Let's get to it!

Australians want a fair country back
Sharan Burrow

Fairness, tolerance, 'a fair go' - these are the values Australia has always aspired to but they are now in contest. John Howard's government has legitimated the right to challenge the very core of our national dignity: a commitment to egalitarianism.

The standards of basic decency, progressively enshrined into legislation and social policy reflected the inherent generosity of spirit for which we were known - characterised in our language by the right to a 'fair go'. Despite being a much wealthier nation after twelve consecutive years of economic growth, or a massive 50 per cent increase in GDP, which of our families and neighbours believe we are a more generous nation than we were a decade ago?

  • Not the children in need of childcare forced to wait up to two years for a place;
  • Not the schoolchildren who go to school hungry yet their parents are asked to pay fees in public schools;
  • Not the young Australians who can't afford a university place;
  • Not our apprentices on lousy wages with no job security;
  • Not trained professionals starting work with a HECS debt larger than a home deposit;
  • Not women forced back to work within weeks, even days, after giving birth because they can't afford not to and don't have the minimum income security of paid maternity leave;
  • Not older workers made redundant who face the age discrimination that prevents them obtaining secure work;
  • Not the unemployed, all too often punished and penalised for being poor;
  • Not the families forced to pay three times to see a doctor because John Howard despises the universal nature of Medicare;
  • Not the elderly Australians seeking an affordable place in a quality nursing home; and
  • Certainly not asylum seekers locked behind barbed wire for the crime of desperately hoping for a better life in free country like Australia.

Is egalitarianism dead in Australia? Are the social guarantees of health, education, childcare and transport, the social wage, increasingly a romantic dream as we face the rise and rise of the user pays society? Is Australia a nation where we passively accept the widening inequality as we watch escalating corporate greed and simply blame the disadvantaged for their plight? Not on our watch comrades - these are not union values! This afternoon we will, in contrast, re-affirm union values because it is time to stake a claim for a fairer Australia. The more damage the Liberal-National coalition does to our social fabric the more political we must become in our fight to re-build the fair Australia we believe in. Union activists will not render disadvantage invisible; we will not give up the fight for social justice because:

1. We know that poverty does exist - 39.1 per cent of Australians over 16 years or 5.8 million people earn under $300 per week, and 21.1 per cent of Australian households, or more than 3.4 million people, earn under $400 per week with a further 1.3 million people or 7.5 per cent of households living on under $500 per week. How man politicians or CEOs could live on that? 15 per cent of all Australians living in poverty are dependent on wages for the income they receive - these people are workers and they are living in poverty in our nation; 750,000 children live in poverty in a rich nation. This is shameful.

2. We know that unemployment is devastating - long term unemployment is now endemic in Australia with more than 150,000 people who have little or no chance of securing decent work. Unemployment is officially claimed to be 6.2 per cent but if we add those who are underemployed the figure is around 12 per cent: 12 per cent of our nation who, with another 6 per cent - a shocking total of 18 per cent, live in poverty. For older workers who are unemployed it takes on average up to 96 weeks for them to secure work and then the majority will be relegated to low paid casual work. Unemployment and underemployment equal the death of optimism that individuals and families need to plan for, and secure, a decent life.

3. We know that that inequality is growing rapidly - With 87 per cent of all jobs established in the 1990s paying under $26,000 and 47 per cent of those paying less than $18,000, there is no doubt that inequality between the big end of town and working Australia is growing. The hotel worker is a poignant example. In 1976 a housemaid cleaning the hotel room of a visiting Australian CEO would earn around $122 a week. The CEO would have been earning five times the housemaid's pay at around $600 a week. Today the housemaid would be called a room attendant and earn about $473 a week. The visiting Aussie CEO whose room was being cleaned and polished could expect to bring in around $27,000 a week - that's more than 50 times the room attendant's pay. The hotel worker's job title may have changed to something a little less demeaning but the reality is that after a quarter of a century our traditional commitments to a fair go and fair wages have disappeared. The real relationships are less dignified than any change in titles might suggest.

If we needed statistical evidence to convince policy makers then on ABS figures published in July this year, the gini coefficient, which measures income distribution, shows a definite rise in income inequality over the second half of the 1990s, yet there is no evidence the Howard government cares. Australia is increasingly a divided nation between the haves and the have nots. Yet we know that there are solutions to these rips in our social fabric. Working Australians share the same dreams today as that of our parents and grandparents - a good education, a secure job with a decent wage, the capacity to buy your own home and a healthy and dignified retirement.

