Doing it His Way: Martin Ferguson Steps out of Labor’s Shadow

When it comes to labour reform, Martin Ferguson believes in small, incremental steps.

“There is no revolution or paradise around the corner,” the former Labor Federal Government Minister and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President says.

“It is all about achieving pragmatic things,” he told Workplace Review reporter Steve Andrew, in a wide-ranging – and surprisingly candid – interview on life after politics.

Now firmly ensconced in director roles for media company Seven Group Holdings and international mining giant BG Group, Ferguson concedes his current focus – advocating for wages reform – is creating waves (and some enemies) in union and Australian Labor Party (ALP) circles.

But he rejects accusations it amounts to a “betrayal” of his Labor roots, saying unrealistic wages and conditions are hurting Australia’s competitiveness.

Not everyone agrees. Ferguson narrowly avoided expulsion from the ALP in July 2015, following a push by the Victorian Trades Hall and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) to have him kicked out for alleged disloyalty.

It follows his controversial backing of, among other things, the Coalition’s plans for privatisation of New South Wales’ electricity poles and wires network, and reinstatement of the union-despised Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The Commission was originally set up by the Howard Coalition Government to, ostensibly, investigate union breaches of industrial laws on building sites.

More recently, Ferguson (in his role as Chair of Tourism Accommodation Australia) has thrown fuel on the fire by calling for a re-think of previously “sacrosanct” weekend penalty rates.

Costs must come down

While fully aware of union animosity to his plans, Ferguson told Workplace Review labour reform is now urgent in an “economy in transition”.

“The resources boom is over; there is a low dollar, and tourism and education are now exceptionally important,” Ferguson told Workplace Review.

“To be productive and competitive, we need to keep costs down – and that includes wages.” Ferguson said he was not suggesting an end to penalty rates on weekends, but rather, a re-think.

“The tourism industry, for example, is still living in a penalty rates regime akin to the 1950s, when Sunday was sacrosanct. It is a seven-days-a-week industry, we need to adjust rates to reflect that.”

Ferguson said “more flexibility” was needed on permanent part-time penalty rates to create jobs and certainty.

In the resources sector, wages are just one part of a much wider problem, he argues. “Australia is a high-cost producer – to compete, we need to deliver a combination of fair wages, improved work practices, and certainty on investment and project delivery.”

Curb on industrial action

While vocal on the need for industrial relations (IR) reform generally, Ferguson has been particularly critical of government policy covering his pet industry, liquefied natural gas (LNG).

One controversial solution being pushed by Ferguson is tighter controls on industrial action. Speaking in September 2015 at a Transforming the LNG Industry seminar run by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), Ferguson called for cross-party support for a Productivity Commission recommendation that enterprise agreements cover the entire life of construction projects.

It follows the recent threat of industrial action at the $US54 billion ($75bn) Gorgon LNG plant in Western Australia.

Ferguson’s support for cutting penalty rates and implementing industrial reforms that reduce the role of unions has been condemned by the MUA, with its National Secretary, Paddy Crumlin, labelling Ferguson a “disgrace” in a motion at the ALP National Conference in July 2015.

The motion also highlighted Ferguson’s alleged breach of the Federal Government’s Ministerial Code of Conduct rule that prevents former Ministers lobbying government within 18 months of leaving Parliament.1  It followed his appointment to an advisory board of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) within the 18 months. Ferguson argues he is not a lobbyist and should therefore be exempt from the rules.

Maurice Blackburn lawyer, Giri Sivaraman, meanwhile, has described Ferguson’s re-think of penalty rates as “spinning away reality”.

“[It is] effectively casual employment dressed up as part-time, without the loading that compensates for lack of leave and other benefits,” he argues in a letter to The Australian Financial
Review on October 29, 2015.

For someone with a proud and long Labor pedigree, taking on traditional Labor values has come at a price. But Ferguson appears to be taking it in his stride.

“You develop a thick skin in politics,” he told Workplace Review. “Those who know me know I remain true to my beliefs.”

Proud dynasty

Despite his apparent resilience, challenging traditional Labor values cannot be easy for Ferguson.

Part of a famous Labor dynasty – Ferguson’s father Jack was Deputy Premier of NSW, brother Laurie a Federal Member of Parliament, and other brother Andrew a prominent union official – Ferguson knows too well the heavy expectations that come with being a Ferguson.

His pride in his late father’s legacy is obvious in his conversations with Workplace Review.

Recalling the 1970s, Ferguson said it was not unusual to have Gough Whitlam knocking on the door of the family home one day – Neville Wran the next.

“One of my boyhood memories was Dad sitting with Neville on our back verandah in Guildford [in Sydney’s working-class west] doing the numbers for Neville’s tilt at Leader of the Opposition in NSW,” Ferguson told Workplace Review. “It was a narrow thing – after initially tying in the ballot, he got there by one vote.”

