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Grattan on Friday: When Christian met Sally – the match made by a pandemic

It was Greg Combet, one-time ACTU secretary and former Labor minister, who got Christian Porter and Sally McManus together in the early days of the pandemic.

Recalling what happened, Porter told the Australian Financial Review he said to Combet he needed to “talk directly with people in the union movement”.

Porter knew union co-operation would be vital for the emergency measures the government would bring in. “I don’t necessarily speak their language,” the industrial relations minister told Combet.

“Greg suggested that [ACTU secretary] Sally was probably the one that I should talk to first. I … just picked up the phone two seconds after talking to Greg and spoke with her.”

From there, the Christian-Sally relationship blossomed. It can be seen now as a significant contributor to Scott Morrison’s bid, outlined this week, to seek a consensus approach to reforming the industrial relations landscape.

The personal link with McManus established, Porter convened a meeting with employer and union representatives on March 10, which opened with a briefing by chief medical officer Brendan Murphy to give the players an understanding of the (then) looming scale of the coronavirus crisis.

This was two weeks before major sectors of the economy started shutting down.

Porter and McManus agreed to speak every working day, as special arrangements were put in place to deal with the extraordinary circumstances. Their scheduled (virtual) meetings were recently wound back to two or three times a week (with other contact as required).

While McManus opposed making changes to the Fair Work Act as part of the JobKeeper program, when the government was determined she was pragmatic. She’d earlier assisted by enlisting unions to support employer moves to vary industrial awards to help key sectors cope with the immediate challenges of the crisis.

When she had gripes Porter listened and made the odd concession. She wasn’t happy, for instance, with Porter shortening the consultation period (from seven days to 24 hours) for an enterprise agreement being changed. McManus persuaded him to build in a review after two months of the measure (which lasts six months).

One government observer says, “I think they are both a bit surprised by each other, and how willing they are to have an open and frank discussion about issues”.

After all, this is the woman the government demonised when, new in her job, McManus condoned breaking what she considered bad laws. Senior minister Peter Dutton called her a “lunatic”.

But, as the observer added, “It was a relationship born of necessity, and it’s continued because of the trust established”.

On the face of it, they’re chalk and cheese. McManus has spent her whole career in the union movement, from when she was a trainee at the ACTU (Combet was a senior officer there at the time).

Porter was bred into a Liberal family (his grandfather served as a Queensland politician, his father as a party official); he became West Australian treasurer before moving to federal parliament. He’s now attorney-general as well IR minister.

Although she’s smart and sharp, McManus’s language draws on old-style union-speak (“working people” is her mantra). Porter, a former senior state prosecutor in WA, not infrequently reverts to legalese barely intelligible to the ordinary person.

But what helped them connect is that he’s a policy wonk, and she knows what she’s talking about. And they’ve found they can talk in confidence without their conversations leaking, or (so far) being weaponised by either of them.

McManus has greased wheels during the crisis - the government hopes it can now parlay the relationship with the ACTU into assisting Morrison’s attempt to land permanent industrial relations reforms.

When you want to build on a relationship, a show of respect never goes astray. Morrison invited McManus to Kirribilli House on Thursday afternoon of last week, as he developed his idea of a compact. It was a tough face-to-face encounter over tea in fancy cups.

This week Morrison announced Porter would chair five working groups (with employers, unions and other stakeholders) to consider award simplification; enterprise agreements; casuals and fixed term employment; compliance and enforcement, and greenfield agreements for new enterprises. Their deadline is September.

Morrison says he’s bringing parties to “the table”. But he’s putting nothing on the table. He took off the table the Ensuring Integrity legislation - which was stuck in the Senate and had been “paused” during the pandemic - but only after McManus forced the issue.

Comparisons with the Hawke government’s accords with the union movement have been false. Those were formal agreements between allies, in which both sides traded specifics (wage restraint in exchange for “social wage” policies.)

Neither the government nor the ACTU would see the present process of negotiations as a partnership.

McManus is buying into the process but she must be aware of its risks. Many in her constituency would be sceptical, if not appalled. Bring a long spoon to that table, they’d say.

On the other hand, the much-shrunken union movement has changed and become more feminised in recent years, and one would expect many among its members would welcome the bid for agreement.

Anyway, McManus has to join the play to defend the unions’ interests. Given the extra authority the pandemic has given Morrison, the government would potentially be able to ride roughshod over union opposition. The Senate’s (non-Green) crossbenchers are always fickle, but the unions wouldn’t want to be banking on support there. The government’s position would be even stronger if the unions were just negative.

To see McManus driven only by that however is, on the evidence, selling her short. She accepts there are areas that should be addressed, such as flaws in the enterprise bargaining system.

The government and the ACTU have been careful to narrow the agenda to the items before the groups. Morrison doesn’t want other issues to become matters for trading. The government is focusing deliberately on “known problems” - areas it says have been bugbears for employers and employees alike. Some commentators have seen its list as heavily directed to employers’ concerns, but the issues of casuals and enforcement are core to the unions.

McManus comes to the table with a stash of chips, albeit fewer than the employers or government. These include the goodwill established, and the advantage Morrison would get (not least over Labor) if he could go to the election as the “consensus” prime minister.

If the consultation process fails to produce anything of real value, many in the government and the union movement won’t be surprised. If something positive is achieved, thank the pandemic.

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