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“Populist policy on the run”: Unions slam SA Labor’s coronavirus response

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An internal brawl has erupted in the Labor Party, with prominent unions slamming Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas over a surprise policy announcement they argue will put their members out of work and slash services for vulnerable ratepayers.

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Labor yesterday tried to rush a Bill through parliament that would force councils to waive rates for businesses and not-for-profit organisations forced to close by the COVID-19 pandemic – with Malinauskas announcing the policy via a drop to that morning’s NewsCorp paper The Advertiser.

But both the lack of forewarning and the policy itself have enraged the two ALP-affiliated unions representing the vast majority of council workers, both of which argue the plan would put their members out of work and slash services at a time they are vitally needed.

The issue is likely to flare up at a top-level party meeting next week, with Australian Services Union secretary Abbie Spencer telling InDaily: “It’s not actually a smart policy… it’s populist policy on the run – and it’s really disappointing.”

“We’re unhappy about a lack of consultation from the Labor Party – even the common courtesy of giving us a heads up didn’t happen,” she said.

“When we’ve got a federal Liberal Government reaching out to work with unions, it’s pretty disappointing.”

The ASU boss insists “it will be our members that are hardest hit, as well as services to vulnerable people that will be cut – unemployed people who need access to computers and need to use libraries, for example”.

Spencer said if the Opposition “had spoken to us we could have helped them design something more sophisticated to help the economy – not job and service cuts”.

Labor’s Bill – an emergency amendment to the Local Government Act – mandates a 100 per cent rates rebate for all businesses “whose activities cease or are restricted due to the outbreak of the human disease named COVID-19”, and could continue to apply until “all relevant declarations relating to the outbreak have ceased”.

“By being so prescriptive, you’re going to put councils under enormous financial strain – and the first thing they’d do is cut staff,” Spencer said.

“Some out there are already threatening to do that.”

She said there was also a broader implication for taxpayers because “if any council goes bust, it’s the State Government that has to dig them out”.

“It would be much better [for the Opposition] to join us in asking the State Government for an assistance package,” she said.

Rubbing salt in the wound, when the Opposition introduced the legislation to parliament yesterday, Labor’s frontbench spokesman Tony Piccolo cited not the unions but a Business SA media statement, saying: “With the Federal Government and State Government doing much of the heavy lifting, it is now time for the local government sector… to play their role [and] help get businesses through this crisis.”

Labor’s push to rush the legislation through parliament was stymied because the Opposition did not give the required notice to suspend standing orders, with Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll saying: “What is very clear is that they have not even consulted the very people that the Bill they propose to introduce will affect.”

He called the move “a stunt to get attention, as opposed to working cooperatively with the Government, which is doing everything it can to deal with a global pandemic”.

Australian Workers Union secretary Peter Lamps, whose union represents “outdoor” council employees, said the first he’d heard of the policy was in the media.

“The union has written to the Leader’s office to try to get some background in relation to what the intent is exactly,” he said.

“Under the Local Government Act that discretion is already there for an application to be made to waive council fees, so we’re trying to get our head around the need for an additional piece of legislation, and having a conversation internally as to what the draft Bill may well mean for members we represent.”

He said the AWU was concerned about what “a large onslaught of rate exemptions [would] mean for services for the wider ratepayers”.

“If rate exemptions become the norm, who’s going to pay for the services? Is the State Government going to step in to assist with some funding to ensure ratepayers’ services are maintained?” he said.

Asked if he was surprised not to be consulted before the policy was announced publicly, he replied: “I would have expected that, yes.”

The issue is set to come to a head at Monday’s meeting of the ALP state executive, on which Lamps, Spencer and Malinauskas all sit.

“If it’s not [already] on the agenda on Monday, it certainly will be – because I have a wider responsibility to our members [and] as far as the ratepayer is concerned… to ensuring that services remain ongoing,” Lamps said.

But Malinauskas said he made “absolutely no apologies for standing up for those workers” affected by small business closures.

“The AWU and ASU are two proud unions that are absolutely within their rights to advocate their members’ interests,” he said.

“They want to protect workers’ jobs, [but] I want to protect all South Australian workers’ jobs – the Labor movement is about keeping people in work, and that has to include all those people in small business… I make absolutely no apologies for standing up for those workers.”

He said while “I understand they’ve got some concerns, our absolute focus as an Opposition is putting on the table constructive, thoughtful ideas to protect people’s jobs”.

He disagreed with the unions’ assertion that jobs would be lost, saying: “I don’t see the Federal Government or State Government sacking or making workers redundant at the moment – I don’t see how Local Government should be any different.”

“If a local government decides to use COVID-19 as a time to make more people unemployed, that’s on them – but there aren’t too many governments sacking workers at a state or federal level… [councils] would want to take a good hard look at themselves before they do that,” he said.

“We’re proposing businesses forced to close because of COVID-19 should be relieved of a council rates bill for as long as they’re closed – that’s a pretty reasonable proposition when it comes to protecting jobs… counterfactually, businesses forced to pay rates when they’re not even engaging council services – that’s a pretty unreasonable position.”

He said “very few councils” were currently providing rate relief to shuttered businesses, instead offering deferrals, “which just means a bigger bill for businesses at a time they can least afford it”.

“My personal view is there’s no justification for a council to be sacking workers if they provide council rate relief to a café or restaurant or gym that has got zero income,” Malinauskas said.

“I don’t see why federal and state governments should be playing a role in keeping businesses alive and local government should see themselves as exempt.”

Local Government Association CEO Matt Pinnegar said in a statement that while “councils have a role to play in recovery and stimulus in partnership with the state and federal government, this also needs to be budgeted for”.

“Employees are the lifeblood of councils, and councils are doing everything they can to continue to provide essential services and keep people employed,” he said.

“But they are also dealing with reduced income and the rollout of targeted hardship provisions to not just businesses, but households and community groups.

“A blanket waiver of rates for businesses for an extended period will diminish local government’s ability to support communities when they need it most. “Targeted hardship provisions for businesses is the better way… if any business is suffering an impact from COVID-19 I strongly encourage them to contact their council to discuss options for assistance.”

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