The ugly chickens of the neoliberal era in Australian public policy are relentlessly coming home to roost: stagnating wages, high unemployment (especially among young people), declining standards in public hospitals, schools, universities, and TAFE institutes, homelessness on the increase, more beggars on the streets, increased social conflict (crime, racist violence, domestic violence, home invasions, road rage, car-jackings, sexual harassment), the death of manufacturing, more and more people experiencing anger, despair, anxiety and depression, unprecedented growth in socio-economic inequality, big corporations bullying governments and the general public (big banks, mining companies, media organisations) …
The latest public figure to call attention to the truly perilous state of the Australian economy and society is the courageous ACTU secretary, Sally McManus. She correctly notes that ordinary workers have absolutely not benefited from what the purveyors of aggregate economic statistics claim is a world-beating, healthy Australian economy. Despite the stats, she points to the mere 1 per cent of the Australian population that now owns and/or controls more wealth than 70 per cent of the population. And it’s getting worse. There are no policies in place that would arrest this serious development.
Ms McManus is calling for “disruptions” to the neoliberal economic agenda that has created the mess we are now in, while fools like federal treasurer Scott Morrison and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull would have us believe that everything in the economic garden is rosy. It’s not. The garden is full of noxious weeds and strangling vines. Only those at the very top of the tree are benefiting from what is the laughably self-proclaimed sound economic husbandry of the Coalition government.
Earlier this year Ms McManus proposed that if laws are unjust we should be prepared to break them. This is a time-honoured sentiment that goes back at least to the time of the late 17th century Liberal philosopher John Locke. He argued that if governments misgovern us, we not only have the right to disobey them, but we have the duty to overthrow them. He was arguing this in an era when the doctrine of the divine right of kings was still fashionable (and which is still fashionable on the extreme right of the Liberal Party).
So Ms McManus belongs to a very great tradition in democratic thought that, among other great things, motivated the writers of the American Constitution to create the American Republic. Predictably, News Ltd hacks and their ilk went ballistic following Ms McManus’s remarks. She was accused of encouraging lawlessness, violence, mayhem and many like things beside. (Interestingly, John Locke faced similar accusations and had to flee to France to avoid decapitation in the Tower of London. Will Ms McManus be forced to flee to New Zealand to avoid the confected wrath of Rupert and his minions?)
The News Ltd creatures were notoriously silent however when three federal ministers – Greg Hunt, Michael Sukkar and Alan Tudge – barely escaped a conviction for contempt of court – a conviction that could have seen them jailed but for a very late-in-the-day cringing apology. The silence of the right in politics and the media on this occasion speaks volumes. The ministers and those they hang out with in Parliament claim to be conservatives, arrogantly cloaking themselves in a tradition stretching back to the great 18th century Irish philosopher and Member of the Commons, Edmund Burke. That tradition surfaces vividly in the 20th century writings of the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (see, for example, his brilliant essay “On Being Conservative”).
Genuine political conservatives in the Burke to Oakeshott line would never imperil the functioning of the separation of powers by being found to be in contempt of court. Most members of the right in contemporary Australian politics are in fact faux conservatives – even anti-conservative – espousing a callously anti-social ideology of individualism while drifting increasingly towards the falangist end of the political spectrum (see, for example, the recent draconian moves to tighten citizenship laws in this country).
Ms McManus is calling on the Trade Union movement in Australia to confront the way we are presently being governed and to disrupt the policy manacles imposed on the body politic by neoliberalism. She is absolutely right to advocate disruption. But the question is: How can this be successfully achieved? Disruption is needed, but are we able to guarantee the outcomes?
Before the Trade Union movement can engage in effective disruption of the neoliberal yoke under which we all labour, it needs to look to its own institutions and organisations. It needs to ask why so few workers in Australia today are union members. It needs to get rid of the sources of corruption and criminality that have pervaded some unions. It needs leaders who genuinely connect with real workers, who truly understand – and share – the harrowing conditions, poor wages, insecure employment, dangerous working conditions, and merciless bosses that real workers have to endure each and every day.
Trade Unions in short have to clean up their act – comprehensively – if they are going to be part of a movement to first disrupt and then to clean out the Augean stables of neoliberalism.
In the meantime, real workers and their allies need to look closely at what is happening in France where the En Marche movement under President Emmanuel Macron is shaking the very foundations of the neoliberal agenda that is half the cause of the weakness of the French economy. The other half is caused by a recalcitrant trade union movement that has been a mindless complement to the woes that neoliberalism has imposed on the French people.
We need an Advance Australia movement in this country that Ms McManus could perhaps help create, to finally disrupt forever the depredations that neoliberalism has rained down on the Australian people for far too long. May the Australian Trade Union movement come clearly to the fore of this urgently needed reform.
Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.