Key offers olive branch to unions

Prime Minister John Key has offered an olive branch to the union movement, while hitting out at Labour's new president.

Speaking to the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) conference in Wellington yesterday, Key struck a conciliatory note, saying too often the differences of employers, unions and government were heightened for political rather than social or economic ends.

"I fully expect unions to continue to oppose some Government policy and for business and employers to do the same, but the sum of our disagreements is no match for the weight of what we can achieve together," he said.

Key said the success of the Job Summit had been, in part, due to CTU president Helen Kelly.

"I don't agree with everything Helen says, but I certainly respect her motives," Key said.

"Without wanting to get her out of favour with her delegates, let me say that Helen deserves recognition for the role she played."

However, after the conference Key told reporters he was surprised at the apparent lack of consensus between the CTU and the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) over the nine-day fortnight one of the major initiatives to come out of the summit.

The CTU has welcomed the initiative, while the EPMU has been critical of the plan, particularly the removal of training as an essential component.

EPMU national secretary Andrew Little has also taken on the role of Labour Party president.

"My understanding is that there are a couple of companies looking at it (the nine-day fortnight) and some (workers) are from the EPMU," Key said.

"The risk for the EPMU is that its views become discredited because they become seen as the mouthpiece of the Labour Party, not as an advocate for the union."

Key said the Government would still work with the EPMU but it would be a difficult relationship to manage.

"In the end, we don't decide who the president of the EPMU is.

"There are challenges, but we'll try to work our way through it."

Asked whether he believed Little could do both jobs, Key said: "It is difficult, I think."

However, Little said he had no problem doing both jobs and was confident he could run the EPMU and still work with the National Party.

Kelly said there was no difference between the CTU and the EPMU on the nine-day fortnight.

"There isn't much difference between what the EPMU is saying and what we are saying. It's just a different emphasis.

"In most cases, there will be a requirement for employers to contribute and I think, in most cases, the employer will expect to."

At the CTU conference, Key said he believed the country could emerge stronger from the recession compared with many other countries.

"We are in for a rough period ahead. To argue otherwise would be to ignore the obvious links between our fortunes and those of the wider world. But while plenty of time has been spent describing the challenges presented by the global economic downturn, I don't think nearly enough time has been spent looking at how our country might emerge from it more strongly than many of our competitors."

Key said the five things in New Zealand's favour were its sound banking system, an official cash rate that had fallen sharply, the country's agricultural export base, the low exchange rate, and the ability of businesses to adapt.

Key said while he believed trust in financial institutions and people had eroded overseas, "I don't feel that here. Instead, what I sense is an unshaken belief in our strengths as a country. I sense that in these tough times, New Zealanders are pulling together."

The Press