Tony Abbott’s Government has a plan to bring back WorkChoices.
But this time the Coalition has learned the lessons from the last times they had a go. There have been two previous failures – 1993 with Fightback and 2005-7 with WorkChoices.
It’s a twin strategy: undermine the reputation of the union movement in the eyes of the public at the same time making their day-to-day operations as difficult as possible. While they do this, the Coalition will run a series of inquiries and reviews to lay the groundwork for WorkChoices v2.
This plan has been cooked up with corporate Australia, the likes of the Business Council of Australia, whose job it will be to do the running on the PR side of the campaign, with the willing assistance of the Murdoch press.
How shattered they have been?
Can you imagine how shattered the likes of Abbott and his mates in the HR Nicholls Society were when WorkChoices was finally abolished? I can imagine them watching in horror as the magnificent uprising of union members in the Your Rights At Work campaign gathered pace across the country. No amount of wall to wall Government advertising selling WorkChoices could turn around public opinion.
By the end of 2007 with election day closing in, the YR@W army of union activists were everywhere and unstoppable. The Government was swept from power and a Prime Minister had lost his seat.
More devastating than the election result would have been seeing 25 years of work by the HR Nicholls Society pulled apart, ridiculed, reviled and comprehensively rejected by the public. We have the Mad Men of the Liberal Party’s PR company to thank for encapsulating with such cynical and brilliant irony the whole agenda in just one word – WorkChoices. And we have the Howard Government to thank for the assistance they gave in the mass education of the public. The striking yellow branding of WorkChoices became hated and a symbol of unfettered power to employers. In three short years, everything WorkChoices stood for became so despised in the minds of the public that even today Abbott cannot mention the word.
WorkChoices – cooked up in the 1980s
WorkChoices was not something former Prime Minister John Howard dreamt up after he won the Senate in 2004. It has been a coherent agenda of the hard right amongst employers since the late 1980s, but has now become mainstream for corporate Australia. In 1986, Liberal Party pups like Peter Costello and big business decided on a shared agenda to mount a war against working people and their unions so they could overturn the rights that generations of Australian unionists had won, so that bosses would rightfully decide EVERYTHING. The WorkChoices agenda boils down to five things:
- Getting rid of the idea of minimum rights and the safety-net contained in Awards and reducing the minimum wage
- Abolishing collective bargaining via individual contracts or at least make collective bargaining as hard as possible
- Giving employers free rein to sack people whenever they want by abolishing unfair dismissal laws.
- Destroying the independent umpire (the Commission) so employers need not be accountable to outsiders
- De-unionising the workforce by any means necessary and reducing the power of unions
This idea that employers should have all power is neatly summed up by the aims of the HR Nicholls Society,
The HR Nicholls Society believes that in a modern society there is no intrinsic imbalance in bargaining power between employers and employees and the regulation of workplace relations should be minimal.
Key Lessons Abbott and WorkChoices zealots learnt from the YR@W campaign
The WorkChoices dream has not gone away for Abbott and many others in corporate Australia. They have had six years to regroup. This is what they have learnt:
- The union movement has the organisational capacity and resources to defeat attempts to reintroduce WorkChoices. Under-estimating this capability was a fatal mistake in 2005.
- It was a mistake to go after working people’s rights before taking proper account of the capacity of the union movement. Unions must be weakened first as they are the only organisations who provide effective resistance. So go after unions before you go after workers’ rights.
- The electoral and political risks of introducing aspects of WorkChoices are potentially severe. The ground-work was not laid in 2005. This ground work needs to be done by others and not the Government so as to minimise political and electoral fallout
How to upload WorkChoices v2 in four steps
1. Step One – Go after Unions
Despite the disgraceful behaviour of several former leaders of the HSU, Australians generally like and trust Unions. A strong majority believe that the country is better off with trade unions in most studies that have been done on the topic. Unlike the US, where there has been a historical and cultural association of the mafia and corruption with unions, this has not been the case in Australia. The HSU scandal has opened up for Abbott a new front for this part of his strategy which is to find as much dirt as possible (real or imagined) to throw at unions. This is all designed to weaken the trust of the public in unions and put unions on the defensive.
This part of their strategy has already started. An inquiry is to be held into the AWU in Victoria. The Abbott Government hopes that it can both take the high moral ground and demonstrate that the HSU was not just “one bad apple”. They can use the findings to justify further fishing exercises.
Alongside such “inquiries”, the Abbott Government has already introduced laws to establish the Registered Organisations Commission to permanently oversee the internal operations of all unions. We have seen this before, where such bodies like the ABCC (which the Government is restoring with extended powers to also cover the maritime industry), are given a huge budget and lots of staff and told to dig for every bit of dirt they can find. These laws are meant to reflect laws governing corporations with huge fines and the possibility of criminal charges. The big difference between corporations and unions is that 90% of the union officials the laws cover are paid nothing. They are workers who have other jobs like disability workers, truck drivers, teachers, nurses, factory workers. They stand for election and receive little benefit other than the respect of their members and the honour of leading their union. They are nothing like Directors of companies who are high flyers, with plenty of resources to back them up. Even employer groups have slammed the proposed legislation as being unworkable and too tough.
