The Australian economy: union influence over thirty years

Australian unions have played a positive role in affecting social and economic action, says Emeritus Professor Russell Lansbury

Leading industrial relations scholar, Emeritus Professor Russell Lansbury of the University of Sydney, shared findings from his co-authored paper (with forthcoming WOW guest, Dr Chris F. Wright), during April, taking a look at the impact of one Liberal- and two Labor-led governments on Australia’s economy over a 30 year period.

Prompted by previous symposium themes on the impact of trade unions on economic policy around the world, Russell and Chris were keen to narrow in on union impact during the Hawke/ Keating (1983-1996), Howard (1996-2007), and Rudd/ Gillard (2007-2013) eras. Conducting literature reviews and interviews with key players and policy advisors from government, unions and employer groups of the time, Professor Lansbury and Dr Wright have particularly identified the significant contributions of unions around economic reform during the Hawke/ Keating era, their varying degree of influence during the Rudd/ Gillard period, and their marginalisation in between.

Professor Lansbury further highlighted the convergence of Labor and union rhetoric during these early years – at the height of the latter’s influence – and particularly following the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) negotiations with the preceding Coalition-Fraser government toward the subsequent establishment of the Accord: a tool that sought to reduce the pressure on wage and price led inflation during the early 1980s. Then termed a ‘social partnership’, Russell notes that:

“the ACTU was consulted on a wide range of economic and social policies [during this time and]…the Accord was remarkably successful in the early years as there was little wage drift, strong employment growth, declining inflation and landmark social wage improvements.”

With amendments to the Accord in the mid-1980s and ongoing labour law reforms until the early 1990s, unions’ organising capacity and membership bases did decline, with some officials pointing to union concessions in the Accord as the culprit.

In the 10 years+ leadership of John Howard’s Liberal government (1996-2007), Russell highlights how:

“access for unions to government ministers and senior public servants was significantly curtailed and business interests prevailed”.

Consultative arrangements and the introduction of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 also weakened the capacity of the Industrial Relations Commission of the time and for unions negotiating on workers’ behalf. Subsequent Work Choices reforms in 2005 also restricted union involvement in the labour market.

Emeritus Professor Russell Lansbury (centre)
Emeritus Professor Russell Lansbury (centre)

In addressing the Rudd/ Gillard era, Professor Lansbury noted the Government’s ambivalence towards engaging with unions around policymaking, or in identifying their role during workplace bargaining arrangements following the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009. Two of Russell and Chris’ interviewees attributed this to the altered economy and industrial relations framework within which it operated when compared to the Accord-era.

Russell concluded his presentation by noting the positive role unions have played by advocating for an even distribution of social benefits, the maintenance of employment award safety nets, and indirect influences on the Labor governments’ economic and social policies during these periods. He also asserts the importance of unions and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in continuing in their partnership, particularly through social movement campaigning strategies in the face of strong competition from other lobbyists such as the business community.

Contact the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing for access to a recording of this presentation or a copy of the paper from which it was drawn: [email protected] or phone 07 3735 3714.