Union chief meets the press

Greg Combet interviewed on Meet the Press

Greg Turnbull, presenter (Channel Ten Network): Hello and welcome to Meet the Press. The union movement is under pressure to maintain its relevance in a changing economy and a hostile political environment. Under daily assault from the Howard government, and in a permanent state of relationship counselling with the Crean opposition, life at the top of the ACTU is no joy ride. The Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions is Greg Combet, and he's our guest on Meet the Press this week. Good morning, Mr Combet.

Greg Combet, Secretary, Australian Council of Trade Unions: How are you, Greg?

GT: Very well, thank you. You said once that for the past 15 years the principal job of union officials had been to be redundancy counsellors. For the last year you've been a redundancy counsellor in relation to Ansett. Why has it taken so long to fix that problem?

GC: Well, it was such a large corporate collapse, I think this is the simple answer. There were 15,000-odd employees in Ansett, spread around the country in different regions and states. And it was such a large company and such a part of the Australian business landscape that its collapse has had a very significant impact. It had a lot of assets at the end of the day, and a lot of debts too, of course. So it's taken quite a long time to get through the administration process and to liquidate those assets, and to try and make sure that the creditors get the best return that they can.

GT: We've seen in the last few days a slanging match between you and the government over the proceeds from the ticket levy. What's your claim?

GC: The ticket levy was set up by a piece of legislation which indicated that the purpose of the levy was to assist meeting the entitlements of the Ansett staff. The ticket levy, we now understand, has collected about $123 million, and that money still sits with the Commonwealth 12 months on into this Ansett administration process. It has to be said, and I've said it repeatedly, that the government did the right thing very early on in the Ansett collapse by loaning money to the Ansett administrators - some $330 million, which is a significant amount - and those funds have been able to be used so that Ansett employees can at least get around half of their entitlements, and those have now been paid.

But that is a loan, and it is clear now that it should be repaid in full by the Ansett administrators from the sale of the assets, so the government will come out all square on the loan that it made to the administrators of $330 million; which raises the question, then, of what happens to this $123 million that has been collected from the ticket tax? Is the government going to sit on that? Keep it? Is it in consolidated revenue? Is it going to be handed over to the administrators to make sure the employees get their full entitlements paid? Or is it going to be used for some other purpose?

The government has indicated that if it's got a surplus left over from that $123 million from the ticket tax, that it intends parcelling it out to the tourism industry. Firstly, it's contradictory to the legislation that brought the levy in. Secondly, we've seen no criteria by which that money would be distributed to the tourism industry. I mean, do we hand it out to backpackers? Or to operators in the industry? On what basis? It just seems a very poor area of administration.

In the meantime, you've got 15,000 people who are wondering when they'll get the rest of their entitlements. They see that ticket tax levy being collected and that could make all of the difference between them getting partial payment of their entitlements or their full entitlements. And we represent those staff. It's natural, I think, for us to say: 'Use the levy for its original purpose. Hand it over to the Ansett administrators so that the staff and their families can at least have the certainty that they'll get their entitlements paid'.

GT: In retrospect, was it a big mistake to try to keep Ansett in the skies?

GC: No, and of course it's been a topical issue ... a number of the judgments that the ACTU and the unions made in the Ansett administration. But we're very confident that we made the right decisions. We considered them very carefully and took as much advice as we possibly could each step of the way. And we had a very clear view that what we wanted to do - and it was something that would help people the most and something that the Ansett staff wanted us to do - and that was to try and revive the airline, albeit in a much pared down form with far less people, but to try and revive it on a commercially viable basis and save as many jobs in the process that we could.

That would also have had a secondary impact, had we succeeded in that, of maximising the value, if you like, of the Ansett assets and therefore maximising the return to creditors. And we were very confident if the airline could be sold as a going concern, all of our economic advice and business advice was that we would get all of the entitlements paid for the staff who were made redundant. Now, those were our key objectives - jobs and entitlements. And unfortunately Mr Fox and Mr Lew pulled out and they're yet to explain why. But nevertheless, we're certain that we made the right call.

GT: There was an interesting link drawn by the ACTU between the prospect of a war with Iraq and the Ansett asset realisation. Why do you say that a war with Iraq would have a bad impact on the Ansett workers?

GC: Well, to get the Ansett employees paid the rest of their entitlements we now have to sell about 43 jets - major commercial aircraft. And obviously, since September 11 last year, to say that the market is somewhat depressed would be an understatement. It's very hard to sell those aircraft for their proper commercial value. And that's another reason why the administration will take some time. Obviously, if there's more uncertainty in world affairs and in the aviation industry in particular, it's going to be a very, very difficult market to sell those aircraft and get the best return for the employee entitlements. That was why one of my colleagues made that observation.

