I’m old enough to remember when the Melbourne City Square opened in 1980. The hype of the opening quickly turned into derision and it rapidly turned into a moribund white elephant in the heart of the city.
The main symbol of this Quixotic attempt at creating a civic centre was the strange angular metal sculpture officially known as Vault, but which unofficially was widely known as The Yellow Peril. It’s still around, in its third location, a resting place somewhere off St Kilda Road to the south of the National Gallery of Victoria.
In late 1980, in the dead of night, contractors spirited The Yellow Peril away from the City Square. This had to be done at night and in secret because the Maoist inspired Builders’ Labourers Federation had placed bans protecting The Yellow Peril from being moved from its location. [FYI, the reason the BLF was considered Maoist is because it had adopted as its slogan ‘Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win’, which was the title of Chapter VII of Mao’s Red Book. You go figure.]
The rationale for such bans, from a union widely considered to be extremely corrupt, are opaque, except for the sake of abusing its power for the sake of abusing its power (to be fair, the ‘green bans’ that the BLF had placed on the demolition of older buildings around Melbourne and Sydney has preserved a lot of landmarks which otherwise would have been lost forever, but The Yellow Peril – which had occupied its spot for six months – was not in this category).
I read an archival article recently on The Age website about the removal of The Yellow Peril, and it did strike me how far the paradigm has shifted in 40 years about industrial action and abuse of power by union officials. We still have some corrupt union officials who abuse their positions, but for the most part they are quietly trying to line their pockets with union funds, like Kathy Jackson at the HSU, rather than seeking to flex industrial muscle to send businesses broke needlessly and to cripple the economy (as well as impoverishing their membership).
For that, we have Bob Hawke to thank. A union official par excellence, Hawke was able, as prime minister for most of the 1980s, to steer unions away from the aggressive and destructive activities they used to engage in previously (many snap strikes were called on ‘demarcation disputes’, where two or three competing unions would stop work in order to determine such highly intelligent and burning questions as to whose members were entitled to sweep the factory floor or some such).
Such problems were not restricted to Australia. In Canada in the 1970s, there were also corrupt union officials abusing their powers. The Montreal Olympics in 1976 had a cost overrun of over 700% (just on building projects directly related to the Olympics rather than just to infrastructure upgrades) thanks to one corrupt construction union official who was intent on disrupting the construction solely so he could extort bribes for his own benefit.
[Ultimately, he embarked on a new career as a loan shark, and ended up murdered by the mob. Not sure if he was fitted for concrete shoes, but that would have been apt.]
This is why sensible taxpayers often look askance at big ticket international sporting events like the Olympics. Montreal 1976 has served as a cautionary tale of corruption and mismanagement, which ended up taking the people of that city several decades to repay the cost of the Olympics. That is money that might have been better spent on other public projects or services, or left in the pockets of Montreal taxpayers.
Brisbane has now officially been awarded the 2032 Olympic Games. Two cheers for Brisbane. But it is unlikely that it will turn into a financial debacle like Montreal did in 1976, mostly because Australian unions no longer are prone to abuse their industrial powers in the way that they did in the 1970s.
And whether you like him or not, we have Bob Hawke to thank for that.