FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Fall of a Racist Union Buster

by RICK KUHN

Not only did conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard lose the election last Saturday, he may have lost his seat as well.

Labor now controls all nine Australian governments: State, Territory and federal.

Industrial relations was the key issue in the election.

Years of campaigning against the anti-Aboriginal and xenophobic racism of the conservative Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties turned what had been their most effective political tool into a liability.

The Australian union movement has been successfully mobilizing against the Government since over its 2005 legislation that dramatically undermined workers’ rights to organize and forced them onto individual contracts. The new law banned ‘pattern bargaining’ (industry-wide campaigns) and deciding on industrial action at mass meetings. It restricted union officials’ access to members at work and abolished the prohibition of unfair dismissals.

The conservatives’ last, desperate racist maneuver was the distribution in one marginal electorate of a fake leaflet from a non-existent Muslim organization, which endorsed the Labor Party because it supposedly forgave the Islamist bombers who killed many Australians visiting Bali in 2003 and supported the construction of a new mosque.

A member of the State Liberal Party council and the husbands of the retiring Liberal member and the Liberal candidate were caught stuffing the flyer into letterboxes three days before the election.

Since before it won office at the federal level in 1996, the Coalition has drawn on and reinforced widespread racism in Australia to boost its popularity. In the 1996 and 1998 election campaigns, it attacked the land rights and organizations of Indigenous Australians. Invasion, genocidal policies and ongoing racism mean that Aborigines live 17 years less than other Australians, suffer far worse health_not matched by government expenditure on health services for them_have fewer years in formal education and are many times more likely to be imprisoned and unemployed.

The Howard government legislated to restrict new Aboriginal land rights granted by the High Court. It abolished the elected, peak Indigenous representative body and many specialized services run for and by Aborigines. In June 2007, it intervened to seize control of Aboriginal land and organizations in the Northern Territory, and limited the right of Indigenous Australians there to decide on what they spent their welfare payments.

In 2000 hundreds of thousands marched in favor of reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians, after Howard refused to apologize for the history of racist policies. Even though the Labor opposition endorsed the Northern Territory intervention, there were substantial protests against it earlier this year.

After intensifying the previous Labor government’s policy of locking up refugees who arrived in Australia on leaky boats in concentration camps, the Coalition Government whipped up paranoia about them to win the 2001 election. Scandals in the detention system, including the deportation of a citizen, and especially the growing refugee solidarity movement forced it to soften its policies in 2005.

So the conservatives started to explicitly target Muslims. Australia’s participation in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and carefully crafted, but implicit messages from the Government had already reinforced anti-Muslim prejudices. Commenting on mob violence against Muslims and Arabs in the Sydney beach-side suburb of Cronulla in late 2005, Howard denied that there was ‘underlying racism in this country’.

But a majority of people in Australia now oppose not only involvement in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. While Labor has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq, the new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will keep Australian forces in Afghanistan.

The Government’s attempts to use race in the run up to the election fell flat. People were not impressed by a new citizenship test, supposedly about ‘Australian values’, that amounts to a quiz on Australian history and sport.

Mohamed Haneef, an Indian doctor working in Australia, was targeted because he was the cousin of one of the people involved in the terrorist attacks in the UK at the end of June. The trumped up case against him fell apart.

In October the Immigration Minister announced that he had cut the intake of the mostly Christian refugees from Sudan because they weren’t integrating. This may have played well with convinced racists, but did not strike a chord with wider sections of the electorate.

The return of class issues

Australia has not had a recession since the early 1990s. The economy has been particularly buoyed by mining exports to China. Average real wages have been rising for years and unemployment is below five percent. These factors, largely beyond the Government’s control, helped keep Howard in office for years.

Yet he has failed to live up to his 1996 claim that he would make Australians ‘comfortable and relaxed’.

While the labor market is tight, most job growth under the Coalition has been in casual and part-time work. The conservatives’ industrial relations policies have led to declining job security and a vast growth in the amount of unpaid overtime. Meanwhile, inequality has increased, profits rates have climbed and managerial salaries have soared.

Levels of household indebtedness are high. Howard won the 2004 election on the promise that only he could keep interest rates on home loans down. But, in response to rising inflation, the Reserve Bank increased official rates several times this year. The latest rise occurred during the election campaign.

Concerns about debt have intersected with worries about work.

Levels of strike action in Australia are at their lowest levels since before World War I, while trade union density has been falling for thirty years. Yet, even before the introduction of the Government’s ‘WorkChoices’ legislation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions organized large rallies. These continued and expanded after the law was passed. Some participants stopped work to attend what were the largest union demonstrations in Australian history.

Early this year the ACTU campaign shifted from mobilizing unionists in direct action to election campaigning. Its slogan changed from ‘Your rights at work: worth fighting for’ to ‘Your rights at work: worth voting for’. Most union leaders even fell in behind the Labor Party’s very weak industrial relations policy, dubbed ‘WorkChoices Lite’ because it promised not to repeal the conservatives’ fundamental attacks on union rights.

Although Howard has been defeated on a class issue, the Australian Labor Party today is more right wing, its connections with the working class weaker than ever before.

Rudd (accurately) describes himself as ‘an economic conservative’. He has promised to ‘take a meat axe’ to the public service, is committed to the US alliance, to keeping troops in Afghanistan and endorses Australian imperialism in south-east Asia and the Pacific. Unions are still affiliated with the ALP, but the influence of union officials in the Party has declined and its working class membership is residual.

It is symptomatic that Rudd was himself a very senior public servant and consultant before entering parliament, while his wife’s business earned her millions selling employment services which had been contracted out by the Coalition Government.

Australian workers will lose out if they rely on the good will of the Rudd Government. Events during the election campaign indicated that preparedness to act in their own interests can achieve results. Nurses in Victoria took militant, illegal and successful action, that shut down many hospital beds, against the State Labor Government over wages and conditions. Three days before the election, ten thousand Victorian teachers struck over their claims.

If other workers, their self-confidence boosted by Howard’s defeat, follow this lead they will not only improve their lives at work but also rebuild the union movement.
RICK KUHN is a member of Socialist Alternative and a reader in political science at the Australian National University. He won the 2007 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize for his Henryk Grossman and the recovery of Marxism. He can be reached at Rick.Kuhn@anu.edu.au

 

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail