Abbott’s secret war on Australian workers

This is the second of two posts musing about Labor’s failure to deal with the full implications of the neoliberal revolution that the Hawke-Keating government unleashed from 1985.  That revolution was significantly easier for the Coalition to embrace, because extreme classical liberal ideology was already a part of its policy gene pool.

For Labor, however, neoliberal policies were almost wholly antithetical to the party’s history, culture and raison d’etre.  Although Paul Kelly’s conception of the Australian Settlement is a bit simplistic, it provides a useful framework to understand the extent of the shock to Labor values.  The White Australia Policy had already been swept away in the 1960s and replaced by multiculturalism by the Whitlam government.  But the aftermath of the Arab oil shocks and the collapse of Bretton Woods convinced Hawke and Keating, no doubt under heavy tutelage from Treasury and Finance bureaucrats, to jettison the other two major pillars of the Australian Settlement: tariff protectionism and completely centralised wage fixing by way of arbitrated awards.

It was argued at the time that Australian wages and conditions had been featherbedded by protectionism and the arbitration system, we had become internationally uncompetitive and would soon become a “banana republic” or the poor white trash of Asia if radical action wasn’t taken.  Deregulation, especially of the labour market, was the answer.  I remember (but can’t now find the quote) someone from the newly formed HR Nicholls Society commenting that their aim at least was to restore competitiveness by engineering a situation where every worker would be motivated because they would come to work every day afraid they might lose their jobs unless they toed the line.

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Unions, neoliberalism and the royal commission

The furore of the last few days over the Trade Union Royal Commission and revelations about serious and illegal underpayment of workers (especially foreign students) by 7-Eleven, Australia Post and others have brought into sharp focus a wider political question.  This article deals with the first of them, and I’m aiming to write a post about the second over the weekend.

It is increasingly clear that neither the political nor industrial wings of the Labor movement have come to terms with the full implications of the neoliberal revolution that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating embraced and set in motion from 1985 onwards.  Labor is far more interested in discrediting Royal Commssioner Dyson Heydon at just about any cost than in confronting the evident systemic problems that its hearings have revealed.

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Magna Carta and ‘vox pop’ democracy

Intriguingly there are two substantial permanent monuments to Magna Carta at Runnymede. Both are American. This one was erected by the US Bar Association in 1957.

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion on Magna Carta and our democracy by the Australian Archives. The discussion will be replayed on Big Ideas on Radio National this coming Monday 20th July (now here), but you can watch the proceedings here if you’re especially keen. In the meantime, mostly over the fold below here’s a blog post I did in preparation for the event. It’s on the NAA website here. I have also drafted an additional one with some specific suggestions above and beyond a People’s Chamber, which I’ll post in the not to distant future.

It was an enjoyable process (though I was half inside a cupboard so lavishly spaced are the hotels of leafy London.) The panel was dominated by lawyers, the most eloquent of which I thought was Gillian Triggs, but over the course of the discussion, it dawned on me how much they were gravitating towards solutions that would be imposed by lawyers – all very well paid for their time I hasten to add, though that’s not the main point which is that they are an elite – indeed an elite elite. I think we need to do better than that. You can hear two different approaches to doing a bit better than that. More participatory approaches – championed by Pia Waugh particularly, and more deliberative ones championed by me.

(Apropos of nothing much, Magna Carta had standards in it – weights and measures for wine and other things – just as Hammurabi’s code did. You just can’t keep those emergent public goods from emerging and then attaching themselves to governments to improve their situation.)

If we compare our own system of government to King John’s government – either before or after Magna Carta – there is no comparison. We have a robust democracy rather than a tyranny at the very beginning of a centuries long process by which the West came to impose the rule of law on its rulers. In contrast to the barons of thirteenth century England, if we’re unhappy with our government, we vote them out.

Yet all is not well in our democracy. Continue reading

Re-imagining a Labor election manifesto

Despite the fact that Federal Labor has consistently led in opinion polls over the last year or so by between four and six percentage points, most pundits (including the writer) have very little confidence that Labor will win the next election. In fact I expect they will more than likely lose.

Bill Shorten (assuming he survives as leader) is unlikely to win by continuing with his small target “me too” strategy where there isn’t a cigarette paper’s width between the policies of Labor and the Coalition on hot button issues like national security/terrorism and asylum seekers.

