The attacks on working people by the O’Farrell Government are damaging and extreme. Yet they are made all the more galling by the fact that they result not only from misguided ideology, but sheer incompetence.
Unlike previous conservative administrations, while there is an ideological agenda there is also a complete lack of professionalism.
So when this government attacks the rights of working people, it does so out of political convenience. It does so out of a reluctance to work hard to achieve balanced solutions.
This incompetence will be this Government’s undoing.
Witness, for example, the attack on the bargaining rights and jobs of public sector workers. Within months of being elected, the O’Farrell Government introduced profound changes to the way wages and conditions are set for its own employees. In doing so, it managed to sloppily confuse its role as employer and regulator.
The battle proven system of conciliation and arbitration was trashed overnight. An arbitrary wage cap was imposed and 300,000 public sector workers lost the right to seek justice through an independent umpire.
Dusting its hands on that front it then waded in again and slashed 15,000 full time jobs. Laziness was the primary motivator. Instead of engaging with the workforce to drive productivity and efficiency improvements for the community, it was far easier just to drive down wages and slash jobs. This might improve the bottom line in the short term, but it does nothing to solve the problem in the long term.
This slovenly approach to policy was confirmed beyond doubt with the proposed ‘reforms’ to workers compensation.
There was no question that the scheme needed improvement – a point readily and forcefully made by the State’s trade unions. The government, in its desperation to sell its solution, may have grossly overstated the depth of the problem, but there was room to tighten things up.
A considered and intelligent government approach would have brought insurance companies, employers, doctors, lawyers and unions to the table with an obligation on all parties to work through the kinks in the system and reach a consensus, with an understanding that all had to compromise.
Yet that sounds a bit like hard work, doesn’t it?
Easier instead just to take a meat axe to the entitlements of ordinary working people, despite the fact they played no role in creating problems in the system in the first place. And so they slashed journey claims, whacked a two-and-a-half-year cap on compensation and cut medical expenses a year after returning to work.
Easy, but highly unprofessional. And workers have paid as a result.
Except that this government did not count on the work ethic of union opposition. Despite the snap decision, in the space of one week, ten thousand people rallied in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra. Separate strikes by nurses and firefighters culminated in Macquarie Street being filled with fire trucks before the parliament copped a hosing down.
The pressure resulted in some concessions being grudgingly conceded, but not nearly enough.
The only time this government shows any type of rigour at all is when they are trying to serve their own narrow political ends.
You have to admit there is a certain cleverness about the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act which manages to lump trade unions into the same pile as tobacco companies as ‘special interest groups’.
By banning all donations including affiliation fees they have gone a long way to politically silencing all but the wealthiest people in the state. Individuals do not win justice in the workplace, nor do they effect broader political and social change. That is the role of a movement. And that was precisely the Government’s aim – to silence a movement, politically and industrially.
The State Government argues on the one hand that its laws do not affect “genuine issue based campaigning”, but then on the other hand, the laws prevent campaigns from “promoting or opposing, directly or indirectly, a party” or “influencing the voting in an election”.
What is the point of “issue based campaigning: if it has no political consequence? How can any movement actually influence any agenda without a political agenda? Under these absurd parameters, the Your Rights at Work campaign would have highlighted the danger of AWAs to working people, but then been hamstrung from advising the electorate to do anything about it.
Over a century ago working people understood that because all individuals did not have the same financial means, it was necessary to pool our resources and run campaigns and political parties under a collective banner. This vital principle has not changed.
That’s why the then Labor Council was instrumental in forming the Australian Labor Party in 1891.
The O’Farrell Government may have won last year’s election, but they have proven through ideological attacks on the rights of ordinary working people that their support is based on flimsy foundations.