Bomber Beazley made a very good point when he declared in his parliamentary farewell speech that unions are fundamental to democracy. Perhaps that is why so many feel it is heartening to see the (usually horizontal) Federal ALP stand up and be counted on the issue of WorkChoices.
Of course, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that the IR policy formerly known as WorkChoices is deeply unsettling to many in the electorate and therefore that a spirited defence of ‘your rights at work’ is not just in keeping with ALP policy, but also electorally expedient. Current opinion polling, give or take a percentage point or four, would seem to confirm the wisdom of the ALP’s strategy.
What interests me, however, is how selective the ALP is about whose rights it will protect, and whose rights it will not.
As I understand it, the argument against the Orwellian WorkChoices policy (now hastily re-named ‘The Workplace Relations System’) is that it actually only offers real choice to one end of the bargaining table when it comes to negotiating pay and conditions. As is common with many of the things we call ‘choices’ today, WorkChoices just gives more choice to those who already have it: either to employers or to those employees who are in high demand because highly skilled and are therefore already highly paid.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
There have been a number of studies that have shown the people who lose out under WorkChoices are the most vulnerable often low-paid, low-skilled women who cling to jobs on the outer edges of our economy. Their ‘choice’ is often reduced to taking whatever an employer is prepared to dole out or doing without a job at all. As Tony Benn recently put it in Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko: freedom of choice is predicated on the power to choose.
While WorkChoices claims to offer more choice to everyone, the ALP is powerfully arguing that, in reality, it mostly delivers more choice to employers because, by removing the power of the collective from workers, you take away much of their bargaining power.
What puzzles me, therefore, is why the ALP hasn’t applied the same admirable clarity to what is erroneously called ‘choice’ in education.
Consider the similarities for a moment. Government-subsidised ‘parental choice’ is very like WorkChoices in that it really only offers more choice to those who already have it namely, the parents who can afford to pay up-front school fees.
As Mark Dapin put it in the Good Weekend recently, the only people who want choice in education are those who want to choose private.
And, just as in the world of WorkChoices the only people who want more ‘choice’ in working conditions are those who want a cheaper workforce that is, the employers the group that ‘parental choice’ actually offers the most choice to, particularly as long as we continue to ask private schools for no reciprocal obligations regarding enrolments, are private schools themselves. Unlike public schools, who must enrol all-comers, private schools can continue to exercise choice over whom they will educate and under what circumstances they will accept them despite extremely generous public subsidies. This is clearly a case of being happy to accept every taxpayer’s money, but not every taxpayer’s kid.
The poorest and most vulnerable families in our community have no choice but to continue to accept whatever level of educational opportunity their more and more cash strapped local public school is able to dole out.
It is futile to deny that ‘parental choice’ is largely of benefit to the middle class. We know that the average socio-economic status of students in most private schools will be higher than the average socio-economic status of students in public schools in the same area that’s one of the main reasons parents who can afford to do so ‘choose’ to send their children there.
We also know that the middle classes who were once represented in public schools at roughly the same percentage as they were in the community as a whole are now disproportionately educated in private schools. The same cannot be said of the less privileged. By taking the middle classes out of the public school system, you remove much of public education’s bargaining power.
Barry McGaw, recently of the OECD, says 70 per cent of the variation in performance between Australian schools can be linked to social class. How much of a choice do you think that indicates? Just as it is hard to imagine marginalised female workers freely ‘choosing’ lousy working conditions and lower pay, so it is hard to imagine disadvantaged families freely ‘choosing’ to send their children to what Prime Minister John Howard has called ‘safety net’ schools offering only a ‘reasonable level’ of education.
I would ask the anti-WorkChoices warriors in the ALP two questions. If unions are fundamental to democracy, how fundamental do you consider a strong, representative and well-resourced public education system to be?
And, if it is socially unjust to take away what little power vulnerable adults have over their working conditions, how much worse is it to ask our most vulnerable children to downgrade their own educational opportunities so that other more privileged children’s parents can have their ‘choice’?
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