This article is based on the (admittedly courageous) proposition that a small target strategy is not the only way to win an election from opposition. It is possible to achieve government by winning people’s hearts and minds with an imaginative and popular positive policy platform, even though the last Opposition Leader who succeeded in doing so was Gough Whitlam in 1972. Of course I might be wrong, but here is my stab at an election policy manifesto that I reckon Shorten or his successor should adopt:

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Against decentralisation: why crowded is good

From time to time you hear the argument that Australia would be a much better place if only we could actively “decentralise” population. The argument is we should encourage people out of our big cities – notably Sydney and Melbourne – and into smaller cities, like Wollongong and Ballarat. In pursuit of this, various governments over the years have tried to move departments out to regional cities. The Victorian government under John Brumby even ran an advertising campaign in Melbourne encouraging people to move out and resettle in regional Victoria.

This sort of argument has often been based on the idea that these regional areas have lots of existing infrastructure that we can exploit at little cost. It has been encouraged by talk of the “Death of Distance” and “The Flat World” – the idea that globalisation and modern telecommunications are making location obsolete, so you might as well live in the countryside. It’s particularly popular wherever there are plenty of marginal regional electorates.

And this argument seem to be spreading. So here’s the case against spending government resources to actively encourage decentralisation.

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Citizenship-stripping and the Constitution

TONY ABBOTT CITIZENSHIP PRESSERThe chorus of public concern over the constitutionality of the Abbott government’s citizenship-stripping proposal is growing.  Malcolm Turnbull has again been emboldened to break ranks with his Prime Minister while denying he is doing any such thing.

It will be ironically appropriate if the citizenship-stripping issue ends up derailing Abbott’s plans to revive his ailing leadership in the wake of the failed spill motion against him earlier this year. Abbott’s strategy ever since he achieved Liberal Party leadership in late 2009 has been squarely based on racist dog whistling and inflaming national security paranoia.

The fact that citizenship isn’t even mentioned in Australia’s Constitution flows in part from similar racist sentiments among our Founding Fathers. They couldn’t work out a plausible way to define Australian citizenship without conferring it on Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Island migrants not to mention Aborigines. As South Australian delegate James Howe put it: “the cry throughout Australia will be that our first duty is to ourselves, and that we should… make Australia a home for Australians and the British race alone.”[1] No sly Abbott/Howard-style dog whistling in those days; our forefathers were openly and proudly racist.

The solution our Founding Fathers came up with was to avoid mentioning citizenship in the Constitution, but give the new Commonwealth Parliament wide-ranging powers to make laws with respect to immigration and “aliens”.  The new Parliament proceeded to enact the White Australia policy.

This deliberate constitutional silence is one reason why it isn’t certain whether the Abbott government could now validly legislate to confer the power to strip citizenship on a Minister rather than a court.

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Stripping Australian citizenship – the illusory protection of judicial review

Human rights lawyer Kerry Murphy has a very useful explanation of the weakness of judicial review as a safeguard against new laws foreshadowed by the Abbott government which would permit arbitrary ministerial stripping of Australians’ citizenship from those accused/suspected of terrorist activity.  However, if anything the situation is even worse than Murphy says.  Citizenship is arguably the most fundamental right any Australian possesses, without which no other human rights protection is assured, even the most basic application of the rule of law. And yet our citizenship right itself is not protected by our Constitution.

We don’t actually know exactly what provisions the citizenship-stripping law proposed by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will contain, but you can bet they will include the following:

  1. A subjective opinion clause;
  2. A clause requiring national security or criminal intelligence information to be withheld from a suspect and his lawyers but nevertheless to be used against him.

These provisions have become increasingly popular with governments at both federal and state levels since the “moral panic” induced by September 11.  As a result, the combination of enthusiasm for greater power and less accountability on the part of both politicians and intelligence agencies, and a relatively supine response on the part of the High Court, has had drastic adverse consequences for the freedom and human rights of all Australians.  It is hardly an exaggeration to observe that in today’s Australia the right to impartial judicial review of executive government action, which was intended by the drafters of our Constitution to be a fundamental aspect of our system of national governance, is now an optional extra that governments can effectively negate almost at will.  And yet hardly anyone knows about it.

That is probably because some of the concepts are quite difficult to explain clearly to non-lawyers.  Nevertheless, bear with me. It’s important and worth “unpacking” the argument.

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Ahead of the zeitgeist on metadata

Data security and retention are very much in the news at the moment. Indeed the Abbott government’s data retention bill is currently being debated by the Senate and will inevitably be passed given that the Coalition did a deal with Labor whereby the latter will support it in return for inclusion of a fairly weak requirement for a warrant before law enforcement agencies can access journalists’ metadata. Richard “Justinian” Ackland published an article yesterday that highlighted the deficiencies of the warrant regime in the current bill.

I can modestly claim to have been ahead of the zeitgeist on this issue, having made a submission and given evidence before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs way back in 2010, when they were considering the bill which eventually gave rise to the current journalists’ qualified privilege or immunity in relation to disclosing confidential sources when giving evidence in court. As I argued at the time:

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