Corleone clause offers a deal we should refuse

The latest MUA deal sounds like something from the mafia playbook, inviting only family and friends to enjoy the riches that seem to flow from intimida­tion. Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

The latest MUA deal sounds like something from the mafia playbook, inviting only family and friends to enjoy the riches that seem to flow from intimida­tion. Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

It’s passing strange that a silly little story about an invitation-only men’s club makes front-page news yet a bad deal stitched up by the country’s biggest maritime union to invite its patsies, friends and families to fill 70 per cent of new jobs at Hutchison Ports barely rates a mention.

This invitation-only deal perverts a free job market and will cost Australians every time we buy a good that passes through one of these ports. We should be demanding this get fixed, and fast.

It’s wrong on so many levels. Let’s start with the blatant injustice agreed between the Maritime Union of Australia and Hutchison Ports. Consider this scenario: John Smith, a highly skilled worker, applies for a job advertised at Hutchison at Port Botany or in Brisbane. Hutchison’s response: “Sorry pal, we’ve already filled the 30 per cent of employees we get to choose under the new enterprise bargaining agreement. As the union gets to fill the other 70 per cent of new jobs with MUA mates and family, you don’t get a look-in. Tough luck.”

This latest MUA deal sounds like something from the mafia playbook, inviting only family and friends to enjoy the riches that seem to flow from intimida­tion. So let’s apply some honest labelling and call it the Corleone clause. The MUA is bragging about this as trailblazing, and it is in its level of shamelessness.

Normally this bad stuff happens behind closed doors. Now it’s set to be formalised in an EBA that, after a successful vote, will go to the Fair Work Commission for the tick of approval. The Morrison government should intervene when the agreement comes before the FWC to prevent this deal becoming institutionalised despite the raft of competition laws to prevent restraint of trade and employment laws to prevent discriminatory work practices.

Though the exact terms are not yet public, there may be a strong case to argue this EBA includes discriminatory and/or objectionable terms that are prohib­ited by section 194 of the Fair Work Act. If this section doesn’t prohibit this sort of Corleone clause, then the section and definitions need to be reformed.

This latest MUA deal sounds like something from the mafia playbook. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ David Crosling
This latest MUA deal sounds like something from the mafia playbook. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ David Crosling
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A gap in section 351 of the FWA needs plugging, too, to ensure the discrimination man­dated in Corleone clauses will not be tolerated. Section 351 says an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or a prospective employee on the basis of a range of matters including race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.

Here are some words for government drafters: an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or a prospective employee on the basis that they are not friends or family members of a current employee, or patsies of a union. OK, that last bit needs some work, but you get the drift. Corleone clauses are so outrageous, they are unlikely to be countenanced in other industries. But it is enough that they will damage the jobs market and productivity on the docks and in construction.

The fact unions want 70 per cent of future jobs to go to friends and family tells you how inflated their wages are, aver­aging $170,000 a year for shifting crates. Why wouldn’t employees vote for a deal that delivers the same cushy wage to friends and families? But these inflated costs must reappear somewhere. And Australians will pay for them, with higher-priced imported goods that flow through the ports.

Reform is needed. And that should include an overhaul of competition laws. Employment agreements are exempt from the Competition and Consumer Act, the rationale being that two fully informed parties, including a union on behalf of workers, and an employer should be free to negotiate pay and conditions without interference from competition laws.

Historically, the law has allowed unions to operate effectively as monopolies in their area of coverage because society accepted that the collective strength of a union was needed to balance the economic power of employers. That no longer makes sense.

Chris Corrigan took on the unions in 1998.
Chris Corrigan took on the unions in 1998.

Some of the worst unions consistently abuse their monopoly pow­ers to extract ridiculous rewards and conditions from weak and divided employers that are prohibited from banding together. The MUA is the latest example of this abhorrent behaviour.

In what parallel universe does sensible management hand 70 per cent of hiring decisions to a union? That tells you all you need to know. If this anti-competitive deal, one that apparently sidelines merit and has nothing to do with pay and conditions, is shoved into an EBA to avoid the normal application of competition laws, then reform is needed to stop this lurk. Our competition laws should not provide protection for Corleone clauses.

In many areas, different people may legitimately come to different conclusions about the need, or not, for reform. But when something is so obviously rotten for the country, then there is less room for debate. The MUA’s deal lands in the latter category. Yet there is no sign the Morrison government will go to the FWC to challenge it. Nor any hint of reform to stop it happening again. This deal should be too much for Labor and the ACTU, too. A free and fair job market for all, including new migrants, ought to be a new founding principle for a modern labour movement. Silence about this from Labor will amount to tacit agreement with these Corleone clauses.

It’s enough to make one hanker for a 21st-century Chris Corrigan. Someone needs to tackle the MUA and its attempt to extend the scandalous “no ticket, no job” rule into “no family, no job” and “no friend, no job”. The country is already paying too high a price because, to quote Winston Churchill, too many appeasers keep feeding the crocodile hoping it will eat them last.