GT: On the prospect of a war with Iraq, what is the ACTU's view of a unilateral strike by the US? Will you be taking a role in the public debate?

GC: We've only taken a very small role to date but unions have a very strong internationalist tradition and we're very supportive of international institutions. And we're certainly of the view that there shouldn't be a unilateral attack on Iraq. This should be worked through in the United Nations and there should be proper resolutions of the UN Security Council carried before an attack is contemplated and Australia's involvement is committed. So we're very committed, I think it's fair to say, that the UN process be worked right through, and we think that should be the responsibility of all of the nation states involved. But particularly, the US has got to stop rattling that sabre as much as it has been and work with other countries much more carefully.

GT: Briefly, is it something you could see trade unions taking action on if there were a unilateral strike and Australia supported it?

GC: We don't want to see division in the community over this issue. It is far too important. The issues involved are very important and we abhor terrorism as much as anyone else, but the evidence must be produced. People have to be persuaded. We have to work through international institutions. And if we don't do these things and if there isn't solid community sentiment support behind the process that's been adopted and the decisions made, then you can see division in the community. We haven't seen it for many years over a foreign policy like this issue, I think; probably since the Vietnam War. Unions don't want to see that experience repeated, and therefore we must learn the lessons from the past. So we'll wait and see how things unfold.

GT: You're on Meet the Press with our guest Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary, and welcome to our panel - Michael Harvey of the Melbourne Herald Sun, and Brad Norington of the Sydney Morning Herald. A Howard government crackdown on criminality in the building industry starts this Tuesday with a new task force up and running: Michael Harvey.

Michael Harvey, Melbourne Sun Herald: Tony Abbott's building industry task force rolls into Victoria this week. Victoria is acknowledged as the home of union militancy. It's going to enforce laws banning compulsory unionism. Do you think this is a fight for survival for the building industry unions?

GC: It's certainly an attack on the building industry unions. Whether it needs to be a fight for survival we'll have to wait and see. The thing is that this whole process over recent months involving the Royal Commission - we have grave concern about how it has been conducted. The union has taken an application for an apprehension of bias against the Royal Commissioner into the Federal Court and that will be heard during October. What this task force is is Tony Abbott trying to stir up more trouble. And we're rather bemused by the timing of its establishment. just coincidentally, in the weeks leading up to what everyone is speculating will be a state election in Victoria. We're listening to what the opposition leader in Victoria is saying, hearing what Tony Abbott is saying. That all seems to be a co-ordinated effort to stir up trouble in the industry.

MH: How concerned are you that the prospect of an ugly brawl could play into the hands of the Liberal State opposition in Victoria?

GT: There won't be an ugly brawl. The union is very disciplined. What we're seeing at the moment in Victoria is a very important development. The union, with the Victorian employers in the industry, through the Master Builders Association, is just about to finalise a new 3-year agreement for the construction industry. It's been approved unanimously by the union delegates last week. It goes before a mass meeting of construction workers this week. That's been achieved without one minute being lost in the industry, those negotiations. It's a very good agreement. It cements into place a 36-hour week in the Victorian industry, achieved without disruption, and Tony Abbott's probably pulling his hair out at the prospect.

Brad Norington, Sydney Morning Herald: Mr Combet, the car industry has also been beset by strikes which have jeopardised the industry. Doesn't it justify special government action to limit such strikes if the entire industry is at stake?

GC: Well, no, this is where we've got to get the facts ahead of a good story. In the vehicle industry, much has been made of several disputes which have occurred over the last couple of years, but the reality is that the level of disputation is down. Within the vehicle industry, the issue that's occurring there that I accept we need to collectively address is the interface between an enterprise bargaining system and what's called the 'just in time' delivery system. And what that means is that small components suppliers have to deliver their product to the major manufacturers on time and if there's a short disruption in that delivery system through an enterprise bargaining dispute then there can be widespread stand-downs. So that is an issue which we have to address and which the unions are addressing in a constructive way with the employers. And we've now agreed to establish an industry level consultative council in the vehicle manufacturing area to try and foresee these problems and deal with them and make sure there is greater stability.

Now, again, how does the government react to this initially? By pulling their hair out and trying to intimidate the employers to stop them from meeting with the unions to discuss greater stability in the industry. That's the crazy thing. They've now had to accept that it is a good development, something the ACTU proposed, and this is the way we have to deal with industrial relations with this government. We try and work sensibly with the employers, the government shouts from the sidelines trying to stir up trouble, but eventually, commonsense prevails and I think that will happen both in the building and the vehicle industry.

