Fighting Howard

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

By Dick Nichols

The Sydney Morning Herald calls it the "return of the rally", the wave of anti-Howard actions that have convulsed politics over the last three months. But while the Herald writers look for clever explanations for this "sea-change in political culture" those who are taking part know exactly why they're taking to the streets.

They're angry: angry at being deceived by a government that promised no-one would be worse off, and angry at attacks that will leave hundreds of thousands of Australians much worse off.

As each day brings a new broken promise or another piece of clownish kite-flying by treasurer Peter Costello, the number of workers, students, environmentalists and ABC and Telstra supporters who are prepared to protest keeps increasing.

The saying that most captures the feeling of all these rallies is, "Howard has no mandate". He has no mandate to mutilate the ABC; no mandate to privatise Telstra; no mandate to slash education funding; no mandate to expand uranium mining; and no mandate to undermine worker and union rights.

Picking and choosing

But, if the Howard government has no mandate for what amounts to the implementation of Fightback! minus a GST, what is to be done? When we listen to our leaders for an answer, what do we hear?

Labor supporters waiting for a lead from Kim Beazley will hear that the ALP is still making up its mind about which cuts it might oppose and which accept: the furthest thought from the minds of the former government is that they should reject all cuts outright.

Labor is working out its own list of "outrageous" and "acceptable" cuts. "Outrageous" cuts are to be rejected. They are those which Labor judges have produced most anger, and hence most political mileage for those who oppose them. If Howard and Costello insist on these and the resulting deadlock produces a double dissolution, well and good — the ALP could go to the polls grandstanding as a defender, say, of vital public services like Telstra and the ABC.

"Acceptable" cuts are the ALP's chance to show that it remains a "responsible" party of government. Airport privatisation? Of course, so long as the Coalition abides by the cross-ownership rules which Labor in government drew up. Increased indirect taxes? No worries: there won't be 30,000 people in the Sydney Domain demonstrating against these.

The ALP supporter will be wait in vain for a clear definition of what distinguishes "outrageous" from "acceptable" cuts. Beazley and Co don't want to be caught out supporting cuts that actually enrage a lot of people, especially with the rival Democrats anxious to beat them to any new anti-Howard protest wave.

So, expect a lot of huffing and puffing and artificial fury about cuts the ALP judges to be "outrageous": but also expect lots of behind-the-scenes horse-trading with Howard and Costello over cuts which everyone knows Labor itself would have implemented if it had won the last election.

The unions

What of the unions and the ACTU? Faced with industrial legislation which will, if passed, seriously undermine the social and political role of the union movement, the unions have called mass rallies for August 19, the day before the budget is brought down. All the evidence shows that these rallies will be the culminating point of the first wave of protest against Howard: the demands raised will extend well beyond industrial relations legislation, and unionists will be joined by students, welfare and community groups and many other victims of Howard's attacks.

However, even the biggest possible rallies on August 19 won't stop Howard. At best, they might persuade the Democrats to sharpen up their wavering and half-hearted opposition to aspects of Reith's industrial relations bill, although without a continuing campaign of pressure, even that result is unlikely. A lot of the Democrats' small business base likes anti-union measures, such as Reith's top-secret "Australian Workplace Agreements".

Moreover, clear signs are already emerging that the ACTU has no strategy of opposition to Howard beyond August 19. Despite the fact that masses of workers feel that Howard has no mandate for his cuts, the ACTU shows no sign of desiring the removal of Howard's government of liars.

This emerged clearly at the Newcastle Trades Hall Council rally on July 31. The audience was treated to a lot of militant anti-Howard rhetoric from leaders who had been quiet as church mice during the years of the Accord. ACTU leader Jenny George stirred up the crowd with a dramatic speeches about the threats to living standards and workers rights; and everyone was urged to defend the gains their forebears had won through generations of struggle.

But with what strategy? No-one breathed a word about industrial action. The resolution that was rushed through without discussion at the end of the meeting contained only one specific proposal: "To lobby the Senate minor parties to oppose the legislation".

The resolution also contained the revealing little phrase that the "government has [no] mandate to implement its industrial legislation in its current form" (emphasis added). Clearly the ACTU is trying to give itself as much room as possible to manoeuvre for a compromise deal.

The lost resolutions

For the ACTU strategists, August 19 is being viewed as the last and best shot in their campaign against Reith. And even August 19 isn't being built anywhere near as well as it might. There is, for example, the fascinating case of the disappearing resolutions. These have been passed at various levels within unions, at cross-union delegates meetings and by some trades and labour councils.

Yet, as recently as two weeks ago Jenny George, addressing a meeting of Canberra unionists, stated that she hadn't received any request from any union for an ACTU-called stoppage on August 19. At the July 31 Newcastle rally, workers who called for an August 19 strike were told that this lay beyond the jurisdiction of the meeting.

ACTU plans for action beyond August 19 are very hard to find, a not surprising fact given that the real state of mind among most union leaders is that we're stuck with a Coalition government and we'll just have to work out ways to survive the next three years. This is already the "word" emerging from union inner sanctums. A recent meeting of Australian Education Union delegates in Melbourne heard Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard concede that the industrial relations bill can't be defeated.

Kennett all over again?

As an agreement between the ACTU and the ALP in government, the Accord is dead. But an "accord" still exists as an understanding between the ACTU and the ALP in opposition: it's that the unions will fashion their anti-Howard strategy in a way that, at the very least, doesn't clash with the ALP's view of its electoral needs.

This is the case even though this approach was tried and found wanting in Victoria. Not only did it fail to stop Jeff Kennett's attacks, but precisely because it failed, it also guaranteed Kennett, and not Labor, success at the following election.

Australia's union movement still has the industrial strength to stop Howard's attacks on our living standards. The popular anger is there; the will to fight is there; and a successful fight against Howard, based on a campaign of ongoing industrial action and all-round exposure of his lies, would give the ALP its best chance of re-election at the next poll.

But the last outcome Beazley and Co want is an ALP government brought to power on the crest of a successful anti-Howard mobilisation. Such a scenario would drastically reduce Labor's ability to continue implementing the policies of deregulation, privatisation and cutbacks it pursued in government.

For Her Majesty's Opposition, it's far better to let Howard wear out his welcome with the electorate in the normal way. And Australia's union movement, which is supposedly charged with the defence of workers' needs, shows every sign of going along for the ride.

Are they fighting Howard — or just kidding?
[Dick Nichols is the industrial relations spokesperson of the Democratic Socialist Party.]