This is union business! It means just wages, job security, fair entitlements and a just universal social wage. It means that quality health, education, preschool and childcare are not just for the rich! We pay taxes for public education, public health, public transport, social security and we want more of our taxes used to repair the damage to social infrastructure and to put in place childcare entitlements. These guarantees along with infrastructure and nation building plans have first call on our tax dollars not:

  • the wasteful and inhumane $500 million spent on the pacific solution to hide refugees or tax cuts to multinational companies or their foreign CEOs;
  • not the $300m in subsidies to the nations wealthiest and most elite private schools or the billions in corporate welfare where no jobs are delivered;
  • not the $2.3 billion of private health rebate - a rebate that deprives our public hospitals of critical resources, a rebate that undermines a universal public health system , a rebate that is paid for from the taxes of too many working people who can't afford private health cover.

One of the greatest obscenities has to be the fact that low paid Australian families can wait years for dental treatment while their taxes contribute to a rebate for those fortunate enough to be able to afford ancillary benefits which make dental care more affordable for higher income earners. In a fair Australia, we believe in equal opportunity. There cannot be one set of opportunities for Australia's working families and another for the big end of town.

Fred Argy, one of Australia's more progressive economists, argues that Australia's distinctive egalitarian society is under threat. He reflects on the last couple of decades and suggests that, despite the ambitions of the 80s and 90s to strike the trifecta - an economic renaissance, a broad sharing of the productivity gains and a high level of social mobility with more equal opportunities - we are in fact a less egalitarian society that ever in our history.

This Congress is an opportunity for us to draw a line in the sand, to affirm our values and to fight for them. Much of the fairness that has traditionally characterised Australia has been driven by unions:

  • minimum wages
  • sick leave
  • annual leave
  • long service leave
  • equal pay for women
  • equal employment opportunity
  • unfair dismissal laws
  • superannuation
  • redundancy
  • maternity and carers leave
  • occupational health and safety
  • and much, much more.

Yet these very gains are being eroded or destroyed with no concern for the damage to our social fabric. John Howard has waited 3 decades to re-shape Australia and he will not rest until Fightback! is implemented. Remember Fightback!? That's right: the GST, the destruction of Medicare, the demise of public education and the abolition of awards, amongst other atrocities. There remain just a few obstacles in his path - unions (us), the sale of Telstra, community lobby groups, Medicare; the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme - but he is working on them.

What he cannot privatise, or destroy through the failed legislation pieces he is now storing up for a double dissolution, he will take funding away from or render unaffordable. Last month's example of the threat to take charitable status away from community groups who dare to lobby government for a change in direction while handing out $60m to business lobby groups is a blatant example of the growing disrespect for the very nature of a democratic society.

It appears that our democratic system of government is also being rendered powerless - our very standard of governance is being held up to ridicule with no consequence for political leaders involved. For a man who came to power typecast as 'honest John', promising to lead a government of the highest ethical standards, the lie imposed on the national psyche which depicted desperate people as shameless enough to throw their children overboard was indeed a shocking episode. The more recent deception in regard to the baseless evidence concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a dangerous example of lies and manipulation which threaten the integrity of our parliamentary democracy. Refusing to apologise last week for what appears to have been a deliberate play to mislead parliament over meeting with mates and propping up their business with taxpayers money just serves to underscore an arrogance of executive government where accountability is an impediment to be discarded.

Our reputation on the international stage is also shocking. At a time when many of the solutions to a decent future for the people of the world connect us Australia, traditionally seen as a progressive influence on international debates is now seen as a partisan player on the US team or a nation shutting shop on human rights. The rise and rise of militarism is frightening in a world where we had some optimism of a more thoughtful commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict and the winding back of weapons of mass destruction. No world can be secure if any nation has control of weapons with the potential to destroy billions of people and potentially the planet we live on.

The route to peaceful coexistence is respect and support for all cultures, religions and ethnicities underpinned by a global human rights framework. Violence must always be a last resort and then with clear and transparent motives about the plan for a better outcome for all involved. In the words of George Monbiot: "everything has been globalised except our consent. To undo the inequalities created by globalisation we must now use it as a vehicle for humanity's democratic revolution. A global democracy is needed because the world superpower has shown it has no respect for world institutions such as the UN. If democracy is such a good idea at the national level, why not at the international level?"

