Although the flare-up between the Palaszczuk Government and the state’s powerful construction and mining union has been brewing for years, few expected it to be this acrimonious.
The rhetoric adopted by the CFMEU leadership yesterday was by any standards extraordinary, with references to party hacks, dud politicians and leadership vacuums.
The union’s construction division secretary Michael Ravbar held nothing back.
“The Labor Government has been walking away from its working-class roots,” he declared.
On the surface, the dispute seemed largely technical and arcane — the union has only announced it is leaving the party’s left faction, and it will remain affiliated with Queensland Labor.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss this as simply the personality politics of factional manoeuvring.
A fall out brewing for years
The issues raised by disaffected union leaders point to a growing fault line that runs right down the Labor Party as it struggles to make itself relevant to both city progressives and the blue collar workers of the regions.
The CFMEU’s relationship with Queensland Labor started to sour in 2017.
The union was already under siege nationally from a hostile federal government and felt it was not getting enough support for its state campaign for industrial manslaughter laws.
It disaffiliated that year from the state’s peak union body, the Queensland Council of Unions, and last year held protest rallies outside parliament.
There was also growing discontent among several unions with what they perceived to be the Palaszczuk Government’s failure to deliver on promises to maximise the number of local jobs for major infrastructure projects.
Although not the only aggrieved party, the CFMEU construction division under the leadership of Michael Ravbar took the most aggressive approach by running a months-long campaign specifically against Kate Jones, the minister responsible for the Cross River Project.
And there were lingering resentments further north, with the union’s mining division under the leadership of Mackay-based Steve Smyth feeling increasingly isolated over Labor’s ambivalent and lukewarm embrace of Adani’s proposed Carmichael Coal mine.
The 2019 federal election confirmed Mr Smyth’s worst fears, with voters in two marginal Queensland coal mining seats abandoning Labor and turning instead to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.
It was these One Nation preferences that helped the LNP increase its majority in the federal seats of Flynn and Capricornia.
Another remarkable aspect of the last federal election was that there was also a swing to Labor on a two-party preferred basis in the three inner city Brisbane seats — nearly all courtesy of preferences from the Greens.
Labor is being wedged, and Steve Smyth believes his members are losing out.
He cites as a major cause of conflict the refusal of the Palaszczuk Government to approve the expansion of the New Acland coal mine near Oakey, on the grounds that there is still a related court challenge pending.
Union disillusionment revealed in the coffers
On ABC Radio yesterday, Mr Smyth spoke out against “minority groups” with a specific reference to the Labor Environment Action Network.
The extent of CFMEU’s disillusionment has been revealed in the donation disclosures to the state electoral commission.
In the 12 months leading up to the 2017 election, the CFMEU donated nearly $80,000 to Queensland Labor coffers — so far this year the union has donated nothing.
Mr Smyth said the union’s mining division will only be supporting specific candidates and so far only one is deemed suitable for union support — Whitsunday Regional Councillor and former coal miner Mike Brunker, who is Labor’s candidate for the ultra-marginal LNP seat of Burdekin.
Mr Brunker nearly won this coal mining seat in 2017 after he finished ahead of his LNP opponent Dale Last on the primary vote but failed to pick up enough preferences from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
When asked whether the CFMEU would consider talking to One Nation, Mr Smyth expressed concern about the party’s stance on labour hire and workplace health and safety issues, but added “we’ll always talk to anyone whether it’s the cross benches or not because we’re about the union first and foremost.”
Labor is not alone in struggling to breach the divide between the city and the regions, with LNP rural backbencher Colin Boyce crossing the floor of parliament this month to speak out against a mine rehabilitation bill he felt placed an unnecessary burden on primary producers.
On that occasion, the conservative side of politics managed the division without vitriol and name-calling.
Labor should take note.