MH: Mr Combet, the federal government has a decision looming on tariff reform, potentially, in the vehicle industry. How concerned are you about the prospect of job losses?

GC: Well, I was just reading a report this morning in the Herald Sun in Melbourne that up to 14,000 jobs could be lost in Victoria alone if the tariffs are cut below 10 per cent after 2005, and this is clearly the direction that some in the government would like to go, that is, 'Let's kill as many jobs as we can.' It's a ridiculous situation.

The union supports maintaining the tariff where it is at the moment at 15 per cent, which is very modest, we support the maintenance of the industry competitiveness and investment scheme, which is very important to continue job creation and research development in the vehicle manufacturing industry. So we want stability for investment so that we have more jobs and the regions, particularly in South Australia and Victoria, can continue to prosper in this industry. And this is an issue that must be handled very, very carefully. We'll be lobbying the government hard along with employers to make sure we get a commonsense outcome not some economic theory that says there must be a flat earth where one doesn't actually prevail.

BN: Turning to the issue of work and family - the Howard government has put it firmly on the agenda. Does the trade union movement have any plans on the boards to change existing provisions?

GC: This is what really annoys me - the Howard government has not put this firmly on the agenda. The ACTU has. And unions have. And we have done so over the last two years for the very good reason that the research we do with thousands upon thousands of people in workplaces and in communities, they tell us that this is their number one thing - people are really struggling to balance their working commitments with their family commitments for a range of reasons. We put this on the agenda and now the political parties are starting to react to it which is a welcome development.

BN: But what do you have on the agenda?

GC: We've got very clear ideas. We've got paid maternity leave on the agenda, something we've been arguing for some time. And we welcome the fact that it is being debated by the political parties. Next year, we're looking at a number of test cases in the award system. For example, what people are telling us, particularly women, is they want a longer period of unpaid maternity leave as well rather than the statutory allowance for 12 months unpaid leave. They want to spend more time with their young children. So we'll be looking to extend the period of unpaid leave as well. And also, a lot of women want a guaranteed right to be able to return to part-time work when they come back from parental leave. That doesn't currently exist and we'll be arguing for that too. They're a couple amongst a range of considerations we'll be putting forward.

GT: Greg Combet, coming to that, just how much would you like to extend that 12-month period?

GC: Well, we're having a discussion about that at the moment. But, generally, people accept that an option for an employee to have a 2 to 3-year period of unpaid parental leave is something that's very attractive to people. And that's a choice we need to make available to people. A lot of women simply don't or can't return to the workforce after 12 months because they don't have the choice to come back part-time for a start, and they want to spend more time with their young children. Childcare costs are extremely prohibitive. So, there's a range of issues there that need to be carefully considered. We're lobbying government about them but we'll be doing what we can in an industrial way to improve people's choices in this area.

GT: Are you saying employers should be required to hold a job open for three years and then allow a woman returning to the workforce to return to part-time work whether the employer likes that or not?

GC: There's always considerations for the employer in these things - operational requirements and whether businesses are still there in this type of environment is a pretty relevant consideration. No-one's trying to fit the employer community up with something that's unlivable or commercially unviable. What we're trying to do is to create in a reasonable way more choices for people that will allow us as a community to better balance work and family commitments. In doing that you've got to get down to the rights of individual people in a fair way in a workplace so that they can come back to work under reasonable circumstances.

GT: Labor's special national conference next weekend will be a major test of the unions' strength in the ALP and of Simon Crean's leadership: Brad Norington.

BN: Mr Combet, after the election, the Howard government made much of the relationship between Labor and the trade union movement. Labor seems to have taken the bait. Next weekend, the union representation level in the ALP is about to be reduced. But you keep saying that influence of unions in Labor will be increased. Now, which is it? And hasn't it backfired in terms of your public position?

GC: I can't quite see how it's backfired, Brad, but...

BN: Well, on the one hand it's being reduced, and yet the influence, you say, will be increased.

GC: Well, perhaps if people had a look at the Hawke-Wran report that made the recommendations concerning this and other matters about the Labor Party's future and its structure, it would be recognised that the role of unions in creating the Labor Party and their relationship with Labor for over 100 years has been a very important thing in achieving social and economically just outcomes in this country. Great achievements have come about as a result of the relationship between unions and Labor throughout the 20th century in particular.

Now, we're keen for the relationship between unions and Labor to take a modern form. And what I've said consistently is that it's not whether there's 60 per cent of conferences held for union votes or whether there's 50 per cent at Labor Party conferences held for union votes. What is important are the values that the Labor Party and the unions stand for, what values they share, and what policy initiatives come from those things.

