Coronanomics – We need good leadership in turbulent times.

As the world tackles the Coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk about leadership and trust, not just between nations but within nations as well.

Similarly, in businesses and a whole range of organisations, good leadership has come to the fore as leaders have to focus on some urgent issues affecting short term revenue and how it affects their workforce. At the same time, issues of equity come to the fore as well as on the national level, balancing the needs of wealth creation and wealth distribution.  

Early in my career, I saw a good example of leadership upfront when I joined the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), right when Secretary Bill Kelty was playing an important national economic leadership role in forging the Prices and Incomes Accords with Hawke-Keating Government as well as preparing the union movement for its economic and industrial challenges of the future.

 I noticed a few things about Kelty’s leadership style and strategy.

 Firstly, whilst he’d been a strong advocate of union members’ interests, Kelty did not confront capital ideologically, he worked with capital by negotiation. Kelty had good networks in the Australian business community (they employed his union members after all) and forged strong relationships with business leaders as he did with Prime Minister Bob Hawke (his former boss at the ACTU) and Treasurer Paul Keating. Kelty thought workers should take joint responsibility with employers for managing capital and therefore developed Australia’s successful system of industrial superannuation that invests in important national infrastructure so vital to our economic future as we deal with COVID19. 

Secondly, Kelty used the Accord process to not only manage the severe macroeconomic challenges of the time but also to add to improvements in wages and conditions – what was dubbed ‘the social wage’. This included Employment, Medicare, Child Care, Job Protection and Security, Taxation Reform, Education and Training, Family Payments and of course Superannuation.  

Thirdly, Kelty was able to build up a consensus of support right across the union movement. He brought together the likes of the left – such as Laurie Carmichael, Doug Cameron, George Campbell, Tas Bull, Tom McDonald, Anna Booth, Wendy Caird, Jennie George (later ACTU President) and Marilyn Beaumont, representing metal workers, wharfies, building workers, clothing workers in the rag trade, public servants, teachers and nurses – together with the right – including Joe de Bruyn, John Maynes and Greg Sword, representing shop assistants, clerks and storeman and packers. It was all about social solidarity, where the strong helped the weak, for the good of the community. It was about the unity of different but like-minded groups, not blame-games and separatist identity politics.

Fourthly, like Bob Hawke before him, Kelty promoted women industrial officers as well as men. At the ACTU, I worked with the talents of Elana Rubin, Iola Matthews, Marion Gaynor, Dominica Whelan, Suzie Jones and Linda Rubinstein.  Kelty also made sure men and women worked together on equal pay cases. My teaming was with Jenny Doran to focus on the background research for many of the cases, just as Bob Hawke and Jan Marsh had previously done for the ACTU in the 1960s and 1970s.

 Bill Kelty has continued this collective approach in the Corporate Sector through his mentoring at Linfox, and one can note a number of key women business executives, such as Australia Post CEO, Christine Holgate, Linfox Armaguard CEO, Annette Carey, and BAE CEO Gabby Costigan, all of whom have benefited from Bill’s support and advice.

 Fifthly, the ACTU regarded Reconciliation with Australia’s Indigenous people as a priority and as such created the important portfolio of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Employment on which I worked with Janina Harding, National Co-ordinator with Indigenous employment officers in every state and territory. The program generated much success in job creation particularly with employers like Lend Lease who ran special projects in regional Australia.

All this time, Bill Kelty was building a consensus to improve the wages and working conditions of all wage earners across the board whilst supporting economic growth and prosperity. It was a way of creating and sharing wealth to improve living standards of the whole community – not dividing it up into sectional groups.

Now we have the new challenges of COVID19 and Climate Change, but the same principles apply, the building of a consensus for the good of the collective not rule-by-rent-seeking or the loudest voices on social media. 

Recently, I witnessed this style of leadership again. The Blue Mountains City Council has a young Mayor, Mark Greenhill, who is a graduate of the ACTU Organising Works programme, along with Sally McManus (current ACTU Secretary), Sarah Howe (Industry Policy Specialist) and Bill Shorten (former Labor Leader) amongst others. The Blue Mountains Council was recently presented with a petition to tear down the statues of the explorers who crossed the Blue Mountains – William Charles Wentworth, Gregory Blaxland and William Lawson (note not Henry Lawson the great Australian poet who the petitioner had wrongly inserted). Mayor Greenhill considered the petition in a collective arrangement with Aboriginal elders, and together worked by consensus to acknowledge the broad history of the mountain region.

They agreed additional recognition of the Indigenous contribution to the local area was needed and that the explorers’ experience too would remain put. In this way, Mayor Greenhill’s work is much like Kelty’s, building things up by consensus and consultation to ensure that the whole community is recognised in the interests of social justice and social cohesion. Both Greenhill and Kelty took the challenging and more complex road of engagement that requires thoughtful consideration on all sides.

In this time of crisis, we need good leadership nationally and internationally, but at the end of the day as the legendary US politician Tip O’Neill used to say “all politics is local,” so what Blue Mountain Mayor Mark Greenhill showed at the local level was what we need.

It’s called leadership with stoicism for the good of all.

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Tim Harcourt is the J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics at UNSW Business School and host of The Airport Economist TV series www.theairporteconomist.coma and The Airport Economist Podcast

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