A view from the Right

Union organiser Paul Doughty, a member of Labor's rightwing Centre Unity faction, gives his appraisal of the Blacktown demonstration and argues that it really is all about reaching Latham's "outsiders" and getting Beazley elected.

I was pleased to be asked by Labor Tribune to contribute a few words to report on Wednesday’s rally. With no exaggeration, it was the largest political event ever to occur in western Sydney, and the most significant since Gough Whitlam’s 1972 campaign launch in Bowman Hall in Blacktown’s Civic Centre. 30,000-40,000 people attended depending on who you asked – up to three or four times what was originally expected when the location was first proposed. It took 50 minutes for my own relatively modest union contingent, toward the back of the march, to leave the showground.

Shortly after exiting, we looked to the right to see the front of the march a short distance down Balmoral Street, 2km around the block, advancing in our direction to return to the showground. It was, in anyone’s language, a tremendous success and a vindication of the plan to hold it where it was held.

As one might expect, it wasn’t uniformly reported as such. The heading on the letters page of today’s Daily Telegraph (incidentally above five-out-of-five pro-union letters) referred to a “poor turnout”. Pig’s arse it was. It was actually about a third bigger than the two central Sydney rallies in July and November of last year, arguably with less promotion, and the additional factor of threats to workers who are now subject to the punitive legislation which last year’s rallies merely foreshadowed.

Workers with real stories made up most of the main speeches, continuing a format developed for the rallies in NSW last year. Their accounts were all the more pertinent now the new legislation has started to bite. Jane Lee, the childcare worker from my home suburb of Kings Langley (yes, yes, the Vaucluse of Blacktown) told of her sacking in jaw-dropping circumstances after a direction from senior management of her employer of over 10 years, and three warnings in three days.

Jane Lee is one of many workers that Coalition MPs, such as Greenway MP Louise Markus, have betrayed. Markus happily took this worker’s vote at the ballot box and then proceeded to vote for dozens of pieces of legislation that removed her constituents’ rights at work. In the case of this worker, it ultimately took her job as well.

The waste-industry driver whose yard was pressured to sign AWAs, which would result in a $340 reduction in pay per week, told of his ongoing battle, again, as a result of his local members in Paterson and Dobell using their vote in Parliament to allow employers to use AWAs to reduce pay and conditions.

The Labor run Blacktown city council had lined Flushcombe Road with Your Rights at Work banners, while the Anglican church across the road from the Showground also obliged by using the rights at work orange-and-Arial-Black style guide to urge protesters to not worry about such worldly concerns, their sign proclaiming “the best benefits are through God”, or something like that. The “vibe” of the protest was a good one, with a turnout in excess of expectations providing a boost.

So it is probably worth briefly addressing some of the discussion which occurred prior to Wednesday over choice of location. The concerns with the venue raised by some smacked of Blacktown being a bit far from Newtown. In hindsight, the fact that 5000 workers crammed into the Vegas of the West (Rooty Hill RSL) for last year’s simultaneous Sky Channel meetings, along with similarly overflowing meeting rooms across western Sydney, meant the turnout perhaps ought to have been no surprise.

It was apparent on Wednesday that locals made up a large proportion of those who attended (one of whom remarked to us “you mean you came all the way from Petersham!?”). The lamentation that the rally wasn’t in Sydney CBD maybe came from a lack of recognition that two thirds of Sydneysiders live in western Sydney, and that these are the people who will decide when Howard’s time is up.

These rallies add some vital colour and movement to the campaign to restore a fair industrial relations system. They can provide a good boost to those who attend, an opportunity for community groups to be involved and, in the context of spreading the word, a good premise upon which to base conversations around IR issues between union activists and their workmates, neighbours, friends and family. As part of a strategy to reach out to people other than the “rusted on unionists” (as federal industrial relations minister Kevin Andrews attempted to characterise those around the country who took part on Wednesday) - they can have an important role to play.

While the Victorians have done a marvellous job in getting huge crowds to their Melbourne rallies, what next? Another rally?

I’m unashamedly focusing on the potential of the Rights at Work campaign to swing votes. The thought of Beazley losing the next election, and the supposed endorsement of WorkChoices that the Howard would claim that would represent, is too terrible to contemplate.

Labor losing Greenway was the product of a number of things, one of them being that there a disproportionate lack of focus on western Sydney and on the electorate of Greenway by the labour movement. When the Liberals discerned a demographic shift along came a cashed-up candidate, with an apparently pleasant demeanour and a few community contacts who could combine her resources with those of the Hillsong Church to spend more than a million bucks on a campaign. Voters were all of a sudden being paid some attention and the Libs in those circumstances were always going to do OK.

Having all that focus on her electorate on Wednesday around what has been such a crippling issue for her government should have made our incumbent rather uncomfortable.

At the rally, one group sold t-shirts from a stall outside the showground which proudly screamed “HOWARD HATER”, and I was somewhat fond of them, but unfortunately, most people don’t hate Howard. Most people vote on issues which affect them. This is connected to what former Labor leader Mark Latham referred to when he talked about insiders and outsiders and associated issues of power.

Last election many votes were probably influenced by the interest rates scare campaign, a Liberal lie to which Labor reacted like a kangaroo in headlights. If I may indulge in some polemicising on the run, some of our t-shirted friends might say that given the track record of the Howard Government on so many issues, this indicates how selfish people are when they vote. But at the ballot box most people, “outsiders”, who comprise electorates such as Greenway and Lindsay (and Werriwa?) are exercising one of the only, tiny, bits of power that they have.

In a world often stacked against these people to expect that they shouldn’t use this small bit of power according to what they see as their and their families’ best interests is almost offensive. The insiders that Latham talked about, part of the “establishment”, have other sources of power, of which wealth might be one, in addition to their connections through family, the media and other organisations, and access to services – they can afford for their vote to be influenced by other more altruistic ideals.

The point is, the way votes may change is by highlighting the real issues of how the industrial relations changes will remove job security, reduce take home pay over time, interfere with family and social life and remove fairness in the workplace – not as a result of people finally being convinced of the wickedness of the Howard Government. The Rights at Work campaign has succeeded because of it has tapped into people’s already held concerns on workplace issues.

Jane Lee, the childcare worker that spoke at Blacktown announced her change of vote from Liberal to Labor for the next election. She said:

"I voted for Mr Howard's party at the last election, but I did not vote for him to attack my work rights or attack the work rights of the other people who work in child care with me. I've never done it before and my hand might shake when I get the ballot paper, but I am going to vote Labor at the next election."

That leaves just 441 people out of Greenway’s 76,000 electors who need to change their preference from Liberal to Labor to return Greenway to the ALP. Wednesday’s successful rally and its build up hopefully has performed its function in connecting with more of these people.

Paul Doughty
(former president, Blacktown Young Labor Association)
and a member of Enmore-Camdenville Branch ALP

Postscript: implications of the federal electorate boundary redistribution, which became apparent just after the time of writing, means that quite a few more than 441 votes are now required to win Greenway. The electorate's expansion north makes it now notionally a safe seat for Markus and the Liberals, while some other western Sydney seats have become slightly better for Labor.

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