August 13th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: BRAZIL: The slippery road to communist dictatorship

EDITORIAL: Australia's clean, green image at risk

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard Government's industrial relations pain

SCHOOLS: Subverting the English curriculum

NATIONAL SECURITY: Re-thinking Australia's response to terrorism

ECONOMICS: Ethanol and the national interest

CONSTITUTION: What is wrong with a Bill of Rights?

FAMILY LAW: Paternity fraud penalises the innocent

UNITED STATES: John G. Roberts and the US Supreme Court

STRAWS IN THE WIND: How to lose with a royal flush / Hard cases / Another 'bottom of the harbour' scheme? / Waste disposal

CINEMA: 'Vigilante justice' and movie culture

FORTHCOMING TOUR: The 'Mother Teresa of Africa' to tour Australia

Better way to help African poor (letter)

Clinical judgement on treatment of dying (letter)

Serious omission (letter)


BOOKS: NED KELLY'S LAST DAYS: Setting the record straight on the death of an outlaw

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How to lose with a royal flush / Hard cases / Another 'bottom of the harbour' scheme? / Waste disposal

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, August 13, 2005
How to lose with a royal flush

Come back, Jimmy Scullin!

Watching the Federal Government twisting and turning in the toils of the industrial relations "reforms" - in trouble entirely of their own making - reminds one of the last years of the Stanley Bruce Government.

Their big push to change the arbitration system (a system inspired by Justice Higgins) and their massive and totally unexpected defeat in 1929 at the hands of Jimmy Scullin and the Labor Party, all comes back to me - an electoral defeat in which Bruce lost his own safe seat.

The conservative villain was Sir John Latham, the Attorney-General, a genuinely superior person, but in this context driven by a deranged sense of unreality.

The Melbourne Club and the big end of town met their Waterloo.

The Liberals are making an unbelievable hash of not only trying to sell their workplace relations proposals, but even of being able to formulate a set of proposals to present in October - yes, it's now to be in October!

The Treasurer and Kevin Andrews must bear full responsibility for this fiasco, while John Howard is not helping by saying "amen" to what, in the circumstances, are loose-cannon obiter dicta from his colleagues.

With 1929 in mind, I've been looking with interest at the seats of his two main colleagues. Ahem.

Take public holidays, which are up for trading, it would seem. In other words, you give up the holidays in exchange for more money (how much money?).

Costello says this trading is already going on. Yes, but it is voluntary, apparently. But there remains the statutory right to claim and enjoy these holidays.

Some of these are religious (Christian); others patriotic and celebrating the genesis of our nation. One, Melbourne Cup, is iconic - or semi-religious, if you are a happy pagan. And Show Day - once our tribute to the country people and their very different lives, but now a day regularly turned into a honky-tonk by city urgers - is still unique in our roll-call of special commemorative days.

This federal conservative government, and most Australian conservative governments, wholeheartedly espouse the value of the family, the importance of religion in people's lives, and of churches as being important foundations of society and a source of enrichment of public morality.

Now we know that many individuals do not value or wish to honour these various holidays, and also that there are an increasing number of us who are isolated, lonely and so almost mocked by family-centred celebrations, or just by days when nothing happens, no-one seems to be about and one is expected to go into mothballs.

Naturally, such people may want to work on those days if they can, to side-step their isolation. They shouldn't be forced to be idle. So our community can be served by such volunteers on those days of statutory leisure.

But neither should the importance nor the significance of these public holidays be whittled away, let alone be rejected in any way. The Feds, given their religious, patriotic, pro-family professions - have the chance to set these holidays in stone, institutionalising them, and legally warning off interlopers or reductionists. And then, there is the reaffirming of the Sabbath, the Day of Rest, originally recognised by Jews and Christians. This Holy Day, this family-centred day, has been virtually trampled under the feet of the hucksters.

People have been tempted by money; then forced, in many cases, to give up their day of rest and worship and family and social communion, which is a central part of the community, which our leaders, political and spiritual, enthuse about. Whereas in reality, as we know, Mammon has been digging its grave.

Now, people are being tempted to give up their lunch-break for money - and the unions and others not so much fear as anticipate many workers being virtually blackmailed into declaring their readiness to give up meal-breaks or holidays if the employer decides it is necessary (i.e., in his interests).

Thin edge of the wedge

Mr Costello says that people have always traded holidays, lunch-breaks and even smokos. Yes, and in many cases this was wrong; often agreed upon under duress; and, as it is turning out to be, the thin end of the wedge for making this kind of voluntary, or involuntary, renunciation of hard-won privileges a general practice.

As to the unfair dismissal laws, we know how abused they have been, how adversely they affect even normal productivity, and what a demoralising effect this abuse has on a work environment - an environment where most participants would just like to do their work but have to watch hard-core bludgers and neurotics copping out of their responsibilities, as an art form, and no-hopers, protected by union officials who think it is a crime to work, and supported by lawyers of a certain kind.

We know how many small businesses refuse to take on more labour - foregoing prospects of expansion and increased profit, because they cannot afford to dismiss an obstructive, non-productive but litigious worker. If they have a spare $20,000, they might: but then they vow "never again".

