Inside Australian PM’s political problems is a nugget of workplace safety

Prime Minister Gillard (centre) and others at Government House Canberra in March 2012

The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been under intense media pressure over an issue concerning her conduct as a lawyer around 17 years ago.

It involves legal work for unions, her personal relationship at the time with a union official who has been described as “dodgy” and of most relevance to this blog, workplace safety.

Missed in all the debate is that the workplace safety issue seems to support the assertions of many in the business and industry associations that OHS is frequently used by trade unions as an excuse for action in other areas.  These other areas are usually industrial relations but in this instance OHS was used to mask a unionist’s alleged misuse of member and industry funds.

In 1995, Julia Gillard was asked to establish a fund for an official of the Australian Workers Union, Bruce Wilson.  The fund was to raise money to support a re-election campaign for union officials who would be campaigning on the basis of improving the workplace safety conditions of members.  It appears that after this fund was established, Wilson allegedly misused the fund for his own gain and not in the context of workplace safety.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Mr Wilson was accused of rorting hundreds of thousands of dollars designated for the union and siphoning the money into an account established by his lawyer, Ms Gillard. Some of the money was used allegedly to buy a house in Fitzroy. “

At a long media conference on 23 August 2012 the Prime Minister was asked about the fund and workplace safety.  Below are extracts from the transcript.

“JOURNALIST: Did you help to draft the document that you knew was false because the purpose of the association was fundraising for a union election, not workplace safety, as stated in that document?

PM: ….My understanding of the purpose of this association was to support the re-election of union officials who would run a campaign saying that they wanted re-election because they were committed to reforming workplaces in a certain way, to increasing occupational health and safety, to improving the conditions of the members of the union.

That was my understanding of the purpose of the association, and so I provided legal advice for the association. …..”

“JOURNALIST: Ms Gillard, the Melbourne house that was later bought with funds from this association. Can you tell us about how much you knew about that house, your involvement in that house and whether you knew it was paid for by the association and how that relates to workplace safety?

PM: …….My understanding about that house was that it was being purchased by Mr Blewitt. It was being purchased as an investment property. It was purchased on the understanding that Mr Wilson would be the tenant of the property and that Mr Blewitt was in a position with a mortgage like an ordinary person to purchase the property.”

Business and industry associations have for many years asserted that workplace safety issues are used as an industrial relations tool.  The current political storm in Australia re-illustrates one instance of a trade union masking general re-election fundraising as a workplace safety initiative.  This does not verify the business and industry associations assertions about OHS but it adds weight to those assertions.

Is the evidence valid?

The Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry is often quoted in support of the industrial tool of OHS argument.  Commissioner Cole stated that:

“..the fact remains that safety issues are often inappropriately used as levers in an attempt to further unrelated industrial ends. The scope for this must be reduced and if possible eliminated.” (page 104, Vol. 6)

However this “fact” is based primarily on the submissions from construction companies and industry bodies and may be a manifestation of the “effective frequency” effect, purposely or subconsciously, rather than the establishment of a truth or fact.

The Royal Commission quotes many submissions on the issue but the many equivocations in both private and government quotes emphasis the “potential” and what “may happen” rather than facts.

Grocon says

“…that on some occasions the assertion of ‘safety’ is used as a smoke screen for what is really an industrial issue.” (emphasis added) (page 97. Vol 6)

The Commonwealth of Australia dots is submission with “the potential for use (or abuse) of OHS concerns by unions…” and “….such action may lead to OHS concerns….” (emphasis added) (page 97. Vol 6)

Even when there is a heading of “Evidence of misuse of occupational health and safety issues for unrelated industrial ends”, equivocations abound.  Minutes of a meeting with the Construction Safety Managers and Officers Association of Queensland Inc says:

“…the participants considered that the building industry unions in Queensland often exploited a concern about safety for other industrial purposes. In their experience, the unions often either manufactured or exaggerated a question about safety, or linked the resolution of a genuine question about safety to industrial questions.” (page 98. Vol 6)

The Royal Commissioner, Terence Cole, states that

“My own investigations during this Commission have confirmed that there is widespread exploitation of occupational health and safety issues by unions in efforts to secure unrelated industrial ends. Some examples dealt with in more detail in the case studies will suffice.” (page 100. Vol 6)

No references are made to these case studies and it would take considerable time to verify or contest Cole’s investigations, a task that does not seem to have been undertaken but is sorely needed.

