Malcolm Turnbull supports the independent umpire? Yeah, right!

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Melbourne 'Stop the war on jobs' rally (Image via @unionsaustralia)

Malcolm Turnbull's stance on penalty rates is completely disingenuous and the media is letting him get away with it, writes EBA Truth.

"We support the independent umpire," said Malcolm Turnbull, with regards to the Fair Work commission decision to cut Sunday penalty rates for retail and hospitality workers.

This has been Turnbull's standard response to the political damage the Government is incurring due to the decision. Image is everything in the superficial games that pass for political process and this issue is no different. The aim is to make Labor look bad for failing to respect the independence of the Fair Work Commission. And also, presumably, The Greens, should the media deign to mention them or their election promise to intervene in any decision to cut penalty rates.

The only problem with Turnbull's stance is that it's completely disingenuous. The Country Fire Authority dispute is a glaring recent example of intervention in the processes of the Fair Work Commission by the Federal Coalition government.

The Coalition had no absolutely qualms about intervening in that case, indeed, its Federal election campaign in Victoria was headlined by the promise to intervene. This was a campaign built on the Coalition's stance of opposing an enterprise bargaining agreement into which the CFA and the United Firefighters Union wanted to enter. That their stance was pure, cynical, wedge politics is by the by.

The Fair Work Commission was expected to approve the agreement and the Coalition promised to "use all available Federal powers" to block the EBA. The promised interference included amending the Fair Work Act for the specific purpose of blocking the EBA and the use of the minister's legislated powers to intervene in a number of other ways.

In other words, the Coalition occupied the polar opposite of the higher moral ground it claims is conferred by adhering on principle to the independent umpire's decision.

The Coalition's position in reality seems to be: respect the umpire when it attacks workers, intervene with the umpire when the umpire supports workers. It's not just Victoria's 3,000 professional firefighters who have noticed the Government's hypocrisy. Over and over again, it's been raised on Twitter. And yet, over and over again, the media offers Coalition MPs a platform to criticise Labor for failing to respect the umpire's decision, without ever raising the Coalition's intervention over the CFA.

The media's studied ignorance of the Fair Work Commission's support for the CFA EBA is nothing new. In fact, the dispute only erupted as a party-political issue after the 1st of June 2016, when Fair Work Commissioner Julius Roe handed down a set of recommendations that largely supported the Union's position. As soon as it became clear that Labor Premier Daniel Andrews would ensure that the Fair Work Commission's recommendations were followed, the Coalition made the issue political and promises to intervene topped the bill of its Federal election campaign. 

But the casual media consumer was unlikely to appreciate the Fair Work Commission's role in the dispute, because although it featured in detailed coverage (even of notoriously biased outlets like the Herald Sun), broadcast media stories were dominated by the Coalition's take-home message that Andrews was allegedly siding with the Union. The fact that Andrews was seeking to implement the Fair Work Commission's recommendations rarely got a mention.

Even senior staff at The Age appeared to be ignorant of the Commission's support for the EBA, judging by an error-riddled editorial that concluded with a call to refer the matter to the Fair Work Commission! (The online version has been altered at some point at to conceal the author's ignorance, while continuing to promote his or her ill-informed opinion, without any apparent indication to the reader that such alteration has taken place.)

As ever, when it comes to the CFA issue, the mainstream media seem to be either desperately ignorant or biased. Which is it? Perhaps we should cut journalists some slack and assume good faith (ignorance). But sometimes what seems like ignorance is later revealed to be bias. 

For example, in September, while hosting ABC RN Drive, Patricia Karvelas asked Barnaby Joyce about the Coalition's proposed intervention in the Fair Work Commission to block the CFA EBA. Karvelas' failure to question Joyce's outrageous lie that volunteers would be forced to join the union could easily be written off as the result of ignorance. However, six months later when asking Steven Ciobo about the penalty rates decision, Karvelas allowed Ciobo to use the "respect the umpire's decision" line without asking him about his own government's intervention over the CFA. Clearly she was not ignorant of that precedent, having discussed it with Joyce. To me, that strongly suggests bias. To back it up four days later, after being @mentioned twice on Twitter to alert her to the CFA precedent, would appear to confirms this diagnosis.

How many other journalists have granted Coalition MPs a free kick out of bias? We will never know. At the end of the day, whether by ignorance or by bias, many journalists are falling well short of their democratic duties to inform the public and to hold our elected representatives to account.

Many but, at least, not all:

EBA Truth is a firefighter, rank-and-file UFU member and former CFA volunteer. You can follow EBA Truth on Twitter @ebatruth or on Facebook here.

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