By Andrew Dettmer, President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.
Liz Truss has come to power in a blaze of incompetence. Her capacity for putting both feet in her mouth whilst performing a pirouette on tax or other policy blunders, is a matter of international fascination. No doubt for people in the UK, your embarrassment must be almost total.
From the Australian perspective, however, Truss and her resemblance to Australian Conservative governments has become quite remarkable.
John Howard, Aussie Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007, was like Truss, mistake prone in his early days. Some seven Ministers (out of 35) resigned or were dismissed in his first 2 years. Regardless of his Prime Ministerial ineptitude, the pursuit of his anti-worker and anti-union agenda was a given.
When he came to power in 1996, John Howard promised to âreform industrial relationsâ. What that meant quite in the hothouse of 1996 was unclear. He always claimed that he wasnât anti-union but was forever hunting for that elusive âresponsibleâ unionist.
Howard, a suburban solicitor, had first been elected in 1974, the son of a small business owner. His worldview was formed by a combination of anti-union rhetoric imbibed, it appears, with his motherâs milk, and his small town solicitor background. As Malcolm Fraserâs Business Minister, and then Treasurer, Howard gained the ironic title of âHonestâ John. It was only through the passing of time that the quote marks were removed. He gained his title by virtue of his dishonesty and dissimulation around successive budgets. Rampant inflation ensued.
Howard kept the faith; finally winning after 13 years, during his first term, he released draft industrial legislation. This draft legislation would have removed from federal regulation many millions of Australian workers by abolishing awards (minimum pay and conditions applying to all workers in an industry), removing rights to unfair dismissal laws, removing union right of entry, and many other nasties.
Aside from his draft legislation impacting on all workers, Howard pursued âwaterfront reformâ, an article of faith for conservatives since the 1960s. He did this by entering into a conspiracy with Chris Corrigan, owner of Patrickâs Stevedoring, who attempted to sack the entire workforce overnight and replaced by Australian mercenaries, secretly trained in Dubai.
Whilst this was a dismal failure, it nevertheless showed the preparedness of Howard and his then IR minister Reith to do âwhatever it takesâ â including trashing his cherished ârule of lawâ.
His IR laws were presented to parliament a number of times. He only failed to pass them because he did not control a majority in the Senate, our Upper House. However due to his landslide victory in the 2004 election, when Labor was led by the very unbalanced Mark Latham, Howard was finally able to get his majority in both houses and was finally able to pass his WorkChoices legislation in 2005. WorkChoices had its heart the desire to remove trade unions from the workplace. He did this by several means.
Firstly, unfair dismissal laws only applied in companies with more than 100 employees. Many companies started to employ people in workplaces and divide them up – I know your readers will find this difficult to believe â into less than 100 workers, via shell companies, etc. There were many instances where a worker was subject to egregious and unfair dismissal by an employer, and yet because there were less than 100 people in his/ her workplace, there was no redress through the Industrial Relations Commission
Secondly, he restricted unionsâ capacity to strike. He did this by introducing âprohibitedâ matters, which unions were prevented by law from presenting to employers, discussing them, negotiating them, and most importantly not being able to bargain or take industrial action around them. Even the simple making of a claim could void the legality of any industrial action, resulting in the possibility of massive fines, jail, etc. He also introduced a category of ânon-allowableâ matters, which simply could not be included in agreements. Finally, the process of voting became so convoluted and set about with restrictions, that even where workers were unanimously in favour of industrial action it took over 35 days to commence.
Thirdly, he reduced awards to administrative instruments, via the change from the head of power under the Australian Constitution from the Conciliation and Arbitration power (s51(xxxv)), to the Corporations power (s51(xx)). Without going into all the niceties of Australian Constitutional law, it simply meant that what was previously a matter of decisions by an arbitrator about contending demands by employers and unions, simply was converted into a matter of administrative law. Unions were removed as parties to awards.
Fourthly, he proceeded to stack the IRC with Liberal appointees. From 1996 to 2007 there were only two people from around 50 who had any sort of union affiliation whatsoever.
Fifthly, he introduced statutory individual contracts, known as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). AWAs had very few conditions apply to them. They did not have to reach minimum standards, able to be negotiated by an employer with an individual worker, regardless of whether a collective agreement applied in the workplace. So, if a worker got a new job, s/he would be told that it was a condition of employment that they sign an AWA. This did not have to be equal to or even close to the existing agreement conditions in that workplace. The result was that workers with no bargaining power found themselves forced to sign inferior AWAs if they wanted a start. This led to a massive breakdown in pay and conditions in the workplace.
Sixthly, he made it a matter of taste whether or not you were a member of a union. Anybody could represent themselves or a group of workers â Government advertising even suggested that your Mum could represent you – leading to a proliferation of non-union agents who purported to represent workers in a workplace, often at great expense to the workers themselves. Employers of course loved this because it meant that they were not confronted by the depth and power of a trade union, but instead were able to simply convince one or more workers that their interests were better served by a representative negotiating on their behalf, and then use that person to undermine any notion of collectivity. Unsurprisingly this became a bit of a lawyersâ barbecue.
Liz Truss appears to be following a number of these precepts. I think it is no mistake on her part nor on the part of the Conservative party, that there is a major docks dispute, where employers are pulling out all stops to aggressively remove conditions of employment and pay from dockworkers.
Her decision to try and remove workers from regulation where there are less than 500 of them smacks of the same limitation to workersâ rights, pursued by Howard.
And of course attempting to suppress wages at a time of rampant inflation is straight from Hayek.
Glancing into a crystal ball, I foresee that Truss in her floundering premiership will try and set up bogie men and womenâŠSurprise! She has decided that workersâ representatives will fill that Bill (take a bow, Mick Lynch). I think I can also see a glimmer of the same negative anti worker articles of faith that were shoved into the limelight by HowardâŠshe may even be able to find the elusive Responsible Unionist as the way of the future. If I am correct, I think I can see a parade of all the usual suspects from Australia beginning with John Winston Howard himself, being trotted out to attack unions and sing the praises of the incompetent Truss. We have already had the spectacle of Howardâs former Foreign Affair Minister, the bumptious Alexander Downer, singing her praises. (I foresee a knighthood for Al, both the son and grandson of knights of the realm, I see a gongâŠsorry, the image is growing dim).
Itâs worth remembering that a series of happy accidents prolonged Howardâs premiership. In 2001, Howard began the year by being condemned by his own party as âmean and trickyâ. He then had the singular experience of a boat full of refugees appearing over the horizon aboard the SS Tampa which he could then heroically turn back with the aid of commandos. In 2004 he had the gift of the unbalanced and incompetent Mark Latham as the Australian Labor Party leader. Latham ran the worst campaign in living memory, came across as aggressive, incompetent, and almost comically inept, and the Labor Party paid the price at the polls. The issue that was the hallmark of Howardâs premiership was WorkChoices. After he was able to introduce it in 2005 he was unceremoniously dumped thanks to the strength of the trade union movementâs Your Rights at Work campaign in 2007. His shibboleth became his downfall.
Who knows if Truss will go the full Howard, but from this distance it seems she is being lulled by the siren song of attacking workersâ rights as the means of resurrecting her floundering premiership. The signs are there. Beware!