It is also important to note the distinction in the heading quoted above about using OHS for “unrelated industrial ends”.  This distinction seems to be lost in much of the industrial relations debate.  How many instances of disputes arising from OHS issues have been found to be legitimate?

Effective Frequency – Truth through repetition of falsehoods

In one area of public policy and corporate decision-making, there is the push for “evidence-based decision making” and in another there is the application of advertising technique of repeating a belief so frequently and ardently that that belief can become a truth or generates a “need” – “effective frequency“.  Workplace safety seems to be caught in the middle.  Every time someone states that “OHS is used as an industrial relations tool”, evidence should be requested.  Making this request, asking the questions, is likely to reveal that the evidence is anecdotal and cannot be traced to a specific instance or set of circumstances.  It is possible that the “evidence” could turn out to be no no more than a FOAF – evidence from a Friend Of A Friend.

Behind many of the accusations of the Prime Minister’s conduct is a cynicism that Julia Gillard must have known of the intended purpose for the funds she established.  Some are saying that “everyone knows that such fundraising methods were dodgy” and by implication workplace safety, as advocated through the trade union movement, is also dodgy and always undertaken for ulterior motives.  Often these comments are insulting to the safety professionals and advocates but no one, other than trade unionists, feels able or confident to contest these slurs.

There are many lessons from the Prime Minister Gillard’s current political problems and although, admittedly, workplace safety is a very minor part of those problems, it should not be overlooked.  The media has repeatedly resurrected claims about her conduct as a lawyer and dealings with Bruce Wilson and is likely to continue to do so, so workplace safety will also be dragged along, reinforcing its supposed manipulation for industrial means.  Each time this occurs, we must ask for evidence so that myths are not perpetuated.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Inside Australian PM’s political problems is a nugget of workplace safety”

  1. Hi Kevin,
    with my usual cynicism, I refer to your last point …
    \”The media has repeatedly resurrected claims about her conduct as a lawyer and dealings with Bruce Wilson and is likely to continue to do so, so workplace safety will also be dragged along, reinforcing its supposed manipulation for industrial means.\”
    Interesting that \’the media\’ is in the hands of, and becomes the tool of, \’big business\’ that may have ulterior motives in undermining the significance of workplace safety by linking it to industrial action, just as they have ulterior motives in undermining labor politicians who work (at least nominally) on behalf of the working class.
    Typical political move – devalue the person and, by association, all the things they stand for.

    1. Les, I thought long about whether to write anything about the current political quandary of the Prime Minister. The workplace safety element is present in the debate, interviews and transcripts but Australia has virtually no \”safety media\” so I thought I should say something.

      On the issue of media manipulation, I think it is odd that the running of the issues has been principally from The Australian newspaper, a newspaper that has raised the issue over four separate times over many years and only last year Glenn Milne lost his job over the same accusations. I\’ll let other conspiracy theorists discuss this elsewhere.

  2. Hi Kevin I cant comment on the politics but I can say that many times as an ohs rep I had support from union oh&s advisors ,these issues should of been able to have been addressed without resorting to what can be seen as industrial action ,but only because government investigators were loath to be involved in breaches of C.O.P,s and manual handling regulations.
    That being said I found several of the union organisors had no understanding of ohs law and that is something the unions should address ,
    it was and still is a fact that this large company has different safety procedures but same risk, for different workplaces across the country because of I can only call industrial clout or lack of

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