According to The Australian‘s take on a Newspoll on unions and political parties on Friday:
…the Coalition’s campaign [on union power] is not resonating with middle Australia as 55 per cent of voters rate Mr Rudd’s handling of unions as good and only 27 per cent rate his performance poorly – including 10 per cent of Labor supporters – while 50 per cent say Mr Howard is not doing a good job. …. while the Coalition claims it is on an election winner with its plans to demonise the unions, the Newspoll suggests voters will be more discerning.
This is a different conclusion to the one I came to a couple of weeks ago, when I argued that though improved union behaviour has been rewarded with significantly fewer people thinking that they have too much power, there was life yet in this issue for the Coalition.
I see two problems with the Newspoll. The first, as I noted in several posts about issue polling, stances on issues and party preferences are often closely tied together, so it is hard to know whether a person supports party X because of their stance on issue Y, or holds their opinion on issue Y because of their support for party X. Mentioning the party in the same question as the issue, as Newspoll does in this case, increases the chance that underlying party preference will drive opinions on issues.
For electoral purposes, the most interesting opinions are of those of people who do not give any party identification, which I provided in my first post. These are the people whose opinions on the issue are most likely to drive which major party they ultimately support (perhaps at a second or lower preference). In this Newspoll, the most interesting results are therefore not the overall aggregates, but the fairly high uncommitted group (16%), the 11% of people at this stage planning to vote Labor who think the ALP caters too much to the wishes of unions, and the 21% of people planning to vote for the Coalition who think that it caters ‘not enough’ to the needs and wishes of Australian unions.
The second difficulty with the Newspoll is that phrases like ‘union power’ and ‘needs and wishes of Australian unions’ combine issues on which opinion is likely to differ. There is a broadly positive view of the role of unions in securing wages and conditions. For example in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 46% of respondents agreed that ’employees will never protect their working conditions and wages without strong unions’ and nearly two-thirds agreed that ‘without trade unions the working conditions of employees would be much worse than they are’. So that aspect of union power – which many people probably perceive WorkChoices as having eroded – is something the Coalition won’t get any political advantage out of attacking.
But that is not what they attacking (now). The focus is instead on another aspect of union power, the violence, intimidation and stand-over tactics which long characterised the waterfront and the construction industry in particular. Though this has been substantially reduced, the ETU and the CFMEU are obviously keen to go back to the old days, something I expect would find little support in public opinion. Labor’s decision to delay abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is a sign that they recognise this.
Nor would the public be happy to go back to constant strike-caused chaos. Though this is a less realistic fear than what would happen in the building industry if restraints were lifted, the flipside of giving unions more power in the setting of wages and conditions is probably increased strike activity to gain leverage over employers. Because of this, it is a more complex argument for the Coalition. But many people who remember the 1970s or even the 1980s probably retain some residual doubt at least about giving unions more power.
Update 2 July: A Galaxy Poll in News Ltd papers asks:
Have the recent actions of some trade union officials made you more inclined to vote for the ALP at the next federal election, less inclined to vote for the ALP, or will these actions not influence your vote?
Most people (67%) say it will not influence their vote, and mostly those who say it makes them less inclined are spinning Coalition voters (38%, compared to 20% of the sample). As with Newspoll, the most interesting figure – what undecided voters think – is not given. The only real point of interest is the 8% of Labor voters who indicate some concern about the behaviour of union officials.