The Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria has 60,000 volunteer firefighters to fight fires, particularly bushfires, outside the area covered by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB). CFA volunteers are deeply linked in with their local communities and represent a huge saving to the Victorian taxpayer. The CFA represents a fine example of practical social capital.
As Victoria’s urban population increases, the interactions between the CFA and the MFB increase and the number of politicians, staffers, bureaucrats and union leaders who have little or no connection or interaction with rural Victoria also increases. The MFB staff are covered by the UFU (United Firefighers Union). As part of bargaining for an enterprise agreement, the UFU has been pushing for more operational control by the MFB over the CFA.
Let’s pause here: why is this a matter for an enterprise agreement? Why is it a union demand at all? Because it elevates the standing and prospects of (urban) firefighters over (as it happens) rural volunteers? Can one see the little political problem here?
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was originally against the UFU when it came to the deal’s veto proposal, but he changed his mind after a meeting with UFU boss Peter Marshall without Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett.
So, a union uses its inside track access to get political support against a volunteer based organisation. The politics of who’s in and who’s not.
One of the tricks of being a successful Labor Premier is when to say “no” to a union. Including paying attention to the optics, to how things look. Everyone knows that the Australian Labor Party is deeply connected to the union movement, which actually makes the optics more important. Particularly as said Minister has, indeed, since resigned. This goes with the Government’s sacking of the CFA Board and the resignation of its chief officer.
This looks a lot like yet again inside-the-bubble-connected urbanites not getting how important status, authority and control are to folk who live mostly outside looking in. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who is “right” (since that depends a lot on your perspective), it is that politics is about managing disputes. If you lose a Minister, sack a board and then have the chief officer resigned, this is not a well-managed dispute. If you get lots of angry volunteers from an iconic organisation agitating against your Party in a federal election, it is bad politics, no matter how you look at it.
On which point, consider that (very close) federal election:
NSW: ALP gains 4 seat.
Queensland: ALP gains 1 seat.
WA: ALP gains 2 seats.
SA: ALP gain 1 seats.
Tasmania: ALP gains 3 seats,
NT: ALP gains 1 seat.
Victoria: Coalition gains 1 seat.
Pick the odd State/Territory out. If Victoria had performed as well as other States for the ALP in the recent Australian federal election, the Coalition would not have have achieved a Parliamentary majority: something that folk within the ALP have noticed.
As Sally Whyte noted of the CFA dispute:
It has been all over the front pages of the Herald Sun, with CFA volunteers and residents affected by Black Saturday quoted in an attempt to attack Andrews. Do people really understand the intricacies of the deal? Probably not — but when Victorians consider who they trust more, the heroic CFA or a politician, the Premier is not going to come out of this battle unscathed.
Why was this a dispute even worth having? What gain in public policy was worth this political pain? And if was a genuine gain in public policy, why couldn’t one convince volunteers who give up their time and put themselves at risk to save property and lives?
But that would take treating people outside the connected-circle seriously: something Premier Andrews has apparently, and conspicuously, failed to do. Given he was educated in Wangaratta and raised on a cattle farm, one would think he would have a bit more of a nuanced political sense on the matter. But apparently an adulthood spent entirely immersed in urban Labor politics has trumped that. Or the union was very persuasive.
When folk complain of crony capitalism (which the Economist magazine has constructed an index of), they mean two (related) things: people commercially advantaged by their connections to power-holders and good public policy being sacrificed to those connections. Prominent academic and Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan pithily and perceptively outlined the appeal and problems of crony capitalism and corruption in a 2014 speech. But one can also have crony unionism: union leaders gaining advantages for them and their members from their connections to power-holders and good public policy being sacrificed to those connections.
Ironically, the Western country which likely suffers most from crony unionism is the United States. The effect is concentrated in particular cities and states–dominated by the Democrats as functionally one-Party jurisdictions–where the effect of crony unionism on the cost, efficiency and effectiveness of government services has ranged from the unfortunate to the disastrous. Crony unionism was a major factor in the bankruptcy of Detroit, and its decades-long decline as a city, as it also is in the fiscal problems of California and other States.
When the Deakinite Settlement dominated Australian public policy, the arbitration system in a sense regularised crony unionism. The regularisation had the advantage of minimising corruption risks, but it still advantaged the politically-connected and imposed major distortions on (pdf) public policy and costs on the wider community.
While the Deakinite Settlement has been significantly dismantled, the arbitration system lives on, if in somewhat attenuated form, notably via the Fair Work Commission. (Pausing here: imagine how a “Fair Sell” Commission would operate–or, rather, let’s not.) Consider crony capitalism or crony unionism from the other perspective: the cronies see the aim as having the state apparatus serve their specific interests.
The Labor Party was originally created to be political face of the union movement. It has had considerable political success, though its tendency to split was a problem for decades. Up until 1972, ex-Labor politicians (Cook, Hughes, Lyons) had been in office as non-Labor PMs approaching the length of time as there had actual Labor Federal Governments (Watson, Fisher, Hughes, Scullin, Curtin, Chifley).* Since 1972, however, Labor has been in office federally about the same time as the Coalition.
The combination of a labour movement having an explicit political wing and the arbitration system in various incarnations has led to an Australian union movement that very much sees state power as a tool of protection and expansion. Which is precisely what the CFA dispute looks like.
Allegedly, there is a major public policy gain to be had. (One notices the former Minister did not agree.) But, even if there is, why not find another way to go about it? Either because your understanding of politics and management is so impoverished that does not occur to you, or because what is generating such objections is precisely what one is trying to do.
One of the issues for Western societies is expanding states undermining civil society through replacing non-state efforts and institutions. Given the long-term problems of rural towns, undermining a particularly effective form of social capital is not good for rural Victoria.
Modern progressivism has generated a plethora of techniques for discounting others, for self-congratulating blinding. Likely this is also operating here, in a rather toxic combination with crony unionism.
* Labor PM’s Watson, Fisher, Scullin, Curtin, Chifley and Hughes totalled 6,055 days as PM. Cook, Hughes and Lyons totalled 5,376 days as non-Labor PMs, or 89% of the time of actual Labor Federal Governments. Since the 1955 DLP split had a great deal to do with the longevity of Coalition government from 1949-1972, the ALP’s habit of splitting was a major political liability.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]