Elections, corporate media and anti-union consensus

November 16, 2007

During the federal election campaign, the corporate media has transmitted an implicit condemnation of trade unionism and an implicit endorsement of the neo-liberal ideas promoted by organisations like the H.R. Nicholls Society. Ignoring the Liberal Party's well-established links to these extremist anti-union forces, the media has instead decided to emphasise Labor's union connections. This selectivity is yet another example of the corporate propaganda filter through which news passes to reach the public.

With the reactionary Howard government desperately beating up the anti-union scare drum, the right-leaning Australian Labor Party under Kevin Rudd has also sought to distance itself from the principle of collective bargaining. Despite appealing to voters by promising to soften Howard's hardline industrial relations reforms, Rudd — the self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative" — has refused to promote the growth of progressive trade unionism in Australian society. Nor have any of Rudd's shadow ministers come out swinging to declare themselves "proud to be union" during the election campaign. Shadow finance minister Lindsay Tanner's recent response to workplace relations minister Joe Hockey's usual ranting about "union bosses" was typical: "It's nearly 15 years since I was a union official and I'm long past the role that I played then". An air of contrition, it seems, is the appropriate posture for Labor figures with a union past. Labor's cautious, shame-faced attitude is a reflection of the neoliberal consensus generated by the corporate media, which maintains pressure on the ALP by devoting considerable attention to that party's historic union links. At the same time, the media effectively filters out the Liberals' direct affiliation with elitist think-tanks whose explicit aim has been to effect a radical transformation of Australia's industrial relations system.

Whereas it is commonplace for the media to consider the implications of union influence under a future Labor government, it is exceedingly rare for Liberal ministers to face any scrutiny about their membership of pro-corporate front groups. When it was revealed in March last year that finance minister Nick Minchin had been recorded delivering a radically anti-democratic speech to the assembled brethren of the H.R. Nicholls Society, the story created a brief sensation but was quickly dropped as a serious story worthy of further elaboration. By contrast, the union background of various members of Labor's shadow cabinet has developed into a recurrent election campaign motif for corporate tabloids and broadsheets alike.

"The mass media", as Herman and Chomsky observe in Manufacturing Consent, "serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace". Mainstream journalists, operating within the constraints of a corporate propaganda model, "filter out the news fit to print, marginalise dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public". These insights apply to all countries where the supposedly "free" media are characterised by concentrated private ownership. Australia is no exception. Few Western countries endure a more narrow control of print media than Australia, where Murdoch's News Corporation and John Fairfax Holdings control virtually every major daily newspaper. Other forms of media exhibit similar patterns of corporate domination. A systematic neoliberal propaganda campaign has been the inevitable result of this media concentration, leading in turn to a radical rightward shift in Australian political discourse.

The vilification of the Australian labour movement is a case in point. After a long campaign, it seems that the anti-union message has now been effectively communicated to the Australian populace. This campaign began in the late 1970s, when neoliberal ideologues all over the Western world embarked on a relentless union-smashing crusade. In Australia, where the resurgent right was keen to emulate the stirring British and American example of plummeting labour costs and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, a series of inter-related lobby groups and corporate-funded think-tanks were established. With wage-fixing and collective bargaining standing in the way of neoliberal reform, the unions were targeted for elimination. By infiltrating the media, the Australian proponents of the Thatcher-Reagan program were able to achieve centre-stage respectability for their radical agenda.

John Howard and Peter Costello were key instigators of this campaign during the 1980s. In a 1983 speech to National Press Club, Howard railed against the mandated minimum wage and called for industrial relations reform that would turn "Higgins on its head". Two years later, having made his reputation as a union-busting corporate barrister, Costello played a leading role in founding the H.R. Nicholls Society. The society was named after a Tasmanian newspaper editor and right-wing folk hero who achieved notoriety for attacking the basic wage principle established by Justice Higgins in the Harvester Judgement of 1907. Working in concert with other neoliberal groups like the Sydney Institute, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Tasman Institute, the H.R. Nicholls Society has relentlessly lobbied to discredit trade unions in a bid to restore unfettered control of the workplace to employers. In addition to Costello, various past and present members of Howard's front bench have been closely associated with the H.R. Nicholls Society, including health minister Tony Abbot and immigration and citizenship minister Kevin Andrews.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this relationship between the Howard government and powerful elite interests is the almost complete absence of commentary in the corporate media. This conspiratorial obfuscation is immensely disturbing, but not particularly surprising — for such is the role of the corporate media in ostensibly democratic societies, where a class war pitting corporate wealth and power against the interests of working people is the defining feature of our times.

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