Learning from Howard's forerunners


Altered States: the regional impact of free market policies on the Australian states
Edited by John Spoehr and Ray Broomhill
CLS Research Paper Series No 4, December 1995
In association with the Social Justice Research Foundation
Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg

The spate of attacks on working and unemployed people since the election of the Coalition government bring an alarming sense of deja vu for those of us living and struggling under state Liberal governments. The undermining of the industrial relations system and particularly trade unions, the massive slashing of jobs from the public sector and the "unexpected discovery" of a large debt in the economy are all part of the hue and cry that followed state Liberal election victories.

Altered States provides a detailed analysis of the impact of free market economics and the particular experiences of Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia since the election of Liberal governments. The book evaluates the neo-liberal agenda from an international perspective, including the spread of privatisation and contracting out, and the significant changes to industrial relations that have been influenced by globalisation.

Enterprise bargaining specifically comes under the microscope, in contributions by Tom McDonald, Brad Pagnell and Michael O'Donnell.

Editors Broomhill and Spoehr don't allow the previous Labor governments to get off the hook. They acknowledge that throughout the 1980s federal and state Labor adopted policies reflecting free market ideology.

They suggest, however, that "Fightback represented the first real unfurling of the full neo liberal agenda in Australia". We are now witnessing Coalition attempts to implement the industrial and privatisation intent of the Fightback package — public sector cutbacks, replacing the centralised wage fixing system with individual contracts and a user pays philosophy. The states have all had a form of audit commission imposed upon them; now the Coalition is bringing out the same weapon to support its slash and burn approach to welfare expenditure.

Several chapters provide extensive detail about the content and method of implementation of the industrial relations agenda. The similarities in the content and direction of the legislation demonstrate a clear political drive to weaken the role of unions in defending workers conditions through the award system.

Equally enlightening are the parallels in the methods used to challenge the proposed changes. The Trades and Labour Councils ran campaigns of awareness raising, but focused most energy on making submissions to amend the worst parts of the legislation. Victoria organised some industrial action, and WA had a more concerted campaign. Russell Bancroft points out, in the chapter on Victoria, that the main lesson was the importance of united community and union action.

Tom McDonald's bleak view of the introduction of enterprise bargaining denies the bankrupt role of the labour movement bureaucracy in capitulating to the needs of big business. McDonald suggests that the days of collective bargaining are probably gone forever because "... the economic recession and high unemployment and increasing international competition have forced trade unions and workers to accept the need for enterprise bargaining which involves restructuring, job shedding and wage moderation".

He claims that enterprise bargaining provides an opportunity to rejuvenate the union movement and improve democracy. EB, he claims, offers the scope to involve workers at the local level, where decisions about wages and conditions will now be made, in contrast to the Accord. McDonald fails to recognise that the Accord, which he was instrumental in designing, has produced the legacy of distrust in the union movement that allowed EB and now Liberal/Coalition governments to undermine working conditions.

The current attacks by the new federal government offer the labour movement a chance to draw on the state experiences. Each state now has severely regressive IR legislation, but none of the writers offer concrete suggestions about other tactics the unions could have implemented.

If we are to defeat the Howard government, awareness raising about the implications of the proposed changes will be necessary, but we need more than glossy leaflets or expensive TV advertising. Rejuvenating the union movement requires organising through work-site meetings and then membership meetings that bring people together across workplaces and sectors.

The rallies of 150,000 in Victoria demonstrated that workers are willing to take action, but they can't be turned off and on like a tap. Workers need to relearn the tradition of industrial action and solidarity which the Accord years eroded.