The well-worn path


The well-worn path

The decision of ACTU president Martin Ferguson to seek preselection for the safe Melbourne Labor seat of Batman is no surprise. A spate of departures from the trade union bureaucracy suggests that the same rats who gnawed through the hull of Australian unionism are now leaving that ship to sink.

The national secretary of the AMWU, George Campbell, will become the eighth union official to enter the Senate since 1990, when he is elected as part of a deal to replace Bruce Childs as soon as the latter has been in long enough to obtain his gold pass.

Ferguson has some (in)famous predecessors who've made the journey from families in the ALP empire, to university, union leaderships, ACTU office, parliament and cabinet. Often, like Bob Hawke, they then go into business with the help of the mates made along the way.

Simon Crean, minister for unemployment, slashing education funding and training wages, is another in the select club. Like Ferguson, he comes from an ALP family; his father was a Whitlam government treasurer. While he was president of the ACTU, he was also a Qantas director, which gave him around $17,000 a year in pin money.

Perhaps because the list of parliamentary wannabes in the trade union bureaucracy is so long, not all the true believers follow the entire path; some are allowed to take short cuts. Witness ACTU secretary Bill Kelty's link with the owning class through his membership of the Reserve Bank board — a position that encourages "responsible unionism", including wage restraint, with an annual honorarium of $20,000 plus.

Alf Forster, former president of the Communication Workers Union, has made the jump with a minimum of fuss, and a mountain of cynicism, to a general manager position in Telstra. There he joins a management team including former Liberal federal minister Ian Macphee, and former Comalco (owned by the union-busting CRA) executive Rob Cartwright, who is the new director of employee relations.

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union joint national secretary, and ACTU vice-president, Anna Booth's planned career move at the end of this year hasn't yet been announced but will no doubt make some use of the contacts she has made as a pro-privatisation director of the NRMA and the Commonwealth Bank.

Other machinations are revealed in Martin Ferguson's rise to "politics". We now know why Jennie "enterprise bargaining doesn't disadvantage women" George withdrew her nomination for the third position on the ALP's Victorian Senate ticket. The top ACTU job is almost certainly hers, with the backing of both Ferguson and Kelty. The move into parliament can come later.

The "right" of loyal union bureaucrats to a parliamentary seat — especially if they come from a good family — is no longer seriously questioned, if it ever was. Thus national secretary Gary Gray has threatened to install Ferguson through national executive intervention if ALP members in Batman are so presumptuous as to vote for a different preselection candidate. This has already caused one contender, Michael Arnold, to withdraw and urge the remaining two to follow suit.

If the Batman selection panel members were to cause trouble, it would only be part of the ALP's normal factional warfare, not an objection to Ferguson's politics or record as the top wages cop of the ACTU. After all, Ferguson will be a wonderful addition to the ALP caucus, the parliament and the cabinet (if Keating manages to slip back in at the next election). And if you don't believe that, you must not have been reading the glowing praise of him in all the newspapers owned by people who have multiplied their wealth many times in the last 12 years.

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