Both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are being forced to confront their attitudes to a free trade agreement (FTA) with China from an unlikely source – a militant left-wing union.
And the campaign against the FTA is aimed at the one area where the Rudd Government is still vulnerable – the potential loss of 170,000 Australian jobs.
The campaign, by the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), questions why Australia is entering into a free trade agreement with a country whose success in manufacturing is based on a deliberately suppressed exchange rate, on selling goods at below cost, on low environmental standards, on abuse of workers’ rights including the use of child labour, and on severe restrictions on unions.
The campaign is spearheaded by Dean Mighell, a colourful union boss who achieved fame in the lead-up to the last election for a spat he had with Kevin Rudd after being recorded swearing and bragging about getting his workers a pay rise.
As Prime Minister, Mr Rudd recently dismissed his own swearing at his Labor colleagues as part of normal “robust debate”; but previously, as Opposition leader, Mr Rudd professed to be shocked at bad language, describing Mighell’s remarks as “obscene at every level”.
In what was possibly a deliberate over-the-top response, Mr Rudd demanded Mighell’s head, forcing the unionist’s resignation from the ALP, while the ETU continued to keep its ALP affiliation and generosity towards the party.
Mr Mighell managed to shrug off that episode as he has with several other controversies during his career, and remains at the helm of this powerful left-wing union.
But now Mighell is back in Mr Rudd’s face, commissioning a research paper which strips away much of the mythology about the Chinese economic miracle.
The document is a substantial rebuff of starry-eyed free traders and should force those rushing into an FTA to pause for thought.
The “China Advantage”: What price a free trade agreement with China? was researched by political strategy group, CPI Strategic.
It is a concise and well-researched demolition job on the proposition that free trade agreements automatically deliver benefits to Australia.
The ETU’s report was recently launched in the Federal Parliament by three independent rural MPs: Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and is expected to be followed up by a grassroots campaign in support of Australian jobs.
It is understood Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce was to speak at the launch but was waylaid at the last minute by illness.
Nevertheless, the backing of the rural independents also puts Mr Turnbull on notice that China is a potential burning issue in rural and regional Australia.
The ETU’s attempt to alert the major political parties about China’s flawed free enterprise system comes at a time that the major parties are positioning themselves about who is better equipped to deal with China.
The Coalition had initially tried to represent Mr Rudd as the “Manchurian candidate” – a prime minister who was dangerously close to China.
But since the PM’s reflective, but firm “zhengyou” speech at Beijing University in April, 2008, during which he talked straight to China about human rights abuses, the Opposition has been forced to change tack.
Mr Rudd told the students that “a true friend is one who can be a zhengyou, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship”.
The Opposition has becoming increasingly shrill and is now claiming that Mr Rudd’s special relationship is exaggerated and that he is mishandling diplomacy with China.
Criticisms of Mr Rudd include that of the Defence White Paper (which, it was claimed, was provocative), of his failing to “pick up the phone” to the Chinese President to demand the release of Rio employee Stern Hu, and for inflaming relations with China by bungling the handling of a visa for Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.
But on the Rudd Government’s push for a free trade agreement, the Opposition is mute.
The ETU’s campaign on the FTA is likely to gather momentum in the coming months.
Critically, Mr Mighell insists that Australia should continue to support trade with China, but at the same time acknowledge that China’s exploitation of its people and the unfair practices it engages in, make it impossible for Australia to compete on a level playing-field.
“China is not just another Japan, Taiwan or South Korea,” Mr Mighell says.
And the ETU’s criticisms of China are not just aimed at looking after Australia’s interests.
Mr Mighell says he has seen first-hand the appalling conditions in which many Chinese people have to live and work, noting that most Chinese workers have not have a pay rise since the mid-1990s, despite the economic boom.