Sally McManus defends unions’ election campaign, vows to take on Scott Morrison

“I knew that something was not right, especially in the last two weeks,” Ms McManus said.

“For most of the election campaign there was an uneasy anxiety but the polls kept saying something else.”

The ACTU detected social media messages about its support for an inheritance tax in the week before Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the election, with one fake tweet making it look like Ms McManus was calling on Labor to implement the policy.

“It just grew and grew and grew. What I saw happen was a subterranean social media campaign. It’s an area that’s unregulated and is almost impossible to stop,” she said.

While the ACTU has put forward the idea of an “inheritance tax on the wealthiest citizens” in public documents in the past, it was not advocating this in the election campaign and found it had to fight an anonymous social media campaign.

“It grew in momentum, so much so that in the last couple of weeks it was the main thing we were talking to people about in communities,” Ms McManus said.

“Our members on polling day were dealing with having to explain that there is no death tax and that the Labor Party’s policy on tax meant working people would get a bigger tax cut.”

The ACTU secretary said the social media claims were not caught by the usual electoral rules on authorising political statements and should be subject to tighter regulation.

You’re distorting democracy if you allow only people who have incredible means to be able to get their messages across.

Sally McManus

“There clearly needs to be more done in this area,” she said.

“When I looked at it, I thought it was exactly what happened in the United States in the Trump election and in the UK with Brexit.”

Ms McManus said the money spent on advertising by mining magnate Clive Palmer, estimated at around $60 million including billboards and print and television ads, also cost Labor the election.

“That had a lot to do with the money he put in in the last two weeks, when he went from campaigning for his candidate or his party, to a full-on battering-ram anti-Labor anti-Bill Shorten message. That was a factor,” she said.

While the Nationals and Liberals have warned in the past about the money spent by the ACTU during elections, this campaign has seen a turnaround in that debate because the union budget of $6 million was one tenth of Mr Palmer’s expenditure.


“He just blew everyone out of the water in the last year and especially the last two weeks,” Ms McManus said, adding that controls on political expenditure needed to be seriously considered in the light of the experience.

“You’ve got to balance the fact that people should be able to put their messages out, but you’re distorting democracy if you allow only people who have incredible means to be able to get their messages across,” she said.

“It’s a frightening distortion of democracy.”

Ms McManus declined to express a view on the leadership of the Labor Party, saying this was not her role at the ACTU, and defended Bill Shorten amid criticism of the party’s election policies and tactics.

“I don’t want to put the blame on them because I think that their policies were good policies. They went out and tried to argue those policies,” she said.

In workplace relations policy, she said, the unions won the argument because the government did not set out any changes to the existing law.

“Scott Morrison would not go near it. Wouldn’t engage on it. Wouldn’t touch it,” she said.

“For a while, Labor was asking him what were his policies and he wouldn’t come out with any. There were none. He kept on the tax issue for the whole time.” Policies are popular.

“He’s got no mandate whatsoever. He had plenty of opportunities, he was asked many times to state his position and he wouldn’t, so he’s got zero mandate on that issue.”

Ms McManus said this meant the union movement would take on the government if it made any changes or attempted a combative approach in workplace relations.

“If we have to be the resistance we’ll be the resistance,” she said.

“We’re going to keep talking strongly and campaigning strongly on the issues, and that’s better rights for working people. And we’re going to do it for as long as necessary and if we have to step it up we will.”

David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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