Sally McManus On Fairness and why it matters in Changing the Rules: Part 2

Nicholas McCallum

Some right-wing politicians and commentators hope to divide and exploit us. Here's how we can stay together and Change the Government. 

Since stepping into the role in March 2017, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus has spent a lot of time criss-crossing the country on long tours to meet with workers and trade unionists.

In February, she was travelling about Australia and meeting unionists for a different tour – a book tour.

Sally’s book On Fairness explores the history of the fight for equality in the workplace and Australian society, explaining what it means to live in “the land of the fair go” and how Australia’s labour movement gave birth to the concept.

“The first recorded usage of the term ‘fair go’ is on page five of the Brisbane Courier, 25 March 1891, in the context of the brutal shearers’ strike that took place that year,” writes Sally in the book now in its second print-run.

“Banjo Patterson’s most famous work ‘Waltzing Matilda’ – in which a man who steals a sheep and commits suicide rather than be punished by an unjust law for the crime of feeding himself – is an allegory for the shearers’ strike.”

ETU NSW Organiser Mark Buttigieg and ACTU Secretary Sally McManus.

These stories have underpinned Australian egalitarianism, but as Sally explains they have been used by conservative politicians espousing Australian values while they embrace divisive rhetoric and neo-liberal economics – concepts anathema to fairness.

With the election fast approaching, we can expect many right-wing politicians and media commentators will incorporate these Australian legends into jingoist rhetoric, exploiting the imagery and concepts of Australian fairness to drive divisions.

READ PART 1 HERE: Sally McManus on what change the rules is all about: part 1

The best way for us to counteract this is to talk with friends and family about how we’re going to Change the Government so we Change the Rules. We must keep the conversation focused on low wage growth and high company profits.

“Australian needs a pay rise,” Sally said.

The 1891 shearers' strike.

“The economists are saying it too. They know the cost of living is rising and it’s getting harder for people to keep up when wages have flattened for six years.”

After years of neoliberal policies that have pushed for more privatisation, cut working people’s pay and seen corporate bosses take, the pendulum – and public opinion – is beginning to swing back in favour of workers.

“The Liberals are trying to make it all about power prices but it’s living costs almost across the board – housing, transport, gas – everything,” Sally said.


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“Power prices are dangerous territory for the Morrison Government given that their privatisation policies led to the electricity prices rises in the first place, but they just need a distraction from the fact that they have delivered six years of low wage growth and its hurting working people.”

In November, Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe admitted Australia’s flat wage growth over the past six years was harming workers and posed a threat to social cohesion, while an International Monetary Fund paper released in mid-2018 conceded deregulation of labour law had gone too far.

Even business rag Bloomberg admitted economic textbooks had been too dry in their dismissal of unions, conceding we’re in need of a “booster shot” of solidarity to address rising inequality.

Instead of fairness in Australia, since the 1970s we’ve had laws and economic policies written by the rich, for the long-term benefit of the rich while average workers have been victim to the spread of neoliberalism that has smashed wages, conditions and public ownership.

ETU members in the ultra-marginal seat of Corangamite, Victoria.

Wage stagnation, the rise of insecure work and the loss of workplace rights is seen across the world. It’s no coincidence that union membership has declined at the same time.

A Australian Parliamentary Library report recently noted that while the CEPU had fared better than many unions, density in Australia was in decline because “more flexible forms of employment has become firmly entrenched in some industries, while becoming more prevalent in others”.

That “flexibility” breeds detachment, isolation and division among workers. Those divisions, Sally said – be they financial, industrial, racial, or focused on sexuality and gender – are being exploited by corporations and conservative politicians, turning attention away from real problems of low pay and a broken industrial system.

“These young workers have grown up in a multi-cultural Australia, they work in multicultural workplaces,” Sally said.

“When their workplaces can be divided with some workers on lower pay with fewer rights and protections, this undermines wages and job security for everyone,” she said, pointing to the two million temporary visa workers currently in Australia.

Blaming the temporary visa workers won’t fix the problem. But some right-wing politicians are exploiting the situation for their own advantage – but not for the workers’ advantage. 

“When local workers have their job security and wages undermined by corporations using temporary visa workers, they become targets for groups like One Nation,” said Sally.

But Hanson and One Nation are no friends of the working class. They have consistently lined up with Morrison and Turnbull and the Liberal Party’s pro-business policies.

Pauline Hanson voted for trade deals and bills that reduce apprentice numbers, backing the anti-worker ABCC and the ROC. They’ve voted in favour of penalty rates cuts and against proper TAFE funding, and laws that would stop casual worker exploitation.

Theses same divisions are used to pit men against women, leading us into fights where only working people lose out. What’s really needed is for us to be focused on Changing the Rules of the broken system where rich segregate themselves from the rest of us.

While some Liberals deny the gender-pay gap exits, the LNP has boasted the gap has narrowed by 3% since it came to power, from 17% to 14%. But that’s nothing to brag about.

You can close the gap two ways – lift women’s wages or suppress men’s wages. The Liberals opted for the second option, reducing the gender pay gap thanks to their low wage policies.

That’s the Liberal-National way: one step forward, three steps back. But if we keep the conversation on matters of pay inequality and broken system, we keep the focus on our opponents and lessen the chances we divide and fight among ourselves.

That’s why it’s vital we keep the focus on the broken system that allows wages to stay flat while the cost of living goes up, along with profits and CEO pay.

We must stay united so we can Change the Government, then we will Change the Rules and put Fairness front and centre of Australian life again.


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