Interview with Andrew Ferguson

Andrew Ferguson (right), next to Dick Whitehead, marching at in the Sydney 2010 May Day march.

Andrew Ferguson, former NSW Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), recently retired from that position and became Australian Labor Party’s NSW Legislative Council ticket. Ferguson, who identifies as a socialist, is likely to get the sixth position on the ticket. The top two spots on the ticket will go to NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal and Planning Minister Tony Kelly, both from the ALP Right faction. Peter Boyle interviewed Ferguson for Green Left Weekly.

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After many years as a trade union leader you have decided to stand on the Labor Legislative Council ticket in the March 26 NSW elections. Why are you doing this? And what do you ask of socialists and other progressives in this election?

Andrew Ferguson: I worked for the CFMEU for more then 30 years. I have felt privileged organising and campaigning for the rights of construction workers. However, I was committed to generational change in the union to ensure the growth of the union and its officials. We now have a new Secretary, Mal Tulloch, who is indigenous and who will continue progressive leadership of the union into the future. We also now have an additional Assistant Secretary, Rebel Hanlon, who is in his thirties and is also committed to the Left. The transition in leadership has allowed me to consider a new political challenge. I want to be a progressive MP, representing working people. I welcome the opportunity to be a fighter, both inside and outside of the Parliament for workers’ rights and social justice.

What do you see as the three most important political issues in this election and what is your position on them?

Inevitably, I am focused on workers’ rights. If the Liberal-National Party Coalition become the government, there will be an unprecedented attack on the public sector and its workforce. I have recently been elected as Honorary Vice-President of the CFMEU and will be in a unique position to not just, if elected, liaise with the trade union movement and speak in the Parliament, but organise outside the parliament a mass protest campaign. There is a real prospect that they will also attack the rights of injured workers. There have already been discussions with employer groups to abolish workers’ compensation insurance coverage for workers travelling to and from work. These are important fights for the rights of workers that need to be won.

Secondly I have a big interest in fighting to improve the quality of life of working people in Sydney. I was attracted to radical politics by the interventions and green bans of the BLF under the leadership of Jack Mundey and Joe Owens in the 1970s. These struggles were important in not just defending parkland, bushland and heritage, but in empowering people to have a greater say in their local community. A real democracy is not where people have the opportunity to vote every 4 years for politicians to make decisions, but where people have power in their community. I have a post-graduate degree in town planning and want to see development that satisfies human needs, not the interests of the corporate sector. A significant part of this agenda is campaigning for a major expansion of public transport.

Finally, I am committed to affordable housing. The cost of living in Sydney is unsustainable. There are large sections of the workforce that spend 15-25 hours a week just travelling to and from their workplace. We need affordable housing, not just on the periphery of Sydney, but across Sydney, close to work to minimise travel time for workers. Often the workforce in our hospitals and catering and cleaning workers and nurses are unable to live near where they work and are being forced to commute long distances. Public housing must be an important component of the strategy to make housing in Sydney more affordable.

Many people, among them trade unionists and leftists have been dismayed at the performance of the NSW ALP government, particularly on issues like electricity privatisation. What would you say to them?

There was a major fight inside the ALP over the issue of electricity privatisation. Many rank and file members and trade union affiliates were opposed to privatisation. This opposition prevented the government privatising the generation and distribution of electricity. This was an important victory. Unfortunately there was not sufficient strength to stop the privatisation of the retail component of the NSW electricity industry. However, the opposition to privatisation, both inside the Labor party and more broadly in the community, made privatisation of other assets, e.g. Sydney Ferries more difficult. There is a real challenge for progressives inside the ALP to work closely with community organisations and the trade union movement to work harder to defend public assets and services.

What are your views on the challenge of addressing climate change?

The scientific evidence is overwhelming. Unrestricted greenhouse emissions represent a threat to human civilisation and cannot be ignored. The introduction of a carbon tax is a central part of the strategy to tackle climate change along with substantial investment in solar and other alternate energies. However, I intend, if elected, to not abandon the workers I represent and will ensure that they do not pay in loss of jobs and income for a crisis created by corporate greed.

The results of the last federal election, and opinion polls in the lead up to the NSW elections, suggest that the ALP is losing significant votes to the Greens. What is your comment on the rise of the Greens?

The NSW Greens have capitalised from the movement to the right by the ALP. The abandonment of traditional Labor politics, e.g. opposition to privatisation, allowed the Greens to present themselves as the defender of public assets. The Greens are displaying great arrogance in their decision not to preference Labor, including in the NSW Upper House. There is a real danger that this decision may well result in the Liberals, Shooters and Christian Right controlling both houses of the Parliament. The decision also jeopardises my election to the NSW Parliament. The Greens acknowledge I have an outstanding track record and commitment to workers’ rights and social justice, but the refusal to preference means I will be denied vital Green preferences.

If you are elected to parliament with the help socialists and other progressives, despite your views and principles, won’t you be forced to toe the Labor line on political votes on issues such as privatisation, workers’ rights, social justice and the environment?

I have no fear of being forced to ‘toe the line’. I have an uncompromising commitment to workers’ rights and social justice. I am presently the Vice-President of the ALP in NSW. I have been outspoken on issues important to the constituencies I represent. I have led rallies for industrial manslaughter laws in NSW and opposed cuts to benefits to injured workers. I remain Vice-President of the CFMEU in NSW and would not abandon rank and file workers who support my election. I appeal to supporters of Green Left Weekly to vote for me ahead of the NSW Greens. My track record in support of union rights’, social justice and international solidarity places me in a position to be a strong voice for the Left in the NSW Parliament. I intend, if elected, to work in co-operation with a cross section of progressive social and political organisations and migrant communities for a progressive agenda for NSW.

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