The power of the union movement was central to Labor’s victory at the 2007 election and was followed by significant changes to workplace laws, prompting employers to brace for a similar impact on May 18 if Labor maintains its lead in the opinion polls.
The ACTU’s pitch to voters is backed by new polling that suggests about half of all workers in key marginal seats have not gained a pay rise over the past year and another quarter of them feel their pay rise has not kept up with the cost of living.
The survey found those who said they did not receive a pay rise included 50.4 per cent of residents in Corangamite, the electorate south of Geelong, and 48.8 per cent of residents in Lindsay, in western Sydney.
But the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson disputed the ACTU claims about wages and said his members feared a Labor government would give in to union demands to change workplace laws.
«We know for example that more than 20 per cent of workers who are on minimum or award wages have had pay rises consistently above inflation over the past five years,» Mr Pearson said.
«Small businesses in particular have been concerned at the extent to which Labor, if elected to government, will implement one of the most radical union agendas for years.»
The ACTU message taps into strong concerns about low wage growth in the wake of a warning from Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe last November that «flat real wages are diminishing our sense of shared prosperity».
The ACTU prepared for the election with a spike in its political expenditure last year.
The outlay rose from $888,000 in 2017 to $10.7 million in 2018 according to records lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission, with more money expected this financial year.
«It’s usual for campaign spending to increase at this point in the electoral cycle,» Ms McManus said.
«What’s most important is that all spending supports the actions of thousands of volunteers around the country.»
The ACTU campaign events in this election have targeted a single Labor seat, Bass in Tasmania, but the strategy is almost wholly aimed at marginal seats held by Liberal and Nationals MPs.
The priority seats for the ACTU are Forde, Petrie, Capricornia, Flynn, Leichhardt and Herbert in Queensland; Robertson, Reid, Banks and Gilmore in NSW; Corangamite and Dunkley in Victoria; Boothby in South Australia; and Swan, Pearce and Canning in Western Australia.
The union polling of 2597 residents was conducted by uCommunications, a company owned by the ACTU and the CFMMEU, across the electorates of Corangamite, Flynn, Forde, Hasluck and Lindsay.
The ACTU found that 23.7 per cent of Corangamite residents and 28.4 per cent of Lindsay residents received a pay rise they considered too small to cover the increase in their living expenses.
Another 25.9 per cent in Corangamite and 22.9 per cent in Lindsay gained a pay rise over the past year they thought would cover their cost of living.
Asked if the government was doing enough to make sure workers were getting their correct pay and superannuation, 43.2 per cent said yes and 45.4 per cent said no across all five electorates.
Asked if they felt jobs were less secure or about the same than in the past, 53.9 per cent said they were less secure and 15.2 per cent said more secure, while 30.9 per cent said the conditions were about the same.
The ACTU has criticised flexible workplace rules that it blames for encouraging the casualisation of the workforce, leading Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to respond with a pledge to introduce new rules that would give workers and unions more scope to demand permanent rather than casual working conditions.
Mr Pearson said workers on enterprise bargaining agreements had seen pay rises between 2.7 and 3.2 per cent, above the rate of inflation.
«The union agenda to change the rules is based around the idea that when the independent Fair Work Commission produces decisions the union movement does not like, they’ll change the rules to get the decision they prefer.»
NSW Liberal Senate candidate Andrew Bragg, a former acting federal director of the party, estimated the union movement spent $26 million at the last election.
«They’ll spend millions more of workers’ money in 2019 to support Labor’s risky new taxes and closed shop economy,» he said.
The ACTU would not put an estimate on the overall spending at the last election.
«People will make up their own figures to suit their own purposes,» a spokesman said.
David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.