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Gillard, work and welfare


Protect workers' rightsA sense of malaise and uncertainty pervades the Australian political scene, with both major parties derided as bereft of ideas.

This was not always so: in the 1900s, prior to the advent of the two-party system, Australia was perceived as a testing-ground for experimental, egalitarian policies. As the historian John Rickard wrote in his biography of Justice Henry Higgins, the first President of the Arbitration Court, social experiments such as arbitration, the eight-hour day and old age pensions led to Australasia being dubbed 'the social laboratory of the world'.

Of course, this egalitarian vision had appalling flaws, including its exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Asian migrants. It should be noted, though, that the benefits of the Protectionist Deakin Government's reformist legislation went beyond the tangible; it spoke to the deeper needs of human beings within the capitalist system.

The 1907 Harvester decision exemplified this ideal: Higgins interpreted the expression 'fair and reasonable wage' to mean 'the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community'.

Although in rejecting John Howard's Work Choices regime at the 2007 election the nation reaffirmed its commitment to the rights of employees, Australia now seems a laboratory of a very different kind: there is a bipartisan commitment to the testing out of punitive welfare policies, particularly on Indigenous people. Sociologist Eva Cox has been a trenchant critic of the income management policies of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments, characterising 'the whole Northern Territory' as an 'experiment'.

The persistence of the emphasis on work from both sides of politics is also striking. Tony Abbott's language — including suggestions that long-term unemployed people be compelled to move to areas where unskilled work is available — seems a continuation of the rhetoric of the Howard and Costello era. It is Julia Gillard's approach that has attracted more commentary, precisely because it seems inconsistent with aspects of her party's history.

The journalist Brian Toohey noted that 'in emphasising hard work, Gillard never gives any hint that she values the labour movement's contribution to reducing working hours, starting with the eight-hour-day campaign in the 1850s'. Toohey further noted that despite the nominal 38 hour week, in July 2010 men in full-time jobs worked an average of 41 hours a week and women almost 36 hours, and that around 1.5 million people now work 50 or more hours a week.

The difficulty of combining work with family and other commitments has been addressed in limited fashion with the parental leave scheme but Howard's famous 'barbeque stopper' remains unsolved.

At the 2007 Federal election, Labor successfully asserted the primacy of familial life over 'workplace flexibility'. The omnipresent 'working families' slogan evoked Kevin Rudd's 2006 Monthly essays, where he argued that 'the impact of neo-liberalism cannot be effectively quarantined from its effect on the family'. Although many grew weary of its repetition, the slogan implied that we have an essential value beyond our labour — we are members of families and communities and our conditions of work must address our human needs as well as our employers' profit margins.

There was hope, then, that this government would take a more holistic view of the place of work in Australians' increasingly crowded lives and translate that view into innovative policy.

In her 2008 Quarterly Essay 'Love and Money', public intellectual Anne Manne persuasively critiqued what she termed the 'Get to Work neo-liberal program'. The essay catalogued market capitalism's destructive impacts on families and championed an ethic of care distinct from 'the work ethic', with its focus on a narrowly construed 'productivity'.

Manne suggested that Australian society found itself 'at an historic turning point in the relation between family and work', and found 'common ground' with 'Rudd's sense that we must create the social and economic foundations on which we can fulfil our responsibilities to others'.

The writer May Lam was more dubious, musing: 'I'd love to know how far Kevin 24/7 acknowledges the need for his staff and public servants to spend time with their families'. Given Gillard's fulsome praise of those who 'set their alarm clocks early' — not to spend time with their families, friends or neighbours but to increase the nation's productivity — Lam's scepticism seems well-founded.

