Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (David Halliwell play turned 1974 film)

Most of the Weekend Australian‘s breathless interview with Malcolm Turnbull appeared to concern his standing desk — a Heath Robinsonesque device that appears to rise up and down, perhaps in relation to the genius of whatever Turnbull is typing at the time — and a selection of books, including Howard’s groaner on Menzies, but none, apparently, of the four books on Victorian literature by his mother, Coral Lansbury, whose Marxisant study of Trollope I would thoroughly recommend — although perhaps they were there, and the interviewer simply had no clue that Coral has always been the brains of the outfit.

In any case, the interview moved away from the furniture, eventually, to the topic dear to the Oz‘s heart — changes to industrial relations, otherwise known as the Great God Reform, sorry, REFORM! This is the game we are now accustomed to with any Liberal PM, the immediate petitioning from the right about the need for sweeping changes and the abolition of what remains of guaranteed representation for workers, and the broad setting of wages and conditions. The last time around that resulted in WorkChoices, and the end of the Howard era. Furthermore it gave Julia Gillard the opportunity to bring in Fair Work, and thus stake a claim to a centred IR system, which the Coalition grudgingly accepted. Obviously the IPA and their News Corp newsletter are slavering for change, whatever the political risk to the government.

Malcolm was circumspect and tentative, as well he might be:

“I think the only way [IR laws] will not become a frontline issue is if the Labor Party comes to its senses, and agrees to changes … the idea that everything is fine and dandy in the world of trade unions is ridiculous.”

Having lost the leadership of the party, and thinking he might have done his dash in the (ahahaha, remember this?) “Teflon Tony” era, he is clearly not about to squander a second chance at entering the history books as a two- or three-term PM and getting an era all of his own. He’s also learned from his earlier political failures — of personality, process and judgement around the Godwin Grech affair — and modulated his approach. The Oz, in one of the other 19 articles on Malcolm on the weekend, expressed amazeballs at his ability to learn from earlier failure and try a new approach. Amazeballs, indeed, after the rigid bizarros of the Abbott cabinet, led by Abbott himself. What are the odds that a man with a nine-figure fortune might have more capacity for reflexive action than Santamaria’s last sprog?

Turnbull is right to be circumspect about IR monstering — but Labor and the left would, equally, be wrong to assume that it is as much of a minefield as it was a decade ago. The WorkChoices debacle occurred because the Coalition gained control of the Senate, and Howard, whose lifetime pursuit had been the dismantling of the IR system, took the risk and lost his capacity for political judgement in the process. The main problem for Howard had been that a great deal of the IR restructuring had been done by Hawke/Keating. Many of the rigidities and what had become absurdities (such as highly centralised conditions, which matched an industrial society) had been done away with. Though workers could have got a much better deal overall from that, the process occurred at the beginning of our quarter-century boom, so a lot of what was lost went unnoticed by many.

Howard seems to have taken that restructuring — to a state-supervised collective bargaining, and flexible part-industry awards system — to be a sign that the public had become thoroughly individualised, atomised, and were ready for an American-style attitude to the power of employer and employee. He was further encouraged by a rightward drift culturally and politically in the wake of 9/11 to believe that we “we’re all Howardians now”. We wasn’t. Sections of the working and working-middle class had not become neocons, by virtue of their stiffish positions on refugees, the War on Terror, security v liberty, etc. They’d simply returned to the relatively nativist or national-communalist views that had been the soul of Labor prior to the Whitlam revisions of the latter 1960s, and the other side of them, their complement, was a belief in unionism, state guarantees of it, the collectivist approach, and a disdain for scabs. None of that had changed.

Nor has it changed now, sufficient to make it worth a go at WorkChoices II. But nor has it remained static. In the decade since the 2004 election, when the plotting for WorkChoices began in earnest, the composition of the economy has changed, the composition of the workforce has changed, and culture and subjectivity has changed — none of it in ways that benefit old-style industrial conceptions of worker power and representation. No one now under 45 remembers a time when your terms and conditions were set by vast nationwide, industry-wide awards, and demarcations between other unions — when you’d all suddenly stop work for two hours for a negotiation on X, Y or Z, or now-precarious work like hospitality had its own union and a strict division between casualised, marginal work and full-time unionised labour.

The workers who remember that era as the core of their working life have all retired over the last 10 years. Anyone 60 now had only been in work a decade when it all started to change, closed shops went, casual hours came in, and in the early 1990s Kennett’s wholesale assault on wages and conditions began. The revolt against WorkChoices was, in my estimation, still anchored by the older half of the workforce, who remembered those times and could draw from them a strong notion of collective rights. New workers may believe in such rights, or aspire to them, but they’re also accustomed to casualised, flexible, precarious labour being the new norm.

