While Labor self-immolates, workers want answers
Most of you political junkies might skip over this piece because it doesn’t involve a hard-edged analysis of who-hates-who in the ALP or speculation about where numbers will fall at 10am this morning. The reason I’m not writing that is because for me, it’s not the main game.
Despite the myths about the influence of unions on the Labor caucus, what really motivates me and my colleagues is representing Australia’s workers and improving their lives, regardless of who runs the government.
In the end the decision will be made by 103 elected Labor members of Parliament. I don’t envy their position. The level of internal anger, now spilling into the public arena, has made it harder for Labor to win the next election. The jibe “if you can’t govern yourselves, how can you govern the county?” is one of the hardest for any political party to shake. The 90 per cent of the population that is too busy to pay more than casual attention to politics sees the unholy mess the ALP is in and turns away.
Regardless of what happens today, what everyone I talk to really wants is for the Labor Party to turn its full focus away from ego-driven politics to the concerns of ordinary Australians.
In the end while leadership is important, it’s the policy, stupid.
The union movement will work with whoever leads the Labor Party to deliver our program to improve the lives and working conditions of Australian workers.
There is a massive contrast between the spectacle transfixing Canberra insiders and what I’m hearing as I travel round the country. Most people are baffled and disappointed at their leaders and feel their concerns are not being listened to.
There is little support for an Abbott Government, but we run the risk of Tony Abbott slipping into Government like speed skater Steven Bradbury’s Winter Olympics gold medal – untested and unexamined – if Labor’s infighting continues.
Here are a few thoughts on what a Labor Government could and should be doing.
The rise in insecure work is continuing unabated across Australia. 40 per cent of workers are on some form of insecure work such as casual employment or contracts.
The inquiry into the issue chaired by former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe is hearing of the stress and despair of people who are unable to find regular work, and the damage this does to their ability to plan their lives, raise a family or buy a home.
This is no longer limited to seasonal work or hospitality, as it was 20 years ago, but is common for jobs across Australia including teachers, public servants and blue-collar workers.
Workers should not be considered just as cogs in the economic machine; they have the right to a work environment that allows them to live secure lives.
The share of our economy that is corporate profits has risen consistently over recent decades, while wages have stagnated.
The Fair Work Act secures the right of workers to bargain to get a share of the profits generated by the economy. There are many powerful voices pushing to wind back workers’ power to bargain. We are being told that things like penalty rates are bad for productivity and cannot be afforded by business.
Real productivity is the result of investment in better equipment or training. Basically using workers in a smarter way, not paying them less.
During the economic boom in the first part of this century too many businesses took their foot off the productivity pedal. Profits were up and there was no incentive to invest in the business to improve its productivity.
Now that profits are down, businesses are blaming unions and running to the government for help.
Labor needs to keep the rights of workers to a decent wage and fair conditions front and centre when it makes policy. The support for the landmark equal pay case for community sector workers is one area where this government has got it right.
We need to keep building the infrastructure we need for the future. The NBN is a great idea and it needs to be matched by investments in road, rail and ports that make Australia’s agriculture and manufacturing industries competitive on the world market.
We need to increase funding to schools and hospitals. These are services that workers rely on to ensure the kids reach their potential and to be there in case of a medical emergency.
Two weeks ago the Government finally released the Gonski Review into school funding in Australia, which recommended an extra $5 billion in funding for schools.
It does not take four years to reach the conclusion that more money could go to schools.
Adequate funding for schools will improve the opportunities for future generations of Australians.
The reason I find Labor’s current upheaval so distressing is that it means that no political party is out there arguing for workers’ rights, a strong safety net and investment in public assets.
Instead a vacuum has been created which is being filled by business groups who want to run an anti-union and anti-worker line.
There are many business leaders who are happy to work within the current system, but they are drowned out by a concerted attack on Labor’s reforms, on unions and on the Australian workforce.
We had Toyota’s Max Yasuda complaining that 30 per cent of his workforce was taking sickies – if true (and I am sceptical) surely more of a reflection on Toyota’s staff management than on workplace laws.
We had Transport and Tourism Forum chief executive John Lee saying that Australians “don’t want to get out there and clean toilets or serve people because they think that is all beneath them”. Tell that to the thousands of Australians working minimum wage jobs in hospitality.
Don Meij from Domino’s Pizza complaining that a delivery driver was earning a lavish $160 for an eight-hour shift – at a time when Domino’s is being investigated for underpaying its workers.
These are just concrete examples of the broader efforts by groups that want miners to pay less tax, banks to make bigger profits and for the workplace “flexibility” that is code for forcing workers to work longer hours.
The simple premise of these business groups is that what is good for their profits is good for Australia. Forget fairness, forget work/life balance just look at the bottom line.
Business has a right to put its views, but we need a government with the strength to stand up to the pressures imposed by the big end of town and make decisions that are genuinely in the national interest.
Labor’s internal squabbling has been damaging for the party. But my biggest fear is that it will end up damaging Australia by handing us a Tony Abbott Government.
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