Gillard's speech at the inaugural Whitlam oration was noted for her bald statements that 'we have moved beyond the days of big government and big welfare' and that Labor was 'the party of work not welfare'. These simplistic phrases are problematic — in the context of a globalised system with little regard for societal harmony, the national welfare state needs defenders. As the late historian Tony Judt wrote:

Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

Parties of the centre left are often reluctant to laud this legacy, as can be seen from Gillard's adoption of the language of the right. There are dangers in this timidity, as the achievements Judt mentions are always contingent and cannot be taken for granted. Praise for the dignity of work may also be taken to imply a corollary: that those who are not in paid employment — who care for children or relatives, who undertake volunteer work or who are incapable of working — cannot possess dignity.

The implication that all work is inherently rewarding also overlooks the role of social class in the modern economy. A journalist or politician may derive great status, satisfaction and meaning from his or work; a person who slaughters cattle in an abattoir may not. Those who romanticise the dignity of labour in the abstract often do so at a great distance from the less appealing specifics.

Further, as Overland editor Jeff Sparrow observed recently, 'too often, work's discussed simply as an end in itself, as if the main thing was to keep us all busy, irrespective of the purpose to which all that frantic activity is directed'. This focus elides the 'uncomfortable truth that not all production is actually productive'. Sparrow suggested: 'You can create as much work building nuclear missiles as by planting wheat, even though the world undeniably needs less of one and more of the other'.

Capitalism is above all amoral, demanding ever greater production and consumption without bothering overmuch about the nature of the goods or their societal impacts.

As the party of social democracy, it has historically been Labor's mission to moderate capitalism's impact on workers, and Gillard's 'alarm clock' rhetoric does not negate her government's support for workers' rights. As Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in the Rudd Government, Gillard was instrumental in overturning Work Choices and replacing it with the Fair Work Act 2009. The Coalition's attacks on the FWA have been somewhat muted due to its appreciation of the continuing unpopularity of Work Choices — a policy which Abbott has declared 'dead, buried, cremated'.

However, as journalist Bernard Keane noted recently, the 'labour market deregulationistas' in the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the commentariat have stubbornly continued to demand greater workplace 'flexibility' despite low unemployment rates and modest wage increases.

A campaign is building: journalist Geoff Kitney has suggested that Abbott's recent appeal to the mining industry to become 'political activists' is part of a 'broader strategy to create a powerful anti-Labor alliance between the conservative parties and the business community on a scale similar to that which worked to bring down the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s'.

Opponents of workplace regulation are well-resourced and powerful. In order to meet them head-on, the Government must do more than invoke the value of hard work, which tends to play into the hands of those who seek 'workplace flexibility'. After all, if work automatically confers great dignity, what does it matter that conditions are unsatisfactory? Surely work of any kind — no matter what the circumstances — is preferable to the shame of welfare?

The British literary theorist Terry Eagleton is rightly critical of the contemporary mindset that sees politics and morality as separate, with the former 'the technical business of public administration' and the latter merely 'a private matter'. The notion that politics belongs to the boardroom and morality to the bedroom has, Eagleton suggests, 'led to a lot of immoral boardrooms'.

In defending its reforms, the ALP will need convincingly to assert the innate value of human beings beyond their labour, both as individuals and as members of families and communities. In so doing, it must remind the electorate that working conditions, like the supports offered by the welfare state, are not solely a political or economic matter — they raise deeper moral questions about the state of the nation. 

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a Perth-based lawyer and freelance writer. For the above essay she was awarded Second Place in the 2011 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Sarah Burnside, WorkChoices, Fair Work Act 2009, Gillard, Abbott, Margaret Dooley Award



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Existing comments

Well said Sarah

Jim Jones | 17 August 2011  

As a piece of left wing intellectual writing I congratulate Sarah for winning her award but I must take issue with the derision of people who work with their hands.

"A journalist or politician may derive great status, satisfaction and meaning from his or work; a person who slaughters cattle in an abattoir may not.'

A person in an abattoir puts food on the table for others ,downtroden workers or welfare receipients ,enjoys the social interaction of the workplace , and gains satisfaction from earning an honest income that feeds and educates his/her family and pays his/her taxes to help those less fortunate than himself .He will regret strongly paying taxes to support the waste of Government . He will, as factory workers in Australia have usually been , a recent arrival to this country who will work as hard as he can and work as long as he can to gain the better life he travlled so far and took many risks to achieve .

