The non-binding mail survey a nation should never have endured has given rise in recent weeks to “argument” that should never have been made. Ugh. There’s the argument implicitly made by News Corp that former prime minister John Howard retains his value as an expert speaker on topics other than the Biggles series of adventure books. There are cruder, more explicit arguments made from within that same empire that no decent person should repeat.

Then, there’s the effing argument, from both Yes and No advocates, against “bullying” behaviour among the general population, which leads us to no useful end, save for proving beyond doubt that safe-space seeking is a bipartisan pursuit. Miranda Devine and all her spiritual children are now, in fact, the flakiest snowflakes, regularly demanding refuge from the heat.

Yes, Miranda, this just in: some people are not very nice. This has likely been true for some years and is possibly why policymakers have been drawn, at times, to build niceness into law. We have, for example, harsh penalties to deter those who would physically harm others. For a few decades, we had decent legal protection, hard won by trade unions, against rough treatment at work.

Curiously, the single argument of value provoked by our dreadful time of Brexit-lite may turn out to be for the Australian worker’s diminished rights. When a young Canberra woman found herself without work due to expressing support on social media for the “No” vote, some useful discussion emerged.

Not to polish the masthead, but Crikey was the first to consider the worker identified as “Madeline” not as homophobe or hero, but as a test of current employment conditions. As much as I like to give it to The Guardian, that title, too, deserves praise for considering factually what it now means to be “sacked”.

The short answer is: less and less. How can it mean anything when you don’t really have a job from the start? While older workers may preserve some part of their old-timey conditions — super, weekends, the right to shoot off at the mouth about whatever they please during weekends or other leisure hours — younger workers like Madeline must be as “agile” as Malcolm Turnbull demands. She, like her entire generation, is stuffed. Around 40% of Australians are now engaged in “alternative work”; that is, they are casual, self-employed or, like Madeline, “independent contractors”.

Contractors and the self-employed have no protection under the Fair Work Act. Which wasn’t something that seemed to trouble Guardian economics writer Greg Jericho a few years back. Jericho made the case in 2014 that we shouldn’t worry about a rise in freelance work, because a freelance agency had provided him with survey data that suggested many “choose” precisely the kind of “flexible” work that agency had as its revenue model.

Now, the guy has moved a little to the left of classical liberal economic thought, and has found that a “hands-off approach to IR” — you know, the sort of rule that deems “flexibility” and “choice” to be more important to workers than the knowledge they can pay the rent next month — might not be such a good national plan.

The Madeline freelance case may be an unfortunate event, but it sure is a good brainteaser. This fate of this No voter has highlighted a pro-market hypocrisy so stark, it was impossible even for outlets openly committed to ignore No voters, formerly quite fond of deregulation, to ignore.

Of course, over on the dependable right, Andrew Bolt finds as little trouble in ignoring hypocrisy as he does in stippling his short columns with rhetorical questions, such as yesterday’s “who are the real bigots?”, or that from a decade ago which dares us to imagine who we “really, truly would want at the top in a crisis. Howard or lip-licking Kevin Rudd?”

As things turned out, the lip-licker was chosen by Australians, many of whom found themselves facing a crisis Howard accelerated and Rudd had sworn (but failed) to address. WorkChoices, legislation piped in at the prelude of a GFC, itself caused by deregulation, had such impact on workers, they chucked the crisis-maker out. But there’s no chance that a brain like Bolt’s could be publicly teased into conceding that Madeline’s true enemy is not “political correctness gone mad”, but classical economics, AKA neoliberalism, gone mad in politics.

Bolt championed Howard, a man who believed it was up to the market to decide our fate. The market decided Madeline’s fate. Madeline’s boss reasoned that an events company would lose profit if word got out that one of its staff had urged for “No” on social media. Maybe not a commercially irrational decision in a small, progressive city, and the single state or territory where same-sex wedding ceremonies had been, however briefly, performed.

It’s not an unusual decision in the market-friendly present for a company to end a contract based on its social media policy. Actually, it’s a decision of which Bolt may, in other circumstances, approve. In one post, he listed several of Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s professional appointments, and made some argument for their cessation, partly on the basis of her seven-word Facebook post.

“Where is the government?” Bolt asks for Madeline, dismissed worker, on Sky News. Exactly where you wanted them to be, son: right out of the way of business.

Yes, I know. The search for consistency in Bolt might be compared, by disrespectful others, to the search for a single crap in a shit stack. But it must a brainteaser for others on the right, those who have also fought for the market to be master but, in the Madeline case, might not like its rule.

When the right to be a bigot, or a communist or a Known Homosexual, is no longer a guaranteed right at work, perhaps Senator George Brandis’ head starts spinning. I wonder if Tim Wilson, who has written that the “human right most being neglected is free speech”, now finds that his classical liberalism holds within it a deep contradiction. He might realise that his beloved free market inevitably curtails his beloved free speech — again. The most neglected of all the human rights in Australia, ranking well above the right to asylum, the right to freedom of association, or the right to protection against unemployment for Madeline.

Who knows what Tim is truly thinking. If The Guardian is able to shift in its views on true freedom for workers, a topic set aside for so long, perhaps he is, at least, a little confused by liberalism. The liberal-left may be less confused after Madeline, and resume its interest in labour conditions.

Save for the topic of workplace bullying — again with the surprise that some people are not nice, and can be particularly nasty in an insecure labour market — these conditions have been largely undiscussed by the nation’s left-liberal thinkers since the time of Howard. There were, at the time, centrist commentators like David Marr pointing out basic incompatibilities in conservative liberal thought.

Howard claimed to be in favour of family, but compromised that institution by extending working hours. Howard claimed to be a proud Australian, but was a humble servant to US foreign policy and US-led financialisation. Howard claimed to have traditional moral values, but kept pace with the very latest old practice exhumed by Washington DC. You don’t get to put your foot hard on the economic pedal then act surprised when cultural values start racing too. Howard invited the market to decide. The market then made its decisions.

Howard had lived long enough and read widely enough to know that big economic decisions create cultural changes and divisions. Still, he made the public case that it was always the other way around. If only we were more moral, more traditional and harder working, the health of the economy and all else would follow. It’s up to you the individual, he said. And after he had gone, the liberal-left plumb forgot they disagreed with that fib.

Madeline is their reminder. She’s not an individual to despise, but a young worker whose rights might be worth protecting. Heck. If she had these rights, maybe she’d become a person so nice, she’d change her preference to “Yes”.

This Madeline moment contains within it the potential for some old-timey solidarity. We don’t have to personally like the people with which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder. We just have to fight for our rights.

Spiteful and thin argument has been suffered as the result of this absurd survey. Pain has been felt in the LGBTI community and anger, so easily aroused in times of economic insecurity, is widespread. If there’s one good outcome (save for this rather good typo on the slip) it is a re-emerged interest in the life of the worker. All thanks to a “No” voter feted by Andrew Bolt.

 

Peter Fray

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