‘I have to ad­mit a slight girl-crush on ACTU boss Sally McManus’

But supine Lib­er­als haven’t the en­ergy to chal­lenge Sally

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - JANET ALBRECHTSEN janeta@big­pond.net.au

ACTU boss Sally McManus said on the ABC’s In­sid­ers last Sun­day: “It is ac­tu­ally the law of the jun­gle, and the tigers are win­ning.”

Oh Sally, let’s be hon­est. You’re the tiger. Not the big bosses that you dis­par­age as evil Dick­en­sian types, those rich chaps who you say have shiny yachts and throw a few crumbs to work­ers. You know that’s tosh. And as for the in­dus­trial re­la­tions jun­gle, no one on the cen­tre-right side of pol­i­tics has been game enough to se­ri­ously en­ter that realm since John Howard left of­fice. That jun­gle is yours alone, tiger.

But I have to ad­mit I have a slight girl-crush on McManus. Of course, our pol­i­tics couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Her crav­ings for more col­lec­tivism, more cen­tralised power in the hands of union lead­ers are ab­hor­rent to any­one who reveres in­di­vid­ual free­dom and un­der­stands that un­em­ploy­ment falls when the econ­omy grows. And nei­ther of those aims is part of McManus’s re­gres­sive agenda. She just is not a be­liever in grow­ing the na­tional pie.

That said, when au­then­tic­ity is rare in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics, the ACTU boss has cor­nered the mar­ket, out­per­form­ing the gov­ern­ment front­bench. That makes McManus our Jeremy Cor­byn. She oozes Cor­byn’s class war con­vic­tions, chan­nelling his ha­tred of the rich with no com­pre­hen­sion of ba­sic eco­nom­ics.

Sure, she’s younger than him, and her Wiki page, which reads as if it has been cleansed by the KGB, fits her per­sona: more icy-cold Soviet Rus­sia than warm Cuba. Yet still the un­smil­ing McManus has the earnest­ness of Cor­byn. Given few in Britain ex­pected his suc­cess as a left-wing pop­ulist, she might be a po­tent po­lit­i­cal leader here one day.

McManus is com­pelling enough right now, tak­ing the union move­ment on to the field of in­dus­trial re­la­tions re­form, play­ing hard even with­out an ad­ver­sary. And when there’s only one team on the field, it wins by de­fault. The sooner the Lib­er­als re­alise this, the sooner they might re-en­ter that arena.

At the mo­ment, play is go­ing Sally’s way. Yes­ter­day at Mel­bourne Town Hall, the ACTU held a “change the rules” rally, part of a cam­paign to de­mand new in­dus­trial re­la­tions laws giv­ing unions even more power. No shrink­ing vi­o­let, McManus is a reg­u­lar on ABC ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. She per­formed her great­est hits at the Na­tional Press Club last month and re­peated that ren­di­tion on In­sid­ers.

Her ap­pear­ance on the ABC’s Q&A in Fe­bru­ary was a tour de force. Up against three solid pro­po­nents of facts and rea­son — James Pear­son from the Aus­tralian Cham­ber of Com­merce and In­dus­try, busi­ness­woman Heath- er Rid­out and Chris Richard­son from Deloitte Ac­cess Eco­nom­ics — McManus dom­i­nated the evening with her col­lec­tion of clas­sic hits of emo­tional as­ser­tions de­void of sup­port­ing facts. Not even a trio of fact-checkers could neu­tralise McManus’s scary abil­ity to sound as if she is the voice of rea­son when she’s not.

Just as the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment took too long to see the po­tency of La­bor’s “Medis­care” cam­paign, it hasn’t worked out that McManus packs a punch. If it did, it would be vig­i­lant in bat­tling ev­ery ab­surd claim she makes ev­ery time she makes it, in­stead of oc­ca­sional pea-shoot­ing re­torts.

Her most con­stant and cap­ti­vat­ing claims don’t stand up to the facts. McManus told her Q&A au­di­ence that “prof­its are up at 20 per cent and wages are at 2 per cent. There’s some­thing wrong. It’s not be­ing shared fairly at the mo­ment.”

Some­thing is cer­tainly wrong with that: her grasp of facts. Aus­tralian Bu­reau of Sta­tis­tics data shows that busi­ness prof­its rose 5 per cent in the year to De­cem­ber and the to­tal wage bill rose 4.8 per cent. And ba­sic eco­nom­ics tells you that wages head up when un­em­ploy­ment, now at 5.5 per cent, heads down, and un­em­ploy­ment falls when busi­nesses grow.