Unfortunatly he/she is derided by people like Sarah who think he/she is lower than politicians who add no value and have the purpose of getting re elected at whatever cost to the Australian Taxpayer or lower than journalists who spend their time in twisted selective reporting and stop at nothing to get their story on front page .
Of all the people you could compare workers to why pick these two despicable professions ?

john crew | 17 August 2011  

There was a time, not all that long ago, before the commodification of labour and the deification of 'free-trade', when large public companies and government instrumentalities saw it as their moral duty to train and develop the skills of their employees not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the nation as a whole. I think particularly of the thousands of apprentices who were trained in railway workshops, steel and glass manufacturers, the PMG, and other statutory authorities, and also of the unskilled migrant workers many of whose employers provided basic training in English. Paternalistic? Perhaps. Preferable to today's practices? Undoubted.

Ginger Meggs | 17 August 2011  

Well done Sarah! I absolutely agree with your arguments and conclusion! I would have given you the 1st Prize for this piece of work! It is good to see that there are others who think like I do and put these feelings in writing, with honesty, conviction and strength! God bless!

Nathalie | 17 August 2011  

It is fair to say that Gillard has no interest whatsoever in the trades union movement beyond what it might deliver to her personal career ambitions.

Mind you, in this approach to the punters she is in good company, since few union leaders are actually engaged in politicising their members or advocating for social improvements in their members lot.

Far too many senior unionists are engaged in 'leatherseeking', the hunt for a red or green leather seat on which to place their ample bottoms for the rest of their lives.

They ease themselves into highly paid positions to supplement their paltry parliamentary offerings, with a few more leather seats around board tables, is a favourite option when they tire of doing SFA in parliament, or their electorate wakes up and rids themselves of their 'representative' when things get too much.

I've never understood why Gillard was held in such high esteem, and having read the hagiography on her, there is absolutely nothing in it that would indicate any understanding of anything beyond the mechanisms of power and 'ladder climbing'.

Her comments on 'education' expose her failure to understand how schools work for students that are not high flyers, as she was at Unley.

It must be said though, that Rudd actually hates unions, while Gillard simply sees them as a rung-in-the-ladder, useful, but not to be supported too much.

Harold Wilson | 17 August 2011  

John, I think you have misunderstood Sarah. I don't think she was deriding 'people who work with their hands'. On the contrary, she was suggesting that the 'role of social class in the modern economy' confers differential status on work of different kinds. The commodification of labour that is part and parcel of the pursuit of so-called 'free-trade' is what strips all labour, paid or unpaid, of its dignity and worth. The loss of craftsmanship - and a society that once valued it - is an ethical problem created by our pursuit of an amoral economy. May I recommend Richard Sennett's 'The Craftsman' (Yale 2008) for serious reading?

Ginger Meggs | 17 August 2011  

Yes, Ginger, John has definitely miusnderstood and mischaracterised Sarah's comment on the differences that can apply to different jobs/occupations in terms of perceived status and satisfaction levels and working conditions. I think John may have been distracted by perceiving her writing as left-wing.

All work can be potentially satisfying and dignifying - provided there is physical and mental fit, and dignifying conditions. The rhetoric and policy-direction of the last two governments however so links, as Sarah says, work and dignity that there is no dignity in non-paid work.

Society is bombarded with all sorts of messages that, in effect, make unemployed a crime. If complaining about this shallow and cynical linkage is "left-wing", then that might explain the lack of humanity in conservative politics.

Stephen Kellett | 17 August 2011  

to John Crew, It seemed to me Sara was making the same point as you seek to make. Her point was that people are often judged only by the social position their work brings, rather than the value to the community of what they do. I don't see that as derision.

Margaret McDonald | 18 August 2011