Australia still see itself as the ‘land of the fair go’. We didn’t get here by following all the rules, all the time, writes Jim Casey.
Sally McManus’s entirely sensible statements regarding the breaking of unjust laws has seen a rogues gallery of Coalition politicians condemn her, with backing vocals provided by the Leader of the Opposition and most of the Canberra press gallery.
It is another example of the terrible unthinking sameness in our political discourse, and it is out of step with many in the community.
People break the law in non-violent ways all the time. Our country has been built on it, and is the better for it.
By way of a recent example, in 2012 I led a strike by NSW firefighters over the gutting of workers’ compensation provisions in NSW. That strike was entirely illegal. Every fire engine in Sydney descended upon Macquarie St – again entirely illegal. And we then hosed down the roof of Parliament – illegally.
The NSW Coalition government’s workers compensation “reforms” had been designed to save money for employers and insurers, at the expense of injured workers. They denied workers any protection for injury sustained getting to and from work, would increase the threshold for receiving support, and dramatically limited the amount of time that those injured at work would receive medical assistance.
But to add insult to injury, those attacks on workers’ compensation did not extend to the protections offered to volunteer firefighters. The government was proposing that paid professional firefighters would be afforded less protection than the volunteers we sometimes work alongside.
Our union, the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union, met with FRNSW management. We met with the Minister. We raised it in the media. We did all the things you’re meant to do. The government was not listening. And why would they? They had an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Assembly and they simply didn’t care what we thought.
So we struck. We took illegal industrial action to stop an unjust law from passing the NSW upper house.
Our action was successful. An exemption for firefighters and paramedics introduced by the Greens got the support of the cross-bench, on the back of our strike, at the eleventh hour.
I am yet to meet anyone who begrudges NSW firefighters decent workers’ compensation protection. But we needed to break the law to achieve this outcome. No-one was going to give it to us, no matter how nicely we asked.
Ordinary workers have been breaking unjust laws in this country since Europeans arrived. And we still are – be it construction workers downing tools on unsafe work sites, teachers holding stop works over pay claims, maritime workers refusing to work on vessels that are carrying cargo loaded by strike-breakers. And it’s not just the union movement.
Australians have stood up again and again, peacefully but still against the law of the day, on questions of racism, sexism, the environment, equality, and more. Having just celebrated International Women’s Day it is important to remember the first refuges created to protect women fleeing domestic violence were houses that were squatted in NSW.
The women’s movement made huge gains for the entire community by being willing to engage in civil disobedience when it meant providing services and safe places for women.
These actions and the actions taken by workers, mums and dads, environmentalists and farmers have made a society that, for all its flaws, is the envy of many for its expectation of fairness, and its generosity. Non-violent direct action has played a pivotal role in our history and will continue to do so into the future.
What is newsworthy here is not the fact that Australians will continue, on occasion, to break unjust laws – it’s that we finally have an ACTU Secretary prepared to publicly recognise the fact.
Good luck Sally – there are millions who agree with you.