So, we were talking a moment ago about work and family - that's a very important contemporary labour movement issue. There are many others - corporate governance, the protection of employee entitlements, providing for adequate retirement incomes through an improved superannuation system, dealing with the issues in the health system, this private health insurance nightmare that the Howard government has created, and where we've got bulk billing, actually, on the decline. These are things that are very important in our community, and these are the things that will define the Labor-union relationship in the immediate future - how the Labor Party develops policy positions about these types of issues, and to what extent they take into account the views of unions.

BN: Well, you've stressed that unions will have more input into Labor Party policy. In a public sense, doesn't that just allow John Howard and Tony Abbott to make hay about how the Labor Party is being controlled by unions, about how it is just a puppet of the union movement?

GC: (Laughs) Well, I think that's a pretty long bow to draw. The Labor Party is not a puppet of the unions, and unions are not a puppet of the Labor Party. They are independent organisations.

But there is a relationship, as I say, that has been built over many years which is based upon policies and values and achievements for the society. And it essentially is the struggle to try and establish a more fair and just Australian society for people - create opportunities. Those are the important things. And no-one in the labour movement should be spooked for a moment by the carry-on that Howard and Tony Abbott and others - Peter Reith before Tony Abbott - the hoo-ha that they create about the relationship between unions and Labor. In fact, people should be proud of what's been achieved, and should focus on the contemporary challenges in our economy now, an internationalised economy where inequality is widening.

It is our current context, the challenges that working people and their families face, that's got to define the policy directions that Labor and unions go in. And that's what I'm concerned to get out and argue. Now, what are the things that people are confronting? How can we help them?

MH: Simon Crean supports the encouragement of ALP members to be members of unions as well, but you talk about a modern relationship. Shouldn't the ALP be considering some ideas like exemptions from that requirement, for say, small business people who are attracted to joining the ALP?

GC: Well, look, I suppose, you've got to remember back on something. Unions created the Labor Party. They set it up because unions recognised that through their own industrial organisation, they would not achieve all of the things that they wanted to. This going back to the 1890s and the early 20th century. They would not achieve everything that they sought to do simply by industrial means, and that clearly there needed to be a political party that shared the values and objectives of the labour movement and of unions.

To that extent, it's not an unreasonable thing to say that this is a Labor Party, some unions do have an involvement in it, and members of the Labor Party might well consider being members of a union. That's not an unfair thing. That's the character of the Labor Party. It doesn't mean that in the Labor Party's policy manifesto, if you like, that it shouldn't be appealing to other groups in the community.

And of course, it does, it has to, and it's important that it does, because small business has valid interests that have to be reflected and be part of public policy. Many other groups do. The environment's been a very important issue. The focus on all these things about the Labor Party rules I think misses the point. At the end of the day, the point is what does the Labor Party stand for, and to what extent do unions influence that policy and agenda?

GT: Greg Combet, you mentioned the Hawke-Wran report earlier, and, of course, it contained a booby trap. It said that the thing that everyone in the Labor Party wanted to deal with was the issue of asylum seekers. Yet, the conference that you're referring to is supposed to be quarantined to rules matters. Do you think it should be thrown open to talk about, perhaps, asylum seekers and even the question of Australia's involvement in a war against Iraq?

GC: Well, I don't actually, because the national conference was established to deal with this Hawke-Wran report in terms of the rules recommendations that were made, to deal with those structural changes. There has been a consultation process over many months by the Labor Party, with its membership and others in the community, about the issue of asylum seekers. And at some point in time, I'm not actually sure when, but I imagine it's in the not-too-distant future, the Labor Party will announce its more detailed policies about asylum seekers and mandatory detention, and I'll look forward to it.

But there has been a lengthy process of consultation about the development of that policy. Similarly, in relation to Iraq, that dialogue is happening within the labour movement now. I have been at a number of union forums recently where the Iraq issue is being debated, and where we are considering some comments I made before, and that is our commitment to international institutions. That is a mechanism by which any debate about the attack on Iraq ... a forum where that should occur.

So, these things will take place. I think Labor has actually handled the Iraq issue very skilfully in these weeks. That's the context in which we see it, This national conference should deal with the rules issues that it was intended to deal with, I think.

GT: All right, Greg Combet, we're just about out of time. We are out of time. Thanks very much. Our guest has been Mr Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary, and our panel: Michael Harvey and Brad Norington. Until next week, it's goodbye from Meet the Press.


Greg Combet is the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). This interview was conducted on the Ten Network's Meet the Press on 30 September 2002.


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