Priority issues

Doug Cameron

I would like to comment on two issues of significance to Australia's working-class: the future of the Australian trade union movement and the future of the Australian Labor Party.

Let me first attempt to set the context. The re-election of the Howard government for a fourth term provides conservative forces in this country with an opportunity to cement undemocratic and authoritarian social structures for many years to come. The government's control of the Senate provides conservatives with a free hand to shape and control the political and social direction of this country without any political checks and balances.

Progressive forces will be faced with a legislative and social onslaught designed to take this country back to the unfettered operation of the market, in the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of the majority of the Australian population. Following a brief period of election optimism, the Australian Labor Party has found itself in abject disarray, and without core values that differentiate it from the Conservatives. Corporate globalisation based on the expansion of American financial, political and social influence, is rampant.

Let me first deal with the existing legacy of three terms of Howard government.We have moved rapidly to a market-based society with only remnants of the social contract intact. As Godfrey Hodgson states in his recent book More Equal Than Others, America, (and, in my view, Australia):

"Is hardly the shining idle portrayed by advertising or ideology, but rather an intricate pattern in which four ambiguous strands predominate:

  • The emergence of the suburb, segregated by income, as the typical American habitat;
  • The coronation of corporate power;
  • The pervasive influence of both advertising and news media, themselves largely in the service of the corporate elite and its interests and beliefs;
  • And the consequent slide towards a society horizontally divided by money and education into increasingly unequal social classes"

Howard's sycophantic "negotiation" of a so-called Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and the Labor Party's capitulation on this issue, means that Hodgson's analysis of United States will become Australia's reality. The AMWU recently funded a project by the Human Rights Council of Australia entitled "Australian Democracy, Challenging the rise of Contemporary Authoritarianism." This project, which was completed in mid-2004, identified a number of characteristics and key shifts that are taking place within Australian democracy. The project identified:

  • The collapse of formal reconciliation efforts;
  • The open assault on the rights of asylum seekers;
  • A series of attacks on the independence and integrity of the judicial system;
  • The politicisation of the public service;
  • The lack of ministerial responsibility and accountability;
  • The undermining of our public broadcaster;
  • A dramatic erosion of our civil liberties under the guise of antiterrorism measures;
  • And the assault on non-government advocates as pointing to an emerging pattern of government behaviour that they identified as "a creeping authoritarianism."

The new government authoritarianism is characterised by creating a political climate dominated by fear, insecurity and division; the de-legitimising of dissent; limiting the capacity of "other voices"; controlling access to and the use of information; and co-opting or coercing potential dissenters. The report analyses this dramatic shift in the context of six distinct areas:

  • Key Democratic institutions
  • Government authorities and agencies
  • Government's relationship with the non-government sector
  • The state and the individual
  • The demise of international citizenship
  • Characteristics of the new authoritarianism

In pointing to a way forward the Human Rights Council identified some strategies for action;

  • Challenging our elected representatives more: bringing our concerns and relevant information to their direct attention;
  • Becoming more informed and vocal in the public discourse from talkback radio to the workplace;
  • Encouraging and supporting Non Government Organisations to consider these issues, and review their own circumstances and practices;
  • Ensuring we are more inclusive, regardless of political orientation, education or economic circumstances;
  • Seizing this opportunity to take a longer term view, including support for an Australian Bill of Rights particularly an agreed set of national values.

In my view, the issues raised in this report must be taken up by the trade union movement, non-government organisations, and the Left of the Labor Party. I now want to turn to the Australian Labor Party.

The trade union movement, and Australians who reject the authoritarian and divisive policies of the conservatives, are entitled to a more mature, professional and courageous response to the election loss from individual Labor politicians and the party as a whole. The spectacle of Labor politicians supposedly elected to present a differing point of view to conservatism, descend into a public and private orgy of recrimination, backstabbing and personal vilification is unacceptable. Labor supporters deserve better and, should be demanding better!

Mark Latham inherited a leadership position which has been plagued by years of small target policy and a focus on internal structures. Now:

  • Labor must unite!
  • Labor must develop the courage of its own convictions and not be "wedged" by the Howard government on what should the issues of principle and values.
  • Labor must reject further convergence with conservative principles and values.
  • Labor must reconnect with its core support base and abandon the idea that support for "contractors" and "entrepreneurs" at the expense of the trade union movement will lead to electoral success.
  • Labor must reject further changes to the industrial relations system designed to weaken the capacity of the trade union movement to protect and the advance the interests of its members.
  • Labor must regain its brand.
  • Labor must differentiate itself from Conservative policy.
  • Labor must develop policies that provide the public with a real choice, the policies must be properly articulated and be in the public arena for an appropriate time.
  • Labor must not abandon key policies on Education and Health but must supplement them with progressive policies in a range of other areas.
  • Labor must accept that some of policies implemented under the Hawke/Keating era caused hardship and dislocation for many working-class families, especially policies on interest rates and globalisation.
  • Finally, Labor must not become a pale imitation of the conservatives.

It is interesting to note that from 1894 to 1896 the name of the Labor Party in Victoria was the United Liberal and Labor Party; I hope history is not repeating itself at the federal level!

The Australian trade union movement is facing similar but even more urgent challenges to that of the Australian Labor Party. When the conservatives gain control of the Senate there is no doubt that a whole range of legislation will be implemented designed to destroy the effectiveness of the trade union movement in this country.

We will need strong political, industrial and community opposition to the attempts to destroy workers capacity to bargain collectively. There will be no purpose in attempting to imitate Labor's small target strategy in the industrial arena. There will be no purpose in attempting to sacrifice members' wages and conditions in the face of the legislative onslaught. Workers do not need a union to sacrifice their wages and conditions. There will be no purpose in abandoning campaigns designed to improve workers wages and conditions. There will be no purpose in attempting to develop false partnerships with employers. There will be no purpose in embarking on mindlessly militant campaigns based on adventurism and culminating in defeat.

The trade union movement has no other option but to fight back against attacks on its members' wages and conditions. We must keep in mind the lessons of the political and industrial defeats inflicted upon the trade union movement during its growth period of the 1890s.We must also keep in mind the lessons of the Penal Provisions inflicted on the trade union movement by both Labor and Liberal governments.

In my view, the trade union movement must develop collective strategies and plans to promote wages and conditions under the most hostile of industrial environments, resist struggling on too wide a front, and must be prepared for a long struggle.

We must not underestimate the organisation, power and ruthlessness of the conservative forces including employer organisations and individual employers. We must guard against the state combing public opinion against strikes. We must develop solidarity and support within and between unions and the community. We must ensure that we have sufficient financial reserves to fund the fight back against the conservative agenda.


Doug Cameron is National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union. This is an edited version of a speech he presented on 9 December 2004.


Suggested citation
Cameron, Doug, 'Priority issues', Evatt Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2005.<http://evatt.org.au/news/priority-issues.html>