Even Labor governments must stand up to unions
Solidarity seems on the march in Queensland and Victoria
If we wanted to list four of the most pressing economic challenges confronting the nation we might start with steeply rising electricity prices that hurt household budgets, business operations, and consumer and investor confidence. We might then mention the lack of wages growth in the private sector and how it was being outstripped by public sector increases, how this fed in to the persistent inability of governments to constrain their spending and ensure their departments, programs and corporatised entities operated cost effectively, before finishing the list by citing the rising influence and militancy of unions despite declining memberships.
In the publicly run Queensland electricity transmission and distribution sector the Labor government has managed to put itself on the wrong side of the ledger on all of these issues. Its newly merged power entity, Energy Queensland, which combines the publicly owned Ergon and Energex companies, will deliver wage increases of 3 per cent a year for the next three years.
These revelations come as Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is believed to be close to calling an election. The pay rises come under a new enterprise bargaining agreement that continues rises agreed under the previous entities and is higher than the budgeted 2.5 per cent increases paid elsewhere in the public sector. That Labor would accept higher pay increases in the energy sector suggests it has a tin ear when it comes to consumer complaints about power prices or that it has been putty in the hands of the militant Electrical Trades Union, or both. The current inflation rate is 1.9 per cent and private sector wages have been increasing at 1.8 per cent. This means, on average, people on private sector wages are treading water on their standard of living or going backwards. In the public sector the average wage growth has been 2.4 per cent, putting it ahead of the curve with secure employment, generous conditions and higher rises than inflation and the private sector.
Energy Minister Mark Bailey returned only last month after standing aside for a Crime and Corruption Commission investigation that cleared him of any criminal behaviour over a private email account. It emerged that the minister’s deleted account had been used by ETU state secretary Peter Simpson to communicate his concerns about losing a board position in the electricity sector merger. This level of union cosiness is not a good look for the Palaszczuk government when it is awarding wage increases that may fly in the face of community expectations and certainly break from announced caps on public spending. In Queensland this week we also heard allegations of offensive threats issued by Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union picketers towards workers at the Oaky Creek North mine. The Queensland Council of Unions dismissed the claims as being part of a political agenda.
Victoria’s Labor government faces allegations the United Firefighters Union engaged in a long campaign of intimidation and bullying against 11 senior firefighters. There are claims of a bullet sent in the mail and “bullying, drug dealing and improper practice”. A civil suit alleges the Metropolitan Fire Brigade did not do enough to prevent it. The controversy follows the Country Fire Authority dispute last year that caused enormous strife for Premier Daniel Andrews and is blamed by many for the poor performance by Labor in Victoria during the federal election. Labor governments can do their constituents and themselves great harm if they fail to stand up to unions.