OPINION

Working people are filling Australia's leadership void

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus (centre) wants to meet with the Prime Minister over worker protections during the Omicron surge. Picture: Getty Images
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus (centre) wants to meet with the Prime Minister over worker protections during the Omicron surge. Picture: Getty Images

ACTU secretary Sally McManus has written to the Prime Minister requesting an urgent meeting in an effort to secure a number of practical measures to save lives and protect the livelihoods of working people.

The measures include: making rapid antigen tests free and accessible to all, the extension of paid pandemic leave to all close contacts, the protection of people at work (including the upgrading of mask requirements to N95 or P2 standard), the rejection of any attempts to water down current work health and safety rights and obligations, and the reinstatement of income support for those who need it.

Since the beginning of his pandemic, the union movement has played a leading role in protecting the interests of ordinary people, working both critically and constructively with the Morrison government to, at least temporarily, shift its position away from an obsessively ideological adherence to the tenets of market fundamentalism.

But in the final months of 2021, the Prime Minister, feeling rather perky about the immediate future, refused to roll up his sleeves for the hard and practical work of hope, and appeared to revert to the role of marketing manager for the big end of town.

He continues to assure us, in tones reminiscent of the 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich, that "all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well". Unlike Julian, however, the Prime Minister's assertion is based on a deep faith in the power of markets. From his invocation of the "animal spirits of capitalism" to his paeans of praise to "can-do capitalism", the Prime Minister and his cabinet appear to see the role of government as primarily a means of further empowering those who are the chief owners of capital, and disempowering those who are not.

When you refuse to intervene to guarantee access to an essential good such as rapid antigen tests, you are endangering lives and livelihoods; sending us, while potentially infectious, on wild goose chases through price-gouging retail outlets. And you are endangering lives and livelihoods when you withdraw the social and economic support required for people to stay home when their attendance at work poses a danger to themselves and the community.

All is not well. Take a look around. This is not what wellness looks like. Wellness does not look like the escalation of risk and the acceleration of fear. Wellness does not like the exacerbation of uncertainty. Wellness does not look like avoidable illness and death.

For most of the past two years, the Morrison government has positioned itself as the guardian of liberty, the protector of the economy, the tough-love parent who purportedly needed to prod us to get out from under the doona. It scoffed at health directives that it sensed were unpopular with some. It laughed off the need for urgency in vaccine supply and rollout. It abrogated its responsibility for national quarantining facilities. It demonstrated its ability to lift unemployed workers above the poverty line, and then its cruelty in consigning them back below it. It refused to lift the federal funding cap for hospitals, set at 6.5 per cent, knowing full well how crucial, and how overstretched, our public health system has been throughout the pandemic. It appeared to have no real problem with big businesses ripping off the public purse, but it remained wary of the fundamentally decent notion that we should look after each other when we need each other's help, dishing out moralistic reprimands to unemployed workers and trying to shame people with a disability by telling them their needs are making the NDIS unsustainable. And it remained committed, in every possible way, to buttressing, rather than reversing, the dangerous rise of insecure work, despite the very obvious link between insecure work and the increase in personal and public health risks, and its demonstrably gendered impact, noting that between May and August last year, 90,000 women had lost their jobs, compared to 25,000 men. This is not to mention the social and economic risks associated with not having access to paid sick leave and other leave entitlements and not having any certainty around weekly income, which is especially deleterious to housing security.

But the past two years have also taught us a few things.

First, that our lives are more connected than many of us realised. As we are confronted with empty shelves at supermarkets, for example, we are reminded of all the working people we depend on. Supply chain workers are people with families, people with fears, as they face rising costs and rising dangers. They are people who work in every stage of production, in transport, in retail; many of whom are denied the simple right to a secure job. As measures are contemplated by the Morrison government, and the interests it serves, to send people to work when they are unwell and at risk, it is crucial that we stand in solidarity with each other rather than falling prey to the obscene narrative of the neoliberals that profits matter more than people. Yes, we all want the unofficial lockdown to end. But we will never achieve this by riding roughshod over the needs of essential workers. As the ACTU's McManus has noted: "Australian workers are not OK at the moment. We have never had so many working people sick at once. Healthcare workers are exhausted, people are anxious and uncertain."

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Second, we've learnt that we have every right, and every responsibility, to believe in ourselves more than we believe in any animal spirits, of capitalism or, for that matter, of anything else. When we stake our claim to preserve and, where necessary, expand the public sphere, we are demonstrating a powerful belief in ourselves, a belief that collectively, through government and with the community, we can protect ourselves. And when we stake our claim to secure jobs, decent wages, safe and respectful conditions, and decent income support, we are proclaiming our collective self-belief and self-worth as a community.

The third thing we have learnt is that when you do not socialise the risk to all, you privatise the pain for some. We have a government that goes out of its way to socialise the risks to big capital, making sure that we, as ordinary working people, pay the price, both literally and figuratively, for the preservation and expansion of profits, even for those corporate entities that continue to be allowed to pay little or no tax. What we have learnt, however, is that we also have the collective capacity to socialise the risk for ourselves. When government fails to adequately socialise risks, it condemns many of us to a world of avoidable private pain. How else to describe the deliberate and unconscionable relegation of unemployed workers, for example, to a daily struggle to survive below the poverty line? How else to describe the institutionalisation of insecure work and wage stagnation? How else to describe the retrenchment of social infrastructure, a systematic act of social sabotage that hurts us all?

All is not well, Prime Minister. But it can, with the requisite goodwill, be better than it is. Meet with the representatives of working people. Don't water down the social, economic or industrial protections owed to all of us. Essential workers have been utterly heroic. You do all of us a disservice when you glibly tell us to "push through", and when you try to remove the obligations of employers to ensure the safety of their employees. Like the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, Omicron may well burn itself out in time. It would be unforgivable if you walked away from us and did not work with us. It need not be this way, but it will not be forgotten if, after Omicron has burnt itself out, we're left as a nation of burnt-out people struggling to live in an even more divided society.

  • Dr John Falzon is senior fellow of inequality and social justice at think tank Per Capita. He was national chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018 and is a member of the Australian Services Union.
This story Working people are filling Australia's leadership void first appeared on The Canberra Times.