The purpose of these laws is to make life hell for all unions. Auditors could be sent into union offices around the country to trawl through every receipt and every transaction, looking for anything that can be fed to the Murdoch press and to give Abbott and his attack dogs ammunition in a new publicity war. Afterall, negative campaigning is their forte: throw enough mud and some will stick.
The aim here is to distract unions, tie resources up in petty compliance and red tape, and have the whole movement on the defensive. But the bigger prize is to try and weaken the public’s trust in the union movement so that mounting a campaign such as the YR@W campaign is much harder.
Step 2 – Make business run the campaign
About a year ago, confident of a Coalition win at the election, the Business Council of Australia became organised. Since then, we have seen a chorus of CEOs lining up to push the WorkChoices agenda. Here’s some of the line-up:
Russell Zimmerman Director of the Retail Traders Association on reducing penalty rates, George Calombaris, celebrity chef on abolishing weekend and public holiday penalty rates Bernie Brookes, CEO Myers on penalty rates Catriona Noble, McDonald’s CEO on penalty rates BHP on taking away rights for workers who are bullied David Peever, Rio Tinto CEO on limiting collective bargaining rights Peter Strong, CEO Council of Small Business on abolishing award rights and individual contracts Maurice Newman, Chair of the PMs Business Advisory Council on the minimum wage being too high Gerry Harvey, Chairman of Harvey Norman on abolishing Sunday penalty rates
They are campaigning. They have a theme. It’s not called WorkChoices. It’s not about taking away rights (yet), it is all about jobs and “productivity”. Get ready for the show they will put on in 2014.
Step 3 – Use Inquiries and Reviews to hide behind
Back in the 1980s, the trend towards hiring consultants to do your dirty work also started. Workers have all seen how it goes – pay a consultant lots of money to write a report or conduct a review that’s says everything that the boss wants but doesn’t dare propose himself. This gives the impression of outside legitimacy and authority. You get to stand at arm’s length. It’s a tried and true trick to minimise fallout for decisions. A massive industry has now grown up around it.
All Governments now use this trick, but it’s a real favourite with Coalition Governments – just look at the audits conducted by State Governments and Abbott’s “Commission of Audit”. What makes these audits so good for Coalition Governments is that their consultants share the same neo-liberal ideology. Abbott has shown had no shame whatsoever with his own selections for the Commission of Audit, which is to be headed up by the very people who will gain financially from recommendations that involve privatisation – the Business Council of Australia. Talk about putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank!
The centrepiece of Coalition IR policy is the full review of the whole Fair Work Act conducted by none other than the Productivity Commission. This will be nothing but a singing and dancing show for employers and the Murdoch press to lay the ground-work for WorkChoices v2. The outcome of this Inquiry is pretty much pre-determined; the head of the Commission has made his views on workers’ rights and productivity clear. I reckon I could write the report now and save them heaps of money…but that’s not the point – see Step 2 above.
The second big review due early next year is a full review of all Awards. Remember, a key part of the WorkChoices agenda is to take rights out of Awards so wages and conditions have the potential to fall a long way before they reach a threadbare safety-net. Employers have already signalled a full scale assault on one part of take home-pay – penalty rates (see the quotes above).
Step 4 – Hide behind the new ultra right-wing Senate
For a long time now, we have seen the “balance of power” in the Senate held by parties of the centre or the Left, such as The Greens or the Democrats. They have often insisted on amendments to legislation as the price of supporting it, but such changes have usually not been to the detriment of workers.
A whole new world of Senate politics awaits us come 1 July 2014 and it will be a horror show for working people. Bob Day, the new Families First Senator from SA was once on the Board of the HR Nicholls Society and wants to implement their agenda. The NSW Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, elected because his party was drawn Number 1 on the ballot paper, doesn’t even believe in the minimum wage.
On top of this is the Palmer United Party, a billionaire’s party. He hasn’t bothered to spend his money to get this influence in Parliament so he can support workers’ rights, that’s for sure. And Nick Xenophon opposes penalty rates.
This new Senate provides great opportunities for Abbott to do more than he promised and more than he might have dreamt of in his first term of Government. And, he doesn’t have to make these proposals himself. After business have been running their campaigns and the various inquiries have delivered him what business wants, he can use the new Senate to finish the job.
I think Abbott’s strategy is clear for all to see if you follow what he and other WorkChoices devotees are up to. Knowing or predicting your opponents strategy is vitally important to building your own. I hope to talk about this in the next instalment.