An increasing lack of independence in our foreign policy stance is a critical debate for Australia. Those who appropriate the Japanese horticultural term of bonsai, or little Bush for John Howard are too close to the mark for comfort . This friendship is not just shaping foreign policy but also driving the hasty pursuit of a US/Australia Free Trade Agreement. When trade becomes an extension of foreign policy irrespective of the winners and losers in both our respective nations then global governance is also placed at risk.

Global debates now backdrop most of the challenges we face and we are honoured to have such a significant group of international union leaders with us this week. I will introduce our guests to you this afternoon but let me particularly acknowledge Guy Ryder, the Secretary of the ICFTU on whose shoulders we have placed the impossible but essential task of strengthening our international efforts.The ACTU and Australian unions have always had a strong commitment to internationalism and never before have we had such strong commitment and direct participation of our own unions leaders as leaders of international union structures. We understand that the only way to defeat corporate globalisation is to establish a set of global rules or standards. Standards that regulate for human rights, labour standards and environmental protection in all facets of global development are necessary if we are to civilise the massive economies of the global corporates that have no statehood but rule too many of our states in the interest of corporate greed and not of people. We are honoured that each of you has taken the time out of gruelling schedules to be with us this week and look forward to your participation.

Comrades, this week we have serious work to do. We can make a difference and this is our chance to develop the plan of action. We have an alternative vision of a fairer working life and a fairer Australia We can achieve a better working life for casual employees, for low paid employees, for women , and for working families struggling to balance their work and family commitments, and for workers who as a group are too often marginalised from decent work.

This is the policy base you will debate and which will form our industrial priorities for the next three years. We have made significant progress on which we can build. In 2001 we were successful with the ACTU's Test Case giving casual workers access to parental leave. We have moved on to win the subsequent public debate for paid maternity leave, and if John Howard doesn't stand up to Tony Abott and Nick Minchin's misogyny then we will do what we have said, we will mount a test case on this fundamental right. It is incredible in 2003 that there is still such little respect for the economic and social contribution of women. With up to 40 per cent of family incomes being contributed by women, that they are denied a safety net of income security to enable them to have a child without the additional pressure of financial stress is appalling and we cannot stand for it.

I congratulate all those unions who have put this and family friendly provisions on the bargaining table and won. In the area of balancing work and family we have also made the case for change and have a test case in progress. At low cost or no cost, Australia's workplace could be transformed and productivity increase if we could lower family stress. With the right to request hours of work that might accommodate parents managing before and after school care or the right to purchase up to six weeks' additional leave whereby parents might spend some or all of the school holidays with their children, people's lives could be dramatically turned around. For the 67 per cent of working mothers who would prefer to work part time and the 40 per cent of working mothers in casual employment with not a day's entitlement to sick leave or holiday leave, the right to part time work with all the attendant benefits would simply make life possible. Along with the other provisions in our application, these measures will re-shape work/life choices for both men and women.

Some 82 per cent of all working Australians and 87 per cent of women have said work and family provisions are a key priority (ACTU Survey 2002) This is clearly a priority for us. This week you will debate the next steps in this campaign. We have started to turn back the long hours culture and must do more. With more than 1/3 of full time employees working more than 48 hours and 60 per cent of all overtime being unpaid the world of work is eating up people's lives.

In 2002 the Reasonable Hours Case resulted in the establishment of a new Award right for employees to refuse unreasonable overtime on grounds of health and safety and their family responsibilities. Unions are also using this right in bargaining and that is a great step forward. What we did not achieve was a recognition of dangerous working hours which remains outstanding business. In the 21st century we cannot lose ground on hours and I congratulate those unions, the CFMEU, the CEPU, the AMWU and other unions who have alternately championed the 36-hour week and/or established a cap on the working week. Likewise other unions have run campaigns on unpaid overtime and in particular the FSU's 'Take Back What's Yours' campaign serves to remind members that unpaid overtime, by any other name, exploitation, is not and has never been part of the bargain. The debate on strategies to move forward, including the case for a maximum working week of 48 hours inclusive of overtime, is scheduled for tomorrow but one thing is clear - a work life balance is only possible where decent hours are established and adhered to.

