THE slow washing out of the Health Services Union affair reminds us of the pivitol role industrial relations has played in Australia’s politics. (Hooray for the Olympic slump is below.)
In the Hawke-Keating years, people spoke of the Twiddlededee and Twiddlededum of politics – how both sides had moved to the centre and there wasn’t much to pick between them. The fight between capital and labour had been replaced with sense that everyone was a worker and everyone was a shareholder.
When John Howard was Leader of the Opposition in that period, to his credit, he did not oppose everything for the sake of opposition. He supported all the major financial and industrial reforms of the Labor Government.
Tony Abbott worked in Howard’s office at the time and he might well have then formed his views about the role of an Opposition – it is not to keep the Government on its toes through constructive criticism and to provide alternative policies for an alternative government. Rather Abbott is acting as if the role is purely to make the Government look ineffective, venal and generally bad. He is succeeding at that, irrespective of whether it is true.
However, he has not very much picked upon the Government’s industrial relations policies to exemplify his assertions of its incompetence, even though it is perhaps the field in which the Government has done worse.
Abbott’s aversion to pursuing an industrial relations attack is because the 2007 experience of an election loss that could be at least partly put down to the Coaltion’s harsh industrial relations policies has taught him to steer clear. Politicians are like generals – they fight the current election or war on the experience of the previous election or war or two.
But the HSU affair is changing that. We are seeing Australian politics turn true to form – the battle between labour and capital. It has been a long battle, and both sides have been guilty of putting self-interest before the national interest.
Howard, more doggedly than most conservative leaders before him, did the employers’ bidding and introduced Work Choices. And his heart was in it, too. He believed in free labour markets without understanding that labour is not a commodity in a market.
It was his undoing.
Now Prime Minister Julia Gillard is showing herself as perhaps the most pro-union Labor leader since Arthur Calwell. It could well be her undoing.
As it happens, however, the conservatives are being led by someone whose conservativism is rooted in social policy rather than in a general pro-business or economic libertarian stand.
Nonetheless, industrial relations is resuming it earlier importance in Australian politics. Bear in mind, at least six referendums have been fought on industrial relations or keeping either capital or labour in its place. And industrial-relations cases in the High Court have resulted in some of the biggest swings in the power balance between the Commonwealth and the states and between the executive and legislature.
The political importance of industrial relations stems not so much from philosophic differences between the two major parties, but in something more visceral – survival itself.
The Liberal Party could not survive without big donations from capital. And Labor could not survive without union donations and other tangential campaign help.
The relationship becomes symbiotic. Business does better under the conservatives. The unions do better under Labor. Though, of course, business, being pragmatic, does give a bit to Labor, especially when Labor looks like winning.
So the process is a mildly corrupting one of mutual back-scratching.
We have also seen signs of each major party willfully turning a blind eye to more serious malfeasance on the part of their backers. The HSU is one example.
The HSU affair flies in the face of everything unionism was founded upon. Labour organised precisely to defeat privilege and abuse of power.
Now we find the corrupting influence of power in the hands of some union officials. Rather than helping their members in pursuing a better life, they help themselves. The way out of changing bed pans and cleaning the dunnies is the heated or air-conditioned white-collar work of the union official.
This fundamental conflict in Australian political life – between labour and capital – will only dissipate when the funding of political parties is radically reformed. It will do both major parties a lot of good. Labor – freed of the necessity to pander to union demands for legal regimes which give more power to union officials – will be able to secure broader support. The Liberals – freed of the necessity to give hand-out and concessions to big business – will be able to pursue better policies.
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Hooray. Australia is doing badly at the Olympics. Maybe it will move the country’s attention away from sport to better things. If one thought for a moment that the country’s sporting obsession resulted in healthier more active lifestyles and greater sporting participation, the attention spent on sport would be justified.
As it is, elite sport merely provides entertainment and an unhealthy jingoistic distraction for the masses.
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DON’T do it. Do not click on the “most viewed” link on whatever news website you are viewing. And do not click on bizarre or enticing headlines out of prurient interest.
Do not click on trivial things about celebrities or bizarre things that happen to ordinary people.
The more you click on this rubbish, the more news selectors give this rubbish prominence.
The trouble with “most viewed” is that it is not the same as “most important” or even “most interesting” because often a quick click on “Angelina’s tryst with snake”, “NRL star’s brush with death” or even “Kevin Rudd goes skateboarding” reveals that the underlying story has been exaggerated and of no import anyway.
It is one way that technology is changing the consumption of news in democracies.
The Labor Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, gave a very thoughtful speech this week on other ways technology is shaping the media for the worse. The full text is on his website.
Leigh points out that the well-educated and affluent now have access to cheaper, more diverse and better media than ever before. But the broad mass rely on and increasingly shallow, nasty, sensationalised, inaccurate television news and radio talkback.
He argues that the technology and economics of the media favour that sort of coverage over the complex, nuanced and subtle.
It seems as the world gets more complex, the media coverage of it gets more simplistic.