid on the offices of the Australian Workers Union by the Australian Federal Police demonstrates a disrespect for trade unions contrary to the Catholic tradition. Since the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic Social Teaching has recognised the right of workers to join together collectively in unions as an important element of the search for the common good in a market economy. The political theatre indulged in by the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and the Registered Organisations Commission is especially worrying for the deeper attitudes it reveals.
That such a raid was deemed an acceptable way of going about government and police business is a clear statement that unions are fair game in a way that other organisations, like business, charities and churches are not. No organisation should be treated that way in a democratic society. Unions are clearly disrespected.
We read daily of apparently criminal behaviour by organisations like banks and other large corporations, the RSL in NSW and the Catholic Church, but none of them are treated to a visit by a squad from the AFP. Only suspected terrorist cells are treated this way. The other matters of misuse of scarce police resources and tip-offs to the media by ministerial staff are ultimately of secondary importance.
Trade unions have a lowly status, lower than for many years, and consequently union leaders have a weak voice in national public debate. Sally McManus, the relatively new Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, is treated in an offhand way by the media. She is given her say but is rarely treated with the respect accorded to others in similar positions, like business leaders. Her status outside the tent is painfully clear.
This conclusion will be hotly contested by those who would point to the special relationship that unions enjoy within the labour movement. Union affiliation with the Labor Party does give them special benefits at the federal and state level. Unions cement that relationship through generous election campaign donations, and union leaders consequently have privileged access to parliament.
However, they are condemned by their special relationship with Labor to suffer exclusion from power and influence when Labor is out of office. They made that bargain more than a century ago and have learned to live with it. They are also regularly dragged into political power plays between Labor and the Coalition because to weaken unions is to weaken Labor as a matter of course.
They have a role to play under Coalition governments but always struggle because they are identified as too close to the Labor Opposition. When Labor leaders have trade union backgrounds, as Bill Shorten does, then that magnifies the unsympathetic framework within which Coalition-union relationships operate.
The 2016 Australian Election Study by political scientists at the Australian National University shows that public attitudes towards trade unions are complicated but not always unsympathetic. That study confirmed one well-known statistic, that the number of voters belonging to a union has continued to fall, reaching just 18 per cent. That statistic alone makes the Turnbull government confident that only a small minority of voters has such a personal stake that they are likely to be offended by government attacks on unions.
But even given the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and the industrial regulation justifications for the calling of the double dissolution election in 2016, only 55 per cent of Australians wanted stricter laws for unions.
Australians have lost faith in institutions generally and relatively few want to join a union, but there is little evidence that faith and trust in unions has fallen more than for comparable institutions. When the election study asked about institutions with ‘too much power’, 74 per cent replied that big business had too much power. By contrast only 47 per cent thought unions had too much power.
Those figures suggest that government initiatives to curb the exercise of big business power, such as a Royal Commission into the banks and other financial institutions, would resonate as much with the public as initiatives to curb trade union power and misconduct.
It is both the connection of unions with the Labor Party and their potential countervailing economic and social power which motivates how Coalition governments treat them. They are disrespected because of their apparent weakness but their potential strength also puts them high on the government’s list of institutions to be treated as adversaries.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.
First published in Eureka Street, 5 November 2017.