Untypically, I had left everything to the last.
So, like the foolish virgins of the gospel story, I found myself ‘locked out’. The 31 January National Press Club lunch with Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was fully booked.
“Damn!” I thought. “It’s no fun watching these things on TV: all lights, colour, action - and no atmosphere. I want to smell it.”
What to do?
Let me tell you, something: a thing you might not have known. Bloggers, journos, and lobbyists all have Guardian Angels – yes, even they. And because I make a point of keeping on good terms with mine, he did not let me down.
About an hour before the Press Club lunch began, my phone rang.
“Scarra, some of our guests have had to pull out. Would you like to take a spot on our table?”
“Nice work, Angelo!” I thought.
In this column I have expressed, in recent weeks, reservations about Abbott’s communication style. I’ve argued it was time for his advisors to have a word in his ear and to urge him to take the voters into his confidence. “Bit by bit”, and in broad brush strokes, Abbott needs to sketch an image for all to see of where he wants to lead Australia and how he plans to get there.
Well, what I heard at the National Press Club was very gratifying. Not only, I found, do people read what this pundit writes but also – and much more importantly – the Leader of the Opposition delivered a speech worthy of the office to which he aspires.
On the ABC’s 7.30 Report, that same evening, social researcher Hugh Mackay moaned about Abbott having “dug himself into this trench of negativity”.
I got the impression, however, that Abbott was up and out of the trench and was leaving it behind.
Anyway, make your own judgments. Read the speech for yourselves. I limit myself to just one comment and one piece of speculation.
An Abbott address will always be full of carefully word-smithed punch lines. You can’t expect a boxer not to throw a punch when in the ring … unless, of course, you are a member of our establishment intellectual class and commentariat. Then you’ll blubber and wring your hands and cry foul.
You see, every respect and deference must be paid to those who believe that they – and certainly not an Abbott, or a Howard before him – should determine who defines Australia and how.
That is what this bleating over Abbott’s “negativity” is mostly all about. It is an extension of the sustained fury that Howard aroused during his 11-year Prime Ministership. Abbott is a threat, you see, not so much to the ALP – a mere pawn in the game – but to a new cultural paradigm in the service of which, after a long and distinguished history, an intellectually exhausted ALP has enlisted.
One Delphic paragraph in Abbott’s speech especially caught my attention:
There are many problems with the government’s so-called Fair Work Act: there’s a flexibility problem, a militancy problem but above all else a productivity problem which is hardly surprising when workplace negotiations are always meant to involve outside union bosses rather than the employees of a business.
It was the coda that struck me:
… which is hardly surprising when workplace negotiations are always meant to involve outside union bosses rather than the employees of a business.
As age has sprinkled grey hairs on me – and then taken even these away – my thinking has changed about certain things.
From teenage years I have had the greatest respect (though not uncritical) for the role trade unions have played in Australian life. The union movement has thrown up some people of outstanding quality. I think especially of the late Laurie Short of the Ironworkers; of Joe de Bruyn, National Secretary of the SDA; and, more recently, I have been filled with awe by the courage of Kathy Jackson, National Secretary of the Health Services Union.
But today I think the trade union movement has run its historic course. It was quietly dying of natural causes when John Howard, all agog with his 2004 Federal Election victory, decided to go for broke with Work Choices. Instead of letting the ancient beast die an honoured death, Howard electrically shocked it back to life. Now, thanks to the steroid of Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Act, we have a rampaging Frankenstein’s Monster.
I do not know what Abbott had in mind by that coda, but it revived thoughts of my own that have developed since the mid-1990s: the unions should give way to a new generation of workers’ organisations. These should be enterprise-based associations of employees knitted together, not by bogus proletarian loyalties, but by real and direct joint ownership of the companies where they work.
The age of tribal warfare in industrial relations must finally be brought to a close; the era of shared-capitalism must begin.
Over the years Abbott and his staff - and his closest parliamentary supporters – have been well briefed on how all this can come to pass.
He knows - and they all know - what must be done.
*Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of the Canberra-based consulting firm Aequum: Political & Business Strategies.