Why Worry About The NSW Upper House?


Campaigners concerned about the likelihood of a "backward and ultra-conservative" government controlling the upper house in NSW yesterday envisioned the future of the state after 26 March. The discussion, chaired by director of GetUp! Simon Sheikh gathered leaders from conservation groups, unions and the women’s movement in the chamber of the NSW Legislative Council.

They met to discuss the likely scenario that the Coalition will hold an outright majority in the Legislative Council, with the support of the Christian Democratic Party (CDP), and Shooters and Fishers Party. Former Independent Member of the NSW Legislative Council Richard Jones described the prospect as a "disaster for progressive forces". Vice-president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, David Bernie called it a "backward" step for human rights and social justice. Catriona Menzies-Pike yesterday looked at how progressives will campaign before polling day to make their voices heard in the upper house for New Matilda.

Will a Coalition-held upper house — with the extreme right parties holding the balance of power — really be so disastrous? Political pendulums swing all the time and pre-polling suggests that NSW voters are well and truly ready for change. They want better infrastructure and transport — and they don’t want a Labor goverment. Progressives who are fed up with Labor argue that there’s a great deal at stake if the upper house swings to the far right.

Yesterday’s discussion at Macquarie St covered womens’ and workers’ rights, environmental protection, and the needs of diverse communities and again and again, the refrain was sounded: "it took so long to build and it will take so little to dismantle". The common concern is that the influence of Fred Nile and the Shooters will undermine the gains made by progressives under Labor.

David Bernie identified the real possibility of the loss of two real achievements: safe injecting rooms and ethic classes. He described them as "life and death" issues. Even though O’Farrell has not actively campaigned against the closure of safe injecting rooms, there are many people in the Liberal Party who oppose them. The Christian Democrats want to see funding cut for medically supervised injecting rooms. Bernie’s colleague at the Council for Civil Liberties, Lesley Lynch, didn’t have many kind words for the way policy on prisons, police powers, sentencing and bail had fared under Labor but worried that after a law and order election, civil liberties could continue to erode.

A conservative-held upper house will be bad news for environmentalists, especially given the potential sway of the Shooters Party, which has traditionally operated at odds with environmental protection and national parks policy. Retiring Greens MLC Ian Cohen characterised the Coalition as taking a very "superficial approach" to conservation issues. Describing the situation as "precarious", he expressed concern over the possibility of policy reversals on national parks thanks to the Shooters, whose platform involves firearms and recreational hunting, having balance of power.

Parliamentary leader of the NSW Shooter and Fishers Party, Robert Brown, is one of the four-minority party MLCs the Coalition will most likely need to get legislation through the upper house.

Richard Jones said the Shooters Party will "push and push and push for the shooting of animals for pleasure". He continued, "We’ll probably see grazing in alpine areas again, we’ll probably see shooting of native and feral animals in national parks and state recreation areas, we’ll probably see more shooting ranges, we’ll probably see the opening of the duck season again which we ended in 1995." 

There are also real concerns about what a very conservative government will mean for women’s rights. City of Sydney Labor Councillor and former president of the upper house, Meredith Burgmann and Sally McManus of the Australian Services Union both expressed consternation that O’Farrell will have the power to rule on the upcoming community sector equal pay decision.

Reproductive rights may also be under threat. The anti-abortion agenda of Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats is well known. Labor MLC Helen Westwood asked people to think about the necessity of women’s access to "safe and affordable abortion" when allocating their preferences. Greg Smith, the former president of Right to Life, who will be O’Farrell’s attorney-general, has promised not to tighten abortion laws. Will this position be reviewed under pressure from Nile? Westwood also raised the possibility of the rollback of gun laws under the influence of the Shooters Party and noted the danger this would pose for women affected and at risk of domestic violence.

Representatives of the labour movement recalled the bad old days of former Liberal governments and the impact they had on workers’ entitlements. State industrial relations law may only apply to public sector workers — but this is no small section of the workforce. It includes teachers, nurses and police, all of whom are represented by strong unions. In view of this, secretary of the Australian Services Union NSW-ACT branch and vice-president of Unions NSW, Sally McManus, emphasised the need to protect the rights of public sector workers.

She predicted that it will be in the Coalition’s interest to take on the strongest unions first. "This is the number one thing they (Coalition) want to destroy," she said. McManus and Paul McAleer of the MUA pointed to the precedent on workers’ rights set by other Coalition governments — from Howard’s WorkChoices to Jeff Kennett’s cuts and Colin Barnett’s reform of IR laws — as cause for alarm.

Another issue on the agenda was the Coalition’s potential removal of workers compensation protection for workers traveling to and from work. Former NSW Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), Andrew Ferguson, who sits sixth on Labor’s ticket for the upper house said compensation claims are a "real issue of paramount importance", drawing particular attention to the prospect that workers’ compensation coverage for workers traveling to and from work will be abolished. Peter Murphy of the Search Foundation alerted the forum to the prospect that NSW’s occupational health and safety laws, which he says are the strongest in the country, will be scaled back under an O’Farrell government.

Coverage of this election campaign has, by and large, been preoccupied with general discussion of how O’Farrell is going to "fix" the state. Expectations are high in this regard and it remains to be seen whether O’Farrell and his party can meet them. Far less attention has been paid to what O’Farrell is likely to undo and this is what concerns progressives. The gains made for women, workers, the environment and diverse communities under Labor might have been obscured by higher profile messes, but if deals are made to further the agenda of the Shooters Party and the Christian Democrats, they may well be the first to go.


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