Hugh McKay outlines the trends in Australian society emerging from his social research and ACTU President Sharan Burrow congratulates the new ALP leader Mark Latham.

Sharan Burrow: I dont think I need to introduce Hugh McKay to any of you. Well give you a sense of what weve been discussing in the Executive this morning and Hugh has some very interesting insights, as you would know, into what Australians think about their world.

So well deal with that first and then well let him leave while you might ask me questions about any other issues you want to.

For the ACTU, this morning has been a really important debate. In the lead-up to a federal election, whether its work and family, whether its the increasing financial stress, whether its the debate going on in our parliament that would effectively smash bulk billing, would deny even more Australians affordable higher education, whether it is the bills that will eventually take away more of the industrial rights that Australias working people have enjoyed for decades then these are serious issues.

They will have a serious impact on peoples lives, and in order to try and understand how theyre feeling, we were delighted to be able to welcome Hugh McKay to the Executive, a bit of a learning exercise for us. Ill let him tell you a little bit about how he sees Australia at this point in our history.

Hugh McKay: Well, a quick summary of the material I gave to the Executive, I think the core point is that we are a rather bewildered society at the moment. Its tempting to say thats because of Bali or its because of Iraq or September 11 or border protection issues, and its true that those things have heightened our anxieties. But thats not the real point.

The real point about contemporary Australia is that we are now about 30 years into a period of such sustained instability, such sustained revolution, that were struggling to deal with what I think we can best call the age of discontinuity where things like marriage and divorce and the birth rate and the shrinking household have really reshaped the way were living.

But of course while all those social revolutions have been occurring, largely as a result of the gender revolution, theres also been an economic revolution which has caused many Australians to wonder whether this was the kind of society they thought we were going to become.

The egalitarian dream is turning sour as we realise that the gap between the top and the bottom of the economic heap is widening. The top 50 CEOs have an average annual income at the moment of $3.5 million while full-time workers in Australia have an average annual income of between 45,000 and 50,000 dollars. The bottom 20% of Australian households have an average annual household income of $12,000. So although politicians dont like talking about poverty, by Australian standards of course poverty is becoming a major issue because the gap between the top and the bottom is growing.

Were living with our highest ever levels of personal debt. For the first time in our history were seeing a generation of young Australians move into adulthood already in debt mobile phone debt, credit card debt, and HECS.

These are big changes. One of the interesting things about the current mood is that in response to all of this sense of bewilderment, sense of anxiety and uncertainty about what it all means, were now in a bit of a trough, in a bit of a retreat where theres a sense of disengagement from all these issues. Weve lost interest bad news for the press in current affairs and in social issues.

Weve become obsessively interested in backyards, home decorating and renovations and holidays and cooking and so on good news for the supplements in your newspapers and for the lifestyle programs on your television channels. Thats where the focus has gone. This is good news for incumbent governments, of course, because it means that people are somewhat disengaged from the political process as well. They briefly re-engage when they get the latest