So unions are again leading the way for working families. We understand that people shape their world and working people will oppose the non-family friendly views of the male leadership of ACCI when they say codifying family issues in an award-based system would be ineffective. Barbara Pocock is right when she says we are on a work/care collision. If we let the employers and their mates in government win then we will be, as she describes it, a careless society. Good employers don't force employees to leave caring responsibilities for family and community at the door - all employers must heed the call for change as we shape a fairer Australia.

A fairer Australia also means decent laws and a decent social wage. This requires community and political campaigning. We will continue to be active at the national political level. Our achievements in lobbying to block the overwhelming bulk of the government's pernicious industrial legislation are significant. Just last week the government's attempt to further weaken unfair dismissal protections by taking over the States' jurisdictions was defeated in the Senate. We place great value on the Senate as a safeguard for working people. No wonder John Howard wants to strip away its powers. I want to congratulate and thank all the Senators from the ALP, the Greens, the Democrats and the independents who have protected working Australians from the worst excesses of Tony Abbott's ambition to take away their industrial rights.

The larger challenge is for us to step up our capacity to be active in and beyond the workplace. As advocates for change we need to be active at the local level, building alliances with other like-minded individuals, organisations and community representatives. We need to be more scientific in our local political activity to be effective in electorate campaigning. If we face a double dissolution election next year it will, in reality, be a referendum on the type of Australia we will be. We must be prepared. Double dissolution or not, the next federal election is critical for this government is not and will never be a friend of working Australians.

Australians know that public services - health, education, childcare, transport, are central to a decent life. In the polling we released this weekend, a huge 76 per cent of Australians said they supported spending more money on health and education before tax cuts. 71 per cent support access to bulk billing and 69 per cent of people would support an increase in the Medicare levy if it was the only way to preserve access to bulk billing for everyone.

People will fight for Medicare. We must fight for Medicare. The union movement worked with a labour government to build Medicare; we gave up wages to see it implemented and we support the Medicare levy. In fact the ACTU and the unions have always seen universal health care as a core component of the social wage and in 1976 we held a general strike in an effort to defend the original institution, Medibank. It was indeed my first strike as a beginning teacher. John Howard has always had a pathological hatred of Medicare - in 1997 he said bulk billing was a rort and would be dismantled! This is still his ambition. It is not acceptable that we divide Australia into a class system for health care and it is not acceptable that we pay three times, our taxes, the Medicare levy and now at the counter to see a doctor. Our message is clear: Hands off Medicare, John Howard!

It's time we advanced the political debate in this country away from a destructive hairy-chested debate about who can deliver the biggest tax cuts and onto a nation building contest about public health, public education, childcare, transport, industry, infrastructure and jobs. This is the contest that will advance a fairer Australia - this is the campaign that will be worth fighting - this is our campaign.

The government's shameful attack on Medicare and education will feature on Thursday and I hope you will all participate in the rally for higher education on Thursday lunchtime. Not only can't we stand by and watch working Australia's children excluded from university because they can't afford to pay but neither can we let our comrades in the higher education unions be forced on to AWA's because Tony Abott will only fund those universities additional money where the vice-chancellors will smash collective bargaining. The members of the NTEU, the CPSU and other higher educations unions will stand firm but our solidarity will help.

Finally, can I thank all the union leaders, officials and members with whom I have worked and learned from over the last thee years. Your friendship, trust and support have made the job very rewarding. The officers and staff at the ACTU are an extraordinary group of people committed to the work of the ACTU and the unions and I would like to thank them from all of us. In particular can I acknowledge Greg. Greg Combet is a great unionist with a passionate commitment to the cause of working people. He has already demonstrated remarkable leadership through some tough campaigns and with your endorsement this Congress we will continue to work together to pursue the priorities we establish this week.

Comrades, our nation is headed in the wrong direction but we can and will work to change that. Unions, with like-minded Australians, will campaign in our workplaces and our communities to get it back. The neo-cons cannot and will not win on our watch. A fairer working life! A fairer Australia - let's get to it! Solidarity!


Sharan Burrow is the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). This is her address of 18 August to ACTU Congress 2003. Visit the ACTU Congress site for all the major addresses.


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Suggested citation
Burrow, Sharan, 'Let's get to it!', Evatt Journal, Vol. 3, No. 5, August 2003.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/lets-get-it.html>