Heavily influenced by their Dad, all three Ferguson boys went on to make their own marks in the ALP – Martin and Laurie as federal MPs and Andrew as Secretary of the NSW Branch of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (Construction and General Division).

Jack’s daughters Deborah and Jennifer followed their mother Betty’s path, becoming teachers.

Working-class values

Ferguson said growing up in a working-class neighbourhood had a big impact on their lives.

“Most of our neighbours at Guildford in the early years were post-war migrants from countries such as Malta, Yugoslavia, and Italy, who worked in blue-collar jobs or on local farms. As the local MP, Dad used to door knock the electorate and we went with him.”

“We saw for ourselves the social disadvantages and problems that come with being a migrant on a low income. There was no pomp and ceremony in our upbringing – my parents made sure we had a good education, but we grew up in a house Dad built (Jack was a bricklayer before turning to politics) and were exposed to the same issues as our neighbours. It was a very-grounded upbringing. It ingrained in all of us a desire to help the disadvantaged.”

Desperate to give his kids the high school education he did not have, Jack, who left school at 13, sent the boys to St Patrick’s at Strathfield and the girls to Our Lady of Mercy College at Parramatta.

Post-high school, a teacher’s scholarship beckoned for Martin. After taking on an industrial relations subject in second year, Ferguson changed his degree, ultimately emerging with an honours degree in economics from the University of Sydney. His “mentor and friend” – then Secretary of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, Ray Gietzelt – suggested he join the “misos” as a researcher – and in Ferguson’s words, “I never looked back”.

History of public service

Ferguson’s subsequent long history of public service and work in economic and social policy is succinctly detailed in a profile on the CEDA website (among his many positions and honorary roles, Ferguson is a member of CEDA’s Board of Governors).2

From 1984 until 1990, Ferguson served as General Secretary of the Miscellaneous Workers Union, and from 1990 until 1996, as President of the ACTU. As a senior trade union official, from 1984 until 1996, he sat on the ACTU National Executive, participating directly in shaping and implementing many of the economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments.

In March 1996, Ferguson was elected as a Member of the Federal Parliament for the seat of Batman, in Melbourne, which he held until retiring at the 2014 election. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in June 1996. During the Howard Government, Ferguson served in a range of economic shadow portfolios, including: Employment and Training; Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Regional Development, Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Services and Population; Urban and Regional Development, Transport and Infrastructure; Primary Industries, Resources, Forestry and Tourism; and, Transport, Roads and Tourism.

Upon the Rudd Government assuming office in December 2007, Ferguson was appointed the Minister for Resources and Energy and the Minister for Tourism, and acted as Chair of the Standing Council on Resources and Energy and the Ministerial Council for Tourism. He held the Resources, Energy, and Tourism portfolios until March 2013, when he resigned from the ministry.

Now an executive with Seven Group Holdings with responsibility for natural resources, Ferguson’s other roles include: Chair of the advisory board to APPEA; a non-executive director of British Gas; Chair of the University College of London’s Adelaide Advisory Board; and a pro bono member of the University of Western Australia’s advisory board on resources and energy.

Looking to the future

Looking back over his 40 years in unions and politics, Ferguson sees Labor’s greatest achievements as superannuation, universal health care, the opening up of Australia to globalisation, and modernisation of the economy through developments such as the Accord.

Ferguson says he “sleeps well at night” in his current roles, despite critics within the ALP. “I still talk to shadow ministers, they are friendly, but I don’t pester them,” he told Workplace Review.

Looking to the future, Ferguson says it is vital for Australia to attract new investment. “We need to front up to the issues of productivity and competiveness.” He sees Australia’s strong links with China as an important part of that future.

Outside work, Ferguson says he still finds time to follow his favourite rugby league team Parramatta “albeit from a distance” (Ferguson is based in Melbourne), the Rebels in rugby union, and Hawthorn in the AFL.

by Steven Andrew

Steven Andrew is a journalist and PR manager working in the government, finance, legal, and corporate governance sectors. Steven is also the managing principal at SRA Communications. For more information on Steven and SRA Communications, visit the SRA Communications Facebook page.

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2 Committee for Economic Development of Australia, The Hon Martin Ferguson AM <>.

Workplace Review provides IR/employment practitioners with the practical insights you need in a readily accessible form. Importantly, it does so while engaging with that focus on people which is fundamental to this area of practice. Content includes interviews with influential practitioners, advocates, judges and academics as well as concise articles presenting the tactical and strategic implications of legal and policy developments that go beyond mere description.

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To find out more, visit the Workplace Review website.

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