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May 17, 2012 – 11:09AM

Bill ShortenBill Shorten says the Labor government’s accomplishments should not be downplayed. Photo: Glenn Hunt

WORKPLACE Relations Minister and former union chief Bill Shorten has made a rousing speech to the ACTU Congress in Sydney, telling them unions were more relevant and important than ever.

But he has warned union chiefs at the conference that the Coalition is “energised and aggressive”, and “believe they are just a whisker away from running Australia”.

And he struck out at those he said were trying to “smear” the entire union movement over the Health Services Union affair.

Mr Shorten said unions should not listen to conservative commentators who were now regularly saying that the only way to make Australian workplaces more competitive was by cutting wages and conditions.

“Conservatives sell … this myth that our workers can’t compete … unless we slavishly imitate the [work practices] of Third World nations,” Mr Shorten said.

Mr Shorten also passionately sold the achievements of the Labor Government over the last five years, saying they had made accomplishments that should not be downplayed.

These included the National Broadband Network – “Why should our businesses and workers have to drive on 60km/h roads when the rest of the world has the equivalent of 100km/h roads?” – and the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

He said the establishment of “safe rates” for truck drivers had made roads safer and improved conditions in transport.

And the equal pay case that the government had backed had ensured “women do not receive inferior wages because of their gender” had been a crucial endeavour.

“The labour movement – when we choose to lead, not follow – then we have our finest accomplishments ahead of us,” he said.

He flagged the enormous battle Labor faced to again be politically competitive with the Coalition, who were in the ascendancy.

“We have an energised and aggressive Opposition that believe they are just a whisker away from running Australia.

And they only have two policies – tax, whatever that is – and industrial relations,” Mr Shorten said.

And he implored around 1000 delegates at the conference that they must not accept that the HSU was part of a wider problem within the union movement.

“That the activities of one or two branches in one or two unions is somehow consistent with the standards of all unions and all union represenatives” was wrong, he said.

It was crucial that unions remained at the forefront of change in Australia, Mr Shorten said, to fight for good jobs.

“Asia will keep rising and the development of three billion members of the middle class in Asia is an opportunity and not a threat,” he said.

And he warned that nowhere near had been done in corporate Australia to ensure that women were well enough represented on boards.

He said that, while 57 out of every 100 woman now worked, it was a disgrace that only one in 10 board directors on major public companies were women.

“If a labour movement can generate a Prime Minister and an ACTU president then I think the ASX can do better than 10 directors out of every 100 directors,” he said.

The HSU scandal could not be seen as part of a wider malaise within unions, he said.

ASIC had recently seen a jump in the number of people engaging in insider trading, Mr Shorten said.

“I do not accept that everyone working in the markets is a crook, even when [bad things] happen,” he said.

Read more: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/political-news/conservatives-want-third-world-australia-shorten-20120517-1ysa3.html#ixzz1vAjeWh6a

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