An­other McManus clas­sic hit is that pro­duc­tiv­ity has risen while wages haven’t. It sounds dread­fully un­fair. Ex­cept that’s not true ei­ther. Ac­cord­ing to the ABS, in real terms, con­sumer wages have risen 54 per cent dur­ing the past 25 years and pro­duc­tiv­ity rose 51 per cent in the same pe­riod.

In­se­cure work is spread­ing, says McManus, de­lib­er­ately us­ing an emo­tional term not mea­sured by any one set of sta­tis­tics. If McManus means ca­sual work is on the up, the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion found that the per­cent­age of ca­sual work­ers, at 21 per cent, hasn’t changed for two decades. If McManus means con­trac­tors are in in­se­cure work, that empty claim is ex­posed by the real world of Uber and hun­dreds of thou­sands in the mod­ern econ­omy who choose the flex­i­bil­ity and free­dom of con­tract­ing over nine-to-five per­ma­nent jobs.

McManus’s class-war rhetoric about big com­pa­nies is in­tox­i­cat­ing pol­i­tics, but it’s en­tirely bo­gus too. She says big com­pa­nies such as Qan­tas, BHP and Boe­ing “earn bil­lions but pay no tax”.

As ABC eco­nom­ics guru Emma Al­berici was re­cently re­minded, com­pa­nies pay com­pany tax on prof­its af­ter pay­ing all their ex­penses. And far from the wild claim that big com­pa­nies are rip­ping us off, it’s like­lier to be work­ers dud­ding the sys­tem. Tax com­mis­sioner Chris Jor­dan has said many times now that “the work-re­lated ex­penses gap is es­ti­mated to be greater than the large cor­po­rate tax gap of $2.5 bil­lion”.

But you have to hand it to McManus. Any men­tion of a cor­po­rate tax cut elic­its mas­ter­ful “trickle down” im­agery from McManus. She talks of rich blokes who are “so in­cred­i­bly rich, peo­ple like us can’t even imag­ine how much money they’ve got” and they de­cide “to throw a few crumbs to their work­ers”.

No men­tion that tax cuts grow com­pa­nies, cre­at­ing jobs. Or that that al­most 60 per cent of small busi­ness own­ers who would ben­e­fit from a cor­po­rate tax cut earn $50,000 or less, well be­low the me­dian award wage.

Equally spu­ri­ous is her claim that “the ba­sic right to strike in Aus­tralia is very nearly dead”. The right to strike is in the Fair Work Act, en­acted by La­bor. Noth­ing has changed.

That brings us to the real fraud at the core of the ACTU’s change the rules cam­paign. The ACTU boss started say­ing the “sys­tem is bro­ken” when a de­ci­sion by the Fair Work Com­mis­sion went against a union. Don’t agree with the um­pire? Scream about a bro­ken sys­tem. The sys­tem is bro­ken, but not in the way that McManus claims. Fewer work­ers are cov­ered by en­ter­prise agree­ments, down from 1.2 mil­lion in 2010 to just over 500,000 last year, be­cause EAs are com­plex to ne­go­ti­ate and in­flex­i­ble in prac­tice. More work­ers fall un­der the con­vo­luted sys­tem of awards, not repli­cated by any other de­vel­oped econ­omy.

McManus’s pre­scrip­tions of more pow­er­ful unions, in­dus­try­wide pay claims and strike ac­tion, a “liv­ing wage” paid by good­ness knows who, higher taxes for com­pa­nies and so on would be a dis­as­ter for eco­nomic growth, un­em­ploy­ment and sus­tain­able wage rises.

It’s bad enough that her in­flu­ence is bol­stered by unions bankrolling the La­bor Party, now in poll po­si­tion to win the next elec­tion. It’s even worse that the Lib­er­als have em­bold­ened her. There is no con­test of ideas from the Lib­er­als, no fight to re­form work­place laws for the 21st cen­tury, let alone to tackle her wild claims of a jun­gle ruled by evil bosses with the same pas­sion.

It’s true that the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, led by Jen­nifer Wes­ta­cott, has stepped up to the plate. But right now, McManus is a tiger, and it’s not just down to her con­vic­tions. It’s be­cause a supine and silent gov­ern­ment am­pli­fies her roar.

Don’t agree with the um­pire? Scream about a bro­ken sys­tem

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