So the conservatives are genuinely concerned at this point with the problems of small business. But ... the whole question of victimisation of decent workers, or of sacking them to suit the current bottom-line, remains. It will require great care to answer.

The real target of necessary, as against opportunistic changes in our present unfair dismissal laws should be, not the private but the public phantasmagoria. Public service unions are far more influential than their counterparts in the private realm, and breathe down the necks of governments and politicians - especially those from the ALP - with an efficacy of which most private-sector unions can only dream.

Hard cases

The spectacle of the hard cases - with one hand near the phone to Maurice Blackburn and Co. or some other big litigation lawyer; the other hand near a phone to the "union" - is a familiar, almost normal, feature of bureaucratic life, as are flogging sick-leave, disappearing whenever there's a demo against poverty or George W. Bush, using the Internet or the fax-machine to pump out infantile political propaganda or union factional claptrap.

These reverse-Stakhanovites are the life of the unhappy hours, enforcers of the office union meetings. Their work lies gathering dust until some colleague does it, and when they do it, their customers are wont to get the blunt end of the pineapple.

Dr Death comes over as the epitome of public spiritedness.

Colleagues tolerate these termagants; managers usually give up. And some of them are little mates. This is where changes in the dismissal laws are needed, rather than at the bottom of the business pile.

The doleful consequences of these shenanigans help fuel the drive for privatisation, for outsourcing, for short-term fixed contracts, for using casual or part-time labour, for importing labour and for going offshore. The "can't-be-bothered" work culture, endorsed by so many union officials, has a great deal for which to answer.

There are many foreshadowed ideas in this legislation of which I would approve: the secret ballot before strike actions, go-slows or political strikes; the replacement of the state tribunals by one federal one; the drive to stop standover tactics (bullying and union exclusion of workers and the blackmail of employers); also the exposure of the sweetheart deals between big employers and union chiefs.

But all these desirable reforms could be in jeopardy.

When one considers how skilfully Abbott threaded his way through the IR minefields, with few leaks and apparently few internal acts of obstruction, as against the endless leaks and possible dumb insolence so as to slow up policy formulation within the department now run by Kevin Andrews ... one has reason to ask, "Why is this happening now?"

As a result of all this, the ACTU has been restored as a major player, people are joining or re-joining unions, instead of leaving them, and more and more Australians are saying that unions are good, and "hands off!"

Another "bottom of the harbour" scheme?

It appears as though Melburnians are going to have their harbour dredged, so as to allow the entry of huge container-ships and oil-tankers, whether they like it or not.

There is first to be a "trial" dredge - a feasibility study. The trial dredge will shift some one and a half million tons of harbour bottom, I understand.

A protest group of Bay residents - the Blue Wedge Group - says that this in itself is a major intrusion into the Bay ecosystem, certain to damage it; and anyway the Government and their rich mates are going to go ahead notwithstanding. The unions are backing the widening and deepening of the channel, with a maritime union saying it will create jobs and, if the big ships aren't allowed here, Melbourne will decline and jobs will be lost.

So the locals are up against some big, profit-driven players and have good reason to fear for the future of the whole area.

It reminds me of what Mussolini and his minister Giuseppe Volpi did to Venice and its lagoon in 1925. Venice was built on a marsh, intersected by canals, with no roads and no main sewage.

Waste disposal

The canals washed the waste of Venice out into the lagoon. The tides moved the waters of the canal, with the sea receiving the waste. The only jobs in Venice in those days centred around the tourists and craftsmen, i.e., Venice and the islands. Most local workers in Venezia province, and many others from Venice itself, had traditionally to find work elsewhere.

In 1925 the Duce had a petrochemical works established on the shores of the Bay. A new city, Mestre, sprang up next to Venice, and many thousands of jobs were created.

But the factories drew their water from the water-table below Venice, and Venice started to sink and is still sinking. All protests then and since have met with united opposition from governments (fascist or postwar Christian Democrat), unions (fascists, then communist) and Big Business.

The lagoon's ecological system is fractured. The tides behave differently, so the canals no longer can dispose of the city waste, which goes out, then comes back.

Only too often, the canals stink, and any tourist who falls in has to go straight to a doctor. All manner of attempts to fix things have been tried, but Venice inexorably sinks. But jobs and profits are all - apparently.

Port Philip Bay is no Venetian lagoon, but it is a greatly prized feature of Melbourne.

And just imagine giant tankers parked near the city under present security conditions, or the spillage! They can easily use nearby ports, as we know.

As to those great container ships? We could become the Mumbai of Australia! Goody gumdrops.

Having filleted the CBD, much of graceful Melbourne's suburbia and still trying to deface the Great Ocean Road with wind farms, our own corporate state - i.e., Government, Big Business and unions - are going to fix up the Bay and those beaches which are still intact.

Where are our fearless Greens at this moment? Mussolini and Volpi must be chuckling.

Incidentally, most TV networks gave reasonable coverage of this demo (July 31); but the ABC just forgot to report the support of the unions for Premier Bracks and the developers.


  • Max Teichmann

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