On AWAs and NGOs


Kim Beazley’s bold decision to commit a Federal Labor Government to abolishing individual employment contracts, known as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), has catapulted the Opposition into an election-winning position.

Or has his announcement of 11 June at the NSW State Labor Party Conference backfired in the electorate, causing a dip in the ALP’s primary vote?


On Monday of this week, an AC Neilsen poll in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald put Labor ahead of the Coalition on a two-Party-preferred basis, 51-49 per cent. It also showed a solid 40 per cent approved of the abolition of AWAs, while another 35 per cent were ambivalent that is, they were open to persuasion.

Yesterday, however, the Newspoll published in The Australian flipped the numbers 51-49 in favour of the Coalition. Not only that, News Corporation papers, from Cairns to Tasmania, slammed Beazley’s decision as a ‘failed test,’ just a week after they led the charge accusing him of ‘caving in’ to pressure from unions.

It’s obvious what is going on here. News Corporation has embraced individual contracts for its workers with more enthusiasm than other employers. The uniform nature of its criticism of Beazley makes it clear that News will use the 70 per cent of major city newspapers that it owns to force Beazley to back down. News believes that by taking the indecisive poll results (both AC Neilsen and Newspoll are within the margin of error) and accentuating the negative, it can weaken the will of the Labor caucus.

In fairness, The Australian has campaigned for 20 years to achieve a laissez-faire labour market and its agenda is transparent. But its wishful thinking that Labor will weaken on this issue won’t change the facts on the ground. Despite the headlines, Labor MPs are almost unanimous in their support of Beazley’s policy of ending AWAs. They know as does an increasing number of Liberal MPs that many workers on individual contracts, perhaps even a majority, are not there by choice. In the same way, a significant number of individual contractors are not ruggedly individualistic entrepreneurs, but people who work almost exclusively for one client, making them de facto employees but without benefits or employment security.

Whatever the shifting sands of the opinion polls, one thing is evident: the next Federal election will, for the first time in a decade, be fought on Labor’s terms. Beazley and the unions are already defining the political territory rights at work and the Government is being forced to respond; forced to patch up the holes in its case.

In 2004, former Labor leader Mark Latham succeeded briefly in changing the terms of political engagement, with policies on literacy, early childhood development and social isolation. But ultimately, the voters decided these were boutique issues in the same category as Keating’s 1996 mantra of ‘APEC, Mabo and the Republic’ compared with economic management and its effect on mortgage rates.

This time, Beazley will have working for him an issue that is as intrinsic to daily life as interest rates the ability to service a mortgage with a secure and fair income.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

* * *

On Monday, Labor frontbencher Laurie Ferguson used an adjournment debate in Federal Parliament to read into Hansard excerpts from a discussion paper published recently by Joan Staples, a visiting fellow at the University of NSW, called NGOs Out in the Cold: The Howard Government Policy Towards Non-Government Organisations. Her paper is part of the Australian National University’s ‘Democratic Audit of Australia’ project.

Staples argues that since 1996 the Howard Government has bullied many NGOs into silence by threatening their funding, and in the process undermining one of the central tenets of civil society the ability of citizens to organise, zealously represent their interests and even criticise their government. The organisations include local resident groups, community legal centres, health awareness groups, environmental and consumer groups, sporting associations and ethnic communities. Ferguson pointed out that in 1991, five years before the Howard Government came to power, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs published a report on the role of NGOs, arguing:

An integral part of the consultative and lobbying role of these organisations is to disagree with government policy where this is necessary in order to represent the interests of their constituents.

The nation’s parliament recognised the right indeed the necessity for the citizens to actively dissent from government policy.

‘Upon coming to power,’ Ferguson said, ‘John Howard referred to these groups as œsingle issue groups,  œspecial interests  and œelites.  He promised that his Government would be owned by no special interests, defend no special privileges and be accountable only to the Australian people.’

(That boast has unravelled in recent days, after the Government appointed the revisionist historian of Aboriginal Australia, Keith Windschuttle, to the ABC Board. Windschuttle’s appointment, in and of itself, is unremarkable, except that he is the third serving ABC Board member, after Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen, associated with the Right-wing journal, Quadrant.)

Ferguson also argued that, far from being independent of interest groups, the Howard Government has been hijacked by elite business and employer lobbies. The most obvious nexus between the two is Peter Hendy, head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and chief corporate cheerleader for the workplace relations changes, who helped draft the first wave of anti-union legislation as chief of staff to Peter Reith, Howard’s first Industrial Relations Minister. Three years ago it emerged that the ACCI had received $37 million in taxpayer money since the Coalition came to power.

According to Joan Staples’s paper, NGOs that do not support the Government’s agenda have been stripped of their funding. ‘These groups represented some of the poorest and most unrepresented members of the community,’ she says. They include the Australian Federation of Pensioners and Superannuants, the National Shelter, the Association of Civilian Widows and the Australian Youth Action Coalition. The Consumer Federation of Australia, the nation’s peak consumer advocacy body, has also lost its funding and, earlier this year, support for the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia evaporated.

One group that clearly does have the ear of the Prime Minister is the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), and especially the director of its Non-Government Organisation unit, Gary Johns. Johns is actually a former Keating Government Minister of no particular distinction who has converted to the radical Right, where he has become the rhetorical hit man against charities that disagree with Government policy. The IPA, having raged against Government funding for civil society groups, accepted $50,000 of taxpayer money to conduct Johns’s study.

As Ferguson told Parliament,

The IPA has adopted a policy focusing on undermining the standing of its adversaries through generating and disseminating negative messages about their role in democracies, their motives and their integrity. The Institute’s program to discredit the work of non-government organisations begins by trading in ex
treme language Some of the language that is being used by the IPA against its opponents [includes]‘cashed up NGOs,’ ‘dictatorship of the articulate,’ ‘tyranny of the articulate,’ ‘tyranny of the minorities’ and ‘mail-order memberships of the wealthy Left, content to buy their activism and get on with their consumer lifestyle.’

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