Making sense of the Mighell malarkey

Why, exactly, did Kevin Rudd demand that Dean Mighell leave the ALP? What heinous crime did he commit? From what I can see, he won workers a pay increase, boasted about it in somewhat tacky terms and he used fairly intemperate language about John Howard. He also doesn’t like the Government’s tough new building regulator very much. So in other words, he was a union rep.

The main issue seems to be that he used something called “pattern bargaining”, where you obtain a raise from one employer and then try to make other employers match it. Which sounds to me largely the same as what we used to do as kids, when we played one parent off against another, or all of our friends told our parents that all the other kids’ parents let them do something, so we should be allowed to as well. Sure, it’s a little devious, but in the current industrial relations landscape, who can blame a union rep for pushing a little too hard to get better pay for his members?
Okay, so one way to interpret the story is to say that the employers had to pay millions of dollars more than they would have had to otherwise. Another is that that particular negotiation happened to be a bit less employer-biased than is usually the case these days. I still think that playing hardball with employers so that they have to pay more than they wanted to otherwise is entirely appropriate for a union official, and shows why some employees are still happy to pay their membership dues in this day and age.
It might have been tacky to boast about it. It was unfortunate to call the building inspector as a pedophile, certainly. And while describing John Howard as a “skidmark on the bedsheet of democracy” was a fairly disgusting image, there are many who’d use even filthier language – probably within Rudd’s own office.
And as the Prime Minister pointed out in Parliament the other day, Kevin Rudd isn’t averse to a bit of invective himself when speaking to a restricted audience. Like giving a journo an earful, for instance.
No, the whole thing feels just a bit too perfectly tailored to Rudd’s political needs, I reckon. Look at these choice quotes from Minghell in an ABC Radio interview, reported in today’s SMH:

“And I think the ALP with Rudd doesn’t quite understand unions.
“Howard would tell you that we’ve got an intimate relationship; we don’t.”
Mr Mighell said he still backed Mr Rudd for prime minister, but unions would have a struggle on their hands under a Labor government.
“The campaign to get rid of WorkChoices is so important for us, there’s no doubt in my mind that we need to get rid of the Howard government, we need to get Rudd in there.
“But I think it will be a battle for unions, with a Labor Federal Government. I think we’ll be battling over lots and lots of issues.
“But certainly the protection for a lot of workers who aren’t in strong unions like ours is going to be a lot better with Rudd as prime minister.”

Kevin Rudd’s office couldn’t have drafted any more perfect quotes to counter John Howard’s charge that the ALP is beholden to unionists. And perhaps it did? We all know the unions will do anything to get a Labor Government this time around, their survival depends on it.
And you wouldn’t put it past the increasingly brilliant Rudd electioneering team to tap Minghell on the shoulder once the story came out, and ask him to play along with a story that proved once and for all that Kevin Rudd was no union man.
It doesn’t matter whether the unions are “furious” with Rudd. Even if they really are. After they meekly rolled over at the ALP conference, it became clear that they were more than willing to make the leader look like his own man.
Rudd doesn’t need unionists’ votes, he’s got them already. What he needs is for business to trust him, and to counter the charge that he’s a closet ACTU buddy who’ll wreck the economy. That’s the Coalition’s best angle to use against him, and that’s exactly where this story boosts him. As does all the talk about his wife being a tough businesswoman, incidentally. The publicity over Therese Rein would have done Kevin Rudd’s image among business owners no harm at all. Surely he’ll understand their perspective if he’s married to one of them?
The stoush over industrial relations continues to be a fascinating electoral battleground. But I see no evidence in this story that IR is the Rudd Achilles heel the government’s hoping it is. They’re the ones that have struggled to rebrand their policies to quiet the fears of middle Australia, and they’re the ones who are still miles behind in the polls.
We should all watch Minghell’s future career with interest. Not only has he endeared himself to the union movement with his uncompromisingness, but he’s just done Kevin Rudd a huge favour as well. I’d be surprised if he’s still not very friendly indeed with the party that supposedly just expelled him.