Howard's defeat: worth fighting for


That opinion poll results, released on September 18, showing the Howard government trailing the ALP opposition by 10% were widely reported as good news for the federal government is an indication of the dire straits that the Liberal-National Coalition is in. While these figures do represent a comeback from those of the previous week, which had the Coalition 18% behind the ALP, the government has consistently been more than 10% behind the opposition all year.

There are other indications that the Howard regime has lost its electoral appeal. The public scepticism over the government's takeover of Northern Territory Indigenous communities and the backlash against the unjust imprisonment of Dr Mohamed Haneef in July (under "anti-terror" and immigration laws) show that racist "wedge politics" are no longer an electoral magic bullet for the government.

A likely reason why Australian voters are less inclined to believe PM John Howard's lies was indicated in the results of another poll, released by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on September 20. In this poll, 65% of respondents said that they thought that not only was the government's $93 million advertising campaign to sell its Work Choices industrial relations laws a waste of money, the ads made them less likely to vote for Howard! The same poll also showed that anti-union advertising by big business groups was enjoying a similar lack of success.

While advertising can be powerful, it cannot negate people's own direct experience. Since the laws were introduced average wages have dropped by 0.6% when inflation is factored in. For women workers in the private sector, wages have dropped by 1.8%: Work Choices has increased the gap between women's and men's wages to levels not seen since 1978. The laws have seen 1000 workers a day moved onto Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts). Workers on AWAs earn on average $0.90 an hour less than those covered by collective agreements and work longer hours. According to a Galaxy poll in the December 31, 2006 Sunday Telegraph, by the end of 2006 41% of Australians had been, or knew someone who had been, negatively affected by Work Choices.

The government may have been hoping that the non-unionised majority of the work force would be susceptible to fearmongering about burly union thugs. However, it is non-unionised workers who have been most negatively affected by the laws. A University of Sydney study [see article page 11] has revealed that wages and conditions for workers in the retail and hospitality industries covered by union collective agreements are generally better than those under non-union collective agreements. Moreover, many of the agreements examined stripped workers of conditions such as weekend penalty rates, overtime rates, public holiday rates and paid breaks. Government advertising singled out all these conditions as "protected by law"!

Mass mobilisations endorsed by the ACTU have been important in galvanising opposition to Work Choices. However, as a likely ALP election victory draws closer, the ACTU's focus has seen rights at work increasingly change from being "worth fighting for" to "worth voting for". The contradiction in this is that, under Rudd, the ALP's "me too" tactic of mirroring Howard has not only meant support for the racist NT intervention and the frame-up of Haneef, but a policy of largely renaming, rather than "ripping up", Work Choices.

This has led to debates within the union movement over the election. The September 17 Australian reported that Unions NSW secretary John Robertson was advocating that the unions' marginal seats campaign should include a Senate how-to-vote card suggesting a vote for either the ALP or the Greens.

Greens industrial relations spokesperson, Senator Rachel Siewert, told Green Left Weekly that the "ALP back-down has given our policies oxygen". She pointed to the Greens' opposition to individual contracts, unfair dismissal and the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and their support for the right of entry to workplaces by union officials and the right to strike as evidence that the Greens were more consistently opposed to Work Choices than the ALP.

While accusing the ALP of backing down at the behest of big business she said that "obviously their policy is still better than [that of the current] government. We know there needs to be a change of government". She added that she couldn't imagine Greens candidates preferencing the Liberals.

Susan Price, a NSW Senate candidate for the Socialist Alliance and an activist in the National Tertiary Education Union, agreed that the question of preferences was important. "If Howard is re-elected, it will be hailed by the bosses as a mandate for Work Choices and we should expect further anti-worker attacks", she told GLW. "Howard is on the ropes, but if one thing can save him it is Rudd and the ALP refusing to actually oppose his anti-social agenda. I also hope that the ALP will not repeat its opportunist preference deals from the 2004 Federal election, which saw the religious Family First Party gain a Senate seat in Victoria despite getting fewer votes than the Greens."

"Working people need a clear alternative in this election", Price said. "The Socialist Alliance stands for repealing all the anti-worker laws introduced by Howard during his 11 years in power. We stand for unions doing what unions should: standing up for workers. Regardless of whether we have a Rudd government or another three years of Howard and Costello, our rights at work are going to have to be fought for. And we need a serious campaign in the lead-up to and beyond the next election to do so."