Rudd tries to rewrite history

Phil Doyle says that the Your Rights At Work campaign won't be airbrushed out of Labor’s victory.

"It’s time for a new page to be written in our nation’s history." Kevin Rudd, November 24, 2007.

In the lead up to the 2007 federal election tens of thousands of ordinary Australians mobilised into a concerted campaign to change a government. These people re-wrote Australian history.

Yet, as soon as that victory was achieved, their efforts were all but ignored by, not just vast swathes of the media, but also by the ultimate beneficiaries, the incoming government.

The strength of the Your Rights At Work campaign was acknowledged by the defeated Liberal Party. Federal director, Brian Loughnane, told media on the Sunday after the election that Work Choices had cost the Coalition critical support, a statement echoed by Liberal MP and campaign spokesman, Andrew Robb.

ALP campaign director Tim Gartrell described WorkChoices as "the most important issue of the campaign".

"It would have been more difficult to win without it."

"I mean look at these young guys at the gate - you’d have been dragging them in here to vote last time," said Graham Perrett, ALP Candidate for Moreton, while visiting a polling booth on election day. "This time they’re here handing out cards on the rights at work issue."

In the marginal New South Wales seat of Eden-Monaro big swings were recorded in communities west of the great divide where Work Choices was seen as a threat.

Polling done for the ACTU showed a 5.7 per cent shift from Howard to Labor motivated by industrial relations as the main issue.

None of this would have happened without a concerted grassroots campaign - this was no astroturfing exercise - that saw the ACTU gather an email database of 180,000 addresses, from which a popular localised word of mouth campaign spread.

For more than two years the Your Rights At Work campaign has been beavering away, under the radar, in 24 targeted coalition held seats.

Whether leafleting, letterboxing, doorknocking, forwarding emails, holding a street stall or collecting signatures, an army of campaigners braved everything from Darwin’s tropical storms to the snows of the Great Dividing Range to make sure that the impact of Work Choices became issue number one for a vast swathe of Australians in marginal seats.

The Your Rights At Work bumper stickers, T-shirts and later house signs, became ubiquitous. Those people involved were shifting voter sentiment where it mattered. Some media dismissed it as a cynical trade union scare campaign or stunt at best. The rest ignored it.

But the people involved in the campaign came from an wide range of backgrounds - union and non-union. There were the usual suspects, but there were more, many more, that became involved in a community campaign for the first time in their lives.

Many of these people took to it with a gusto lacking in the rank and file of both major parties. This is a newly politicised group of Australians, and they threw up some amazing champions.

One such example was Jo Jacobson, an articulate and savvy health worker who became the public face of the opposition to Work Choices in the Penrith based seat of Lindsay long before the ALP had even settled on a candidate.

Many campaigners took to one-on-one conversations with their peers. In marginal Macquarie a ripped-off hotel worker named Steve Eisenberger made a habit of wearing his Your Rights At Work T-shirt around his blue-collar mates - winning over a small coterie who had previously backed Howard over what are euphemistically referred to as ‘security’ issues.

There were thousands of Steve Eisenburgers operating across all sorts of groups - social, sporting, civic and cultural - to get the message out.

The word of mouth message cut through to an increasing number of Australians while Howard and Barbara Bennett remained as background white noise, drowned out by the wise words of their Your Rights At Work neighbour and their own experiences.

The community campaign was backed up by a shoestring (compared to the Federal Government’s) advertising campaign that reinforced the word-of-mouth message.

Despite (or possibly because of) widespread support, many Your Rights At Work signs were stolen or defaced, as well as threats and acts of vandalism being aimed at Your Rights At Work activists.

Still, the thousands of volunteers didn’t complain - instead they handed out their own How To Vote card on election day, separate from the major parties - in the rain, the sun, the heat, the wind. They made sure that Work Choices was on the forefront of voter’s minds where it mattered.

Of the 24 targeted coalition held seats, the ALP won 20 and 3 are currently too close to call.

It’s an extraordinary achievement in anyone’s reckoning. So where is the acknowledgement to these Australians by either the media or the man holding the trophy, Kevin Rudd?

There was no direct mention of either Work Choices or the Your Rights At Work campaign in the Hawker-Brittonesque pfaff that passed as Rudd’s acceptance speech.

Not much of a run in the media either. A bit of a go over at the SMAge, with Andrew West providing a bit of background in the SMH and a puff piece on the ACTU’s spin-doctors in the Age, while Mark Bahnisch and Wayne Errington in Crikey both nominated Work Choices as a killer issue for the Coalition.

The last time a prime minister lost his seat – Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929 - it was to the secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall - an foretaste of a Your Rights At Work Campaign from 80 years ago.

One of the central issues in 1929 was Bruce’s dream of smashing the union movement and regulated working arrangements based on fairness.

Australia said no to individual contracts in droves, and there was a landslide win to Labor. The depression hit and two years later Scullin’s Labor Government dissolved into dissent, panic and scandal.

The Rudd government will now be faced with a plethora of conflicting policy objectives - one of which will be to screw down the price of labour. We all know that this will be borne by those least able to afford a cut in their living standards.

As early as the Sunday morning after the election Australian Business Council head Greg Gailey dismissed "fears" the union movement may hold sway over a Rudd government.

"If you listened to Kevin Rudd last night that is not an impression you would have got," Bailey told the ABC, while over at Forbes Magazine CommSec chief equities economist Craig James said the Australian business community had been prepared for a Labor victory.

"In terms of economic policy, nothing really changes too much," said James, in an observation that would have been news last week.

Rudd was on the ABC’s 7.30 Report blaming the Liberals "from day one" for threatening to be obstructive over repealing Work Choices. They’ve already set up the fall guy and an alibi - the Senate.

Labor is said to be keen to recall Parliament to introduce its legislation to change the Howard Government’s Work Choices laws, but just how keen remains to be seen.

"I hate to say it, but Costello was right when he said the new government will start rewriting history," Unions NSW secretary John Robertson told The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday. "It’s already begun and Rudd and company are out there saying it was health or education or climate change. Sure, it was a bit of all those, but the biggest issue was Work Choices."

I got a nice email from Sharan Burrow and Jeff Lawrence at the ACTU for my support for the Your Rights At Work campaign.

"Well done," they said. "You have helped make history."

Just like those who took on Stanley Melbourne Bruce did nearly 80 years ago.

Yes, Kevin Rudd - and the media - appears to want to write a new page in Australia’s history - a page where it is as if the tens of thousands of ordinary hard working Australians, who banded together as the Your Rights At Work Campaign and changed a government, never existed.

But after the success of our campaign so far, we are highly unlikely to go away.

November 27, 2007

Phil Doyle is an active member of the Upper Blue Mountains Your Rights At Work Campaign. Visit his blog, Phil Phuckin’ Doyle, for his views and the return of the Tool of the Week.


Add a new comment

Only registered users can add comments.

Registering is quick and easy. You will need a valid e-mail account and you will make up a username and password

Click Register to register with us
or Login if you have aleady registered.