Advance Australia Where?

These are the speaking notes of a speech given to Manning Clark House in September 2016.


Thank you for the invitation today.

Firstly, let me acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

Two-worlds. The problems.

Australia is the fifth most prosperous nation on earth. For many years, until just recently, we were the richest, with an unprecedented 26 years of growth.

Yet despite this great wealth, too many in Australia face homelessness, disadvantage, discrimination, joblessness, under-employment, social exclusion, unsafe communities, and inequality.

For decades the labour movement has warned that if we did not fend off massive income inequality, Australia would become a nation ripped from a script of a cyberpunk sci-fi movie.

A dystopia consisting of an all-powerful super-rich and an increasingly desperate, impoverished underclass, living in a world wracked by climate induced extreme weather catastrophes.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the global financial crisis, today we see the richest remain untouched by austerity obsessed governments.

The richest see their wealth increase by $2 million every hour.

Meanwhile around 250,000 jobs in Australia have been wrecked since the global financial crisis began.

Incomes are stagnating for the first time in decades.

Membership of trade unions declines, fuelled by extreme anti-union corporations who import paramilitary union-busting tactics.

Personal debt continues to rise.

Our public institutions have been hollowed out.

Health care costs are increasing. Pensions and superannuation are threatened.

And we face extreme heat, flooding, fires and droughts from the impact of the climate crisis.

Economic morality.

There has been an abandonment of moral capitalism.

My view is that welfare and morality should be integral to any discussion about the future, and especially for economic and public policy decisions.

Economics should be practiced and taught as a ‘moral science’.

Most of the disagreements and uncertainties in economics stems from how economic criteria is applied – that is, moral judgements.

Ultimately, the large macroeconomic forces, globalisation, and so on – they are all the sum of decisions made by people.

They are not a force of nature, and the laws of supply and demand are not like the laws of physics.

We need to see the return of economic morality.

And at the risk of sounding a bit sectional, in my view unions are integral to that morality.

As Tim Lyons, former ACTU Assistant Secretary, has said, Unions achieve two moral economic purposes.

The first is a rights purpose, the second is a distributional purpose.

The first is based on the recognition that disproportionate power lies with the employer.

The heart of union organising is to even up the balance.

Unions are about ensuring that working people are treated fairly and given a measure of control, however modest, over their lives while at work.

Absent a union, we see gender pay gaps, insecure work, low wages, unsafe working conditions, and the treatment of working people as objects. 

The second purpose is distributional.

Unions influence the fairer distribution of the gains of economic growth.

Through collective bargaining and minimum wage laws, unions ensure working people and their communities benefit from wealth creation.

Where there are strong unions, there are more equal, prosperous societies.

It is little wonder therefore that since the global financial crisis, global capital has intensified its assault on unions, and thereby weakened collective bargaining, cut minimum wages, increased workplace insecurity, and introduced an austerity agenda.

Precarious work and the Uberisation of labour makes it increasingly difficult for working people to bargain for fairer wages and a better life.

Populist, angry, divisive, culture-driven politics – Trumpism, Hansonism and the far right are the symptoms of the failures of market capitalism and financialism.

These failures are now so extreme that we face a choice between two Australias.

If we do nothing: a morality-free dystopia that we see emerging in places like the USA, Europe, the UK, and the developing world.

Or if we fight: a better, brighter, more equal Australia.

And decent work is integral to that better future.

Secure jobs.

Within living memory, almost every working person, whether skilled or unskilled, had decent work.

They had job security. Overtime. Guaranteed minimum hours.

The prospect of owning their own home.

The prospect of their children getting a tertiary education or trade degree.

And after their work finished, a dignified retirement.

In large part this was due to the high level of unionisation – around 50 percent in 1980.

A third of the new jobs created since 1990 have been temporary, part-time, casual or self-employed.

In some industries as high as forty or even fifty percent.

Uber and Taskrabbit are the shiny new manifestation of the 19th century factory-gate hiring.

Insecure work is a gendered problem and a problem of race, disability, age.

Women are disproportionately represented in precarious, part-time and casual work.