The whole structure of work has changed, too. In the last decade the seesaw really tipped between an economy/society dominated by collective full-time labour and that by partial, mobile, fluid and precarious labour. Yes, the former remains in the majority. But it’s far from dominant or overwhelming — full-time work tipping from 70% to close to 60% in the last decade or so, with around a third of people under 35 doing some form of freelance work as part of their income. Ostensibly, casual work hasn’t increased that much — but only because precarious work, six-month, 12-month, two-year contracts, performance-reviewed, etc, has become the new “permanent”.

Time was you went in the front of the Repco factory at 16 and were carried out the back of it in a box at 65, a gold watch resting atop. That was what people once meant by full-time, permanent employment. What they mean by it now is utterly different. The third factor in that is a changing culture, a preference towards flexibility and mobility in people’s lives. We know that this is, for the most part, a terrible con, reducing people to the value of their labour-power only at time of greatest demand — rather than an employer paying for life-stability over time as part of the work-social contract. But the more mobile and fluid mass culture gets, and the more fluid and mobile people become within it, the less traction one gets from counterposing full-time, permanent employment with solid conditions against precarious, part-time and mobile employment of the present and future.

The disaster for Labor (that phrase should really be shift-F3 on my keyboard) is that its current leadership and culture is associated, for many people, with the worst of that old transitional world — Hawke/Keating/Howard (to 2004) — embodied by the current Labor leadership. This is the world of mega-unions that developed in the ’80s. The ones that were already big scarfed up all the small occupation/trade-based outfits; then the mega ones scarfed up the big ones. By the end of the process they were run by a student-politician elite, taking their long march through the institutions to the Senate, the Lodge or Richo’s Chinese Restaurant, the Celestial Waiting Room BYO. In the centralised era, there was little scope for deal-making; a judge set what an assistant pipefitter earned, from the Arafura to Zeehan, and the corruption, such as it was, was in the unions who thumbed their nose at the system, such as the Painters and Dockers. When awards went and enterprise bargaining came in, union leaders suddenly had vast power to deal.

We’ve now seen what the result of that was over the past decade — a range of block payment deals, direct payments to unions, corporations paying for special officers, false invoicing — and all, it is alleged, for better overall deals. But none of these deals were taken to the shop floor to be hashed out, debated, explained. Some of them may have been better deals, many of them weren’t, but how would anyone know? The final element in all this was the growing super funds, which gave many unions an overall interest in capital accumulation and it maximisation, and thus put them in a contradictory position as regards the wages/profits share of the workforce overall, and their members in particular.

Thus, in the past decade, Australian right-wing and centrist unionism became this strange beast — a state-corporate mediating apparatus, shaping worker demands and expectations rather than being driven by them. They did this at exactly the same time as they needed to build a new and systematic relationship with their own members, and democratise their internal processes — rather than relying on high-profile stunts like Billy Bob Shorten’s Beaconsfield residency — because the sort of workforce pool from which they could scoop “natural-born unionists” was shrinking. The idea that unions should represent their members, or get new ones, has become so outlandish as to barely be mentioned. When the scandal around the pay and conditions of 7/11 workers arose, the one thing that got almost no attention was where the SDA, the Shoppies, had been in all of it. Clue’s in the name, folks — but apparently, unionising the largest chain of shops in the country is of little interest. Perhaps one of them should try and get an abortion or marry their same-sex partner, and the SDA might send an organiser out.

During his peekaboo interview, Malcolm said he was sorry for associating Shorten and the CFMEU. Of course he is; the CFMEU actually represent their members. The real danger for Shorten is that the right-wing unions look worse — bosses’ enforcers, trading away their members wages . With the Great Michael Lawler extravaganza playing across all media, Fair Work itself can now be impugned as part of that system.

The danger for Labor more broadly is that Turnbull will hold off the right-wing Hayekian ideologues, who would want the return of master-and-servant law governing employment, and instead craft a “reasonable” set of reforms that will, on the pretext of eliminating corruption, gut the notion of collective bargaining and turn the role of unions into negotiators and supervisors of individual contracts, with highly provisional micro-agreements becoming the norm. Such an imposed modular system will appeal to many people whose working lives have become modular and who like the flexibility of that and will only realise too late that such flexibility must be undergirded with common and universal conditions and rights. It will be part of the more comprehensive process by which Turnbull reaches over to whole areas of the workforce and society that Labor believed had nowhere to go and — if his otiose party lets him — forge a new consensus. Of that, more this week.

Peter Fray

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