Rewriting history

November 30, 2007

"It's time for a new page to be written in our nation's history" — Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd, November 24.

In the lead-up to the federal election, tens of thousands of ordinary Australians mobilised in a concerted campaign to change a government.

Yet, as soon as that victory was achieved, their efforts were all but ignored by, not just vast swathes of the media, but also by the ultimate beneficiaries, the incoming government.

The strength of the Your Rights At Work (YRAW) campaign was acknowledged by the defeated Liberal Party. The party's federal director, Brian Loughnane, told media on November 25 that Work Choices had cost the Coalition key support, a statement echoed by Liberal MP and campaign spokesperson Andrew Robb. ALP campaign director Tim Gartrell described Work Choices as "the most important issue of the campaign".

"I mean look at these young guys at the gate — you'd have been dragging them in here to vote last time", commented Graham Perrett, ALP candidate for Moreton, while visiting a polling booth on election day. "This time they're here handing out cards on the rights at work issue."

In the marginal seat of Eden-Monaro big swings were recorded in communities west of the great divide where Work Choices was seen as a threat.

Polling done for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) showed a 5.7% shift from the Howard government to Labor motivated by industrial relations as the key issue.

None of this would have happened without a concerted grass roots campaign, which included the ACTU gathering an email database of 180,000 addresses, from which a popular, localised word-of-mouth campaign spread.

For over two years, the YRAW campaign beavered away in 24 targeted Coalition-held seats. Whether leafleting, letterboxing, doorknocking, forwarding emails, holding a street stall or collecting signatures, an army of campaigners braved everything from Darwin's tropical storms to the snows of the Great Dividing Range to make sure that the impact of Work Choices became issue #1 across a vast swathe of middle Australians in marginal seats.

The YRAW bumper stickers, T-shirts and house signs became ubiquitous. These people were shifting voter sentiment where it mattered. Some media dismissed it as a cynical trade union scare campaign, or at best as a stunt. The rest ignored it.

But the people involved in the campaign came from an extraordinary array of union and non-union backgrounds. There were the usual suspects, but there were many more who became involved in a community campaign for the first time in their lives.

Many of these people took to it with a gusto lacking in the rank and file of both major parties. This is a newly politicised group of Australians, and they threw up some amazing champions.

One such example was Jo Jacobson, an articulate and savvy health worker who became the public face of the opposition to Work Choices in the Penrith-centred seat of Lindsay long before the ALP had even settled on a candidate.

Many campaigners took to one-on-one conversations with their peers. In marginal Macquarie, a ripped-off hotel worker named Steve Eisenberger made a habit of wearing his Your Rights At Work T-shirt around his blue-collar mates — winning over a small coterie who had previously backed Howard over what are euphemistically referred to as "security" issues.

There were thousands of Steve Eisenburgers operating across all sorts of groups — social, sporting, civic and cultural — to get the message out.

The word-of-mouth message cut through to an increasing number of Australians while John Howard and Workplace Authority head Barbara Bennett remained as background white noise, drowned out by the wise words of their YRAW neighbour and their own experiences.

Despite (or possibly because of) widespread support, many YRAW signs were stolen or defaced, as well as threats and acts of vandalism being aimed at YRAW activists.

Still, the thousands of volunteers didn't complain — instead they handed out their own how-to-vote cards on election day, separate from the major parties — in the rain, the sun, the heat, the wind. They made sure that Work Choices was on the forefront of voter's minds where it mattered.

Of the 24 targeted Coalition-held seats, the ALP won 20 and three are currently too close to call.

It's an extraordinary achievement by anyone's reckoning — so where is the acknowledgement to these Australians by either the media or the man holding the trophy, Rudd?

There was no direct mention of either Work Choices or the YRAW campaign in the Hawker-Brittonesque phaff that passed as Rudd's acceptance speech.

Not much of a run in the media either. A bit of a go in the Fairfax press, with Andrew West providing a bit of background in the Sydney Morning Herald and a puff piece on the ACTU's spin-doctors in the Age, while Mark Bahnisch and Wayne Errington at Crikey both nominated Work Choices as a killer issue for the Coalition.

The last time a prime minister lost his seat (Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929) it was to the secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall — a foretaste of a YRAW campaign from 80 years ago. One of the key issues was Bruce's dream of smashing the union movement and regulated working arrangements based on fairness. Australia said no to individual contracts in droves, and there was a landslide win for Labor.

The Rudd government will now be faced with a plethora of conflicting policy objectives — one of which will be to drive down the price of labour.

As early as November 25, Australian Business Council head Greg Bailey dismissed "fears" the union movement may hold sway over a Rudd government. Over at Forbes Magazine, ComSec chief equities economist Craig James said the Australian business community had been prepared for a Labor victory. "In terms of economic policy, nothing really changes too much", said James.

"I hate to say it, but [Peter] Costello was right when he said the new government will start rewriting history", Unions NSW secretary John Robertson told the November 26 SMH. "It's already begun and Rudd and company are out there saying it was health or education or climate change. Sure, it was a bit of all those, but the biggest issue was Work Choices."

I got a nice email from the ACTU's Sharan Burrow and Jeff Lawrence for my support for the YRAW campaign. "Well done", it said. "You have helped make history."

Yes, Rudd and the media appear to want to write a new page in Australia's history — as if the tens of thousands of ordinary, hard-working Australians, who banded together as the YRAW campaign and changed a government, never existed. But after the success of our campaign so far, we are highly unlikely to go away.

[Phil Doyle is a member of the Upper Blue Mountains Rights At Work campaign. Developments with this story, and others, can be found at]

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