Similarly, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people with a disability, older people, young people, are all disproportionately employed in casual, low paid, exploitative jobs.

The lack of secure work has created a paradox.

An increasing number of people work many more than 40 hours a week – rarely by choice – just to earn enough to live.

At the same time, there is enormous underemployment and unemployment.

Many people want to work more hours.

The destruction of these secure foundations of work – under the guise of Uberisation but also called labour hire and subcontracting – will have as a profound, albeit negative, impact on our society over the next two decades, as the creation of modern labour standards regime did in the 1940s.

High wages, raising and enforcing the minimum wage.

Talking of modern labour standards, Australia still has one of the highest minimum and social wages in the world.

Increases in the minimum wage and awards directly improved the living standards of low paid working people and their capacity to meet their needs.

But the minimum wage floor is failing.

Real weekly earnings for full-time workers have become less equal in the past decade — the lower the earnings, the lower the rate of growth in earnings.

(As an aside, at the same time as wage growth has declined, productivity and profits has increased. I wonder who has benefited?)

The minimum wage is no longer a protection against poverty.

In many cases, it has become a poverty trap.

I recently spoke to a cleaner in Canberra, who’s employer – a major shopping centre owner who in recent years paid no company tax at all – terminated a collective agreement and reduced the cleaner’s wage to the award minimum.

I asked her – ‘how do you cope with the reduced wages? How do you pay for rent? For food?’

She told me – ‘it’s simple. I live in public housing, so I went to Housing ACT and asked for my rent to be reduced.’

Corporations and business shift risk and costs off their balance sheets and onto working people and their communities.

And worse, the minimum wage is increasingly being ignored, flouted, breached, by unscrupulous employers.

The scandal of 7-Eleven is not that an ASX200 company allowed the wage abuses to go unchecked while the owners lined their pockets with half a billion dollars.

The scandal is that 7-Eleven — and almost every franchise and almost every major corporation — has wage theft integrated into their business model.

It is immorality by design.

Less work, not more. And higher wages.

What is the future of work?

This is a live debate within the union movement.

Automation and robotisation are economic mega-trends that are impacting knowledge workers, service workers and industrial workers alike.

But why can’t these innovations allow us to work less and earn more?

For decades, unions have fought for the right to work less.

Before the eight-hour day, there was the twelve and sixteen-hour day.

Now, we are seeing some countries and industries with seven-hour days, even six-hour days.

Robotisation and automation could mean the creation of a jobless underclass if it is not guided by moral judgements.

But it could also mean working people benefit from the increased productivity.

There is a transition taking place in almost every industry and sector.

Our challenge is to ensure it is a just transition, founded in morality.

Reducing carbon emissions & tackling climate change

Talking of just transition, I’d like to briefly talk about climate change.

Global warming is an existential threat to humanity.

Under the global suicide pact of climate inaction, we are already experiencing the deindustrialisation of entire communities and regions.

Unless we stop warming at 2 degrees, we face catastrophe.

The transition to a clean energy economy is probably inevitable, but it is happening far too slowly.

Furthermore, the transition taking place is not a just transition.

More renewable energy does not automatically result in less inequality.

As I mentioned, a key role for unions is to ensure that working people have some measure of control over their lives.

The same must be true for the clean energy transition over the next few decades.

We cannot allow this economic and technological transformation to be at the expense of working people and their communities.

Conclusion. A new morality.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough the challenges that lie ahead.

There is a real risk that the next twenty years of economic gains are entirely captured by the richest 1 percent.

But those are decisions that are made by people.

We need a new economic morality.

Where business decisions, public policy decisions, are treated as moral judgements.

Where decision makers are held accountable.

Where working people and their communities share in the benefits of economic growth y.

Where workers’ rights are strengthened. Where wages are raised.

Where carbon emissions are reduced and climate change is genuinely tackled.

Where global trade and supply chains are purged of forced labour.

Where multinational corporations are accountable – financially and morally – to the communities they operate in.

Obama famously said that the arc of history bends towards justice.

Well, it will only bend because working people organise together to bend it that way.

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