After a watershed week on climate, Albanese is eyeing the Hawke playbook for his upcoming jobs summit

You would have to be watching politics very closely to have caught Anthony Albanese’s tone when talking about unions over the past couple of weeks.

The prime minister has been talking about unions in question time because Peter Dutton has gone full retro on union thuggery in response to Labor’s decision to gut the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) more quickly than expected.

Some Labor parliamentarians who start public life as union officials are triggered when Liberals troll them about unions. But Albanese rose through Labor politics as an inner-city activist rather than a union official. His buttons weren’t pushed.

The prime minister’s rebuttals were calm and quiet. He didn’t defend any bad behaviour by militant members of the construction union. His defence on gutting the ABCC was that all workers should face the same laws, not that there shouldn’t be guard rails ensuring people didn’t engage in unlawful behaviour on worksites.

Albanese made a forceful institutional case for unionism. Unions, including in the construction sector, kept people safe in an industry replete with lethal danger. By insisting on safe practices, they made sure workers got home to their families at the end of the shift. A basic point, but one we haven’t heard come out of the mouth of an Australian prime minister for a very long time.

As well as validating the role of unions, Albanese is courting a business community looking for opportunities to work with the new government.

On that score, this has been a watershed week. Many of the groups that once castigated Labor for pursuing carbon pricing while lustily amplifying Tony Abbott lined up to endorse the agenda of Albanese and the climate minister, Chris Bowen, while delivering a backhander to Dutton and the Liberals for their obduracy.

Business welcomed the passage of Labor’s emissions reduction targets legislation through the House of Representatives, and politely called on Dutton to wake up to himself because rancid partisan politics was no substitute for policy certainty.

Perhaps the patience of business groups was tested after watching the allegedly pro-market Liberal party call for divisions on every amendment so they could record their idiocy in Hansard for future generations.

I suspect the Liberals even tested their own patience with this performance. Voting no to a sequence of entirely sensible evidence-based propositions for four solid hours was so tedious even the staunchest post-truth naysayers looked bored by the end.

Albanese could have responded by lavishly thanking the business groups for turning up on the right side of history 10 years too late.

In his shoes, that’s what I would have done.

But the prime minister is a more patient person, and vengeance is not in his interests. Albanese is in capital accumulation mode. He senses institutional forces in the country want to be part of a new political story, and he’s been around long enough to know that sentiment won’t last forever.

Goodwill is a finite commodity that prime ministers need to use, not only to shape public perceptions of them as leaders, but to try to set substantive things in motion, which is why he’s validating the institutional role of unions and pulling his business network close.

Albanese’s eyes are firmly on the jobs and skills summit next month. Incoming Labor prime ministers like summits. Bob Hawke had an economic summit in 1983. Kevin Rudd had the 2020 summit in 2008. At their core, they are exercises in curation and co-option.

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This may sound cynical but it’s actually clinical. Labor is not the natural party of government at the federal level. There is always institutional pushback when the political wing of labour holds the reins in Canberra rather than capital and its media boosters – so summiting is an opening Labor salvo. Before things get fierce, before we fall out, let’s cooperate. Let’s build.

Portfolio ministers are currently head down in various work streams ahead of the jobs summit – economy, skills, workplace relations, migration, disadvantage, gender. But there is so much pent-up demand in civil society and the business lobby after 10 years of next to no meaningful reform at the federal level that interest groups are already caucusing without waiting to be prodded (or even invited) by the government.

This level of initiative bodes well for some concrete outcomes. Labour and skills shortages are now so acute that traditional foes have a common interest in mapping out some solutions. This week’s landing point on climate change – a parliament moving forward with public endorsement by all the major interest groups, including business and unions, provides a template for consensus in other vexed areas.

Senior government figures are hopeful September’s summit will yield some kind of detente on immigration and training. In recent times, many Australian unions have been hostile to temporary migration and labour mobility provisions in free trade agreements, while business has sought unfettered rights to import labour whenever it suits.

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So it was interesting this week to see the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Daniel Walton, float a compact where businesses would have access to sponsored skilled migration on the basis they invest in domestic skills development.

Walton said one option was a system, where, for every skilled migrant a business employed, it would take on one local trainee or apprentice, or kick in to a skills levy. This may not be the landing point in September. But the early kite-flying suggests an inclination to find some mutually agreeable solution.

Getting a genuine breakthrough (as opposed to tinkering) on workplace relations will be harder.

Labor has put enterprise bargaining on the table, and was elected on a platform of ending wages stagnation. Inflation rising to 8% certainly isn’t helping with that objective. Failing to deliver on wages growth is politically untenable, but achieving it is extremely hard given the current settings aren’t delivering it.

Back in 1983, when he convened his economic summit, Hawke possessed the lever of centralised wage fixing as a foundation of the prices and incomes accord. Business was not in the accord, but initially wasn’t hostile to the framework because it would stop unions executing a wage-price spiral – behaviour that was possible when a majority of Australian workers were union members and unions could secure big pay rises in strategic sectors that would flow back to other workers through the award system.

Then, in 1991, that system was replaced by enterprise bargaining. The Howard government stripped back union power. Structural changes in the economy also precipitated a decline in union density, which is one of the factors contributing to wage stagnation.

It’s not yet clear whether the Albanese government wants to push for systemic change, but that is what would be required to lock in sustainable wages growth.

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But this would test the limits of the consensus project he wants to build, because it’s not in the interest of business to change the high profits, low wages paradigm radically from where it’s been for the past two decades. More power for unions and higher wages is not a conventional catch-cry in corporate Australia. It’s hard to fathom what it might be, but it’s possible there’s a substantive grand bargain to be had on wages growth. If so, it will play out in the coming weeks.

Back in 1983, Hawke emerged from his summit with various grand bargains.

But he also understood the atmosphere of the event was just as important as the to-do list; the right atmosphere would extend the political capital of a Labor prime minister. Albanese talks a lot about conflict fatigue. Hawke in 1983 talked about confrontation and fragmentation. At the opening of his event, Hawke acknowledged the summit had an agenda, but it also had “symbolic purpose and value”.

“This conference itself is part of the process of bringing Australia together,” Hawke said.

“Behind the concept of the conference lies my long-held belief – a belief I am convinced is now shared by the overwhelming majority of the Australian people – that Australia can no longer afford to go down the path of confrontation and fragmentation which has embittered and disfigured so many aspects of the national life, for much of the past decade.”

If you could crack a sense of common purpose, you had an opportunity to “shape the future of Australia”, Hawke said.

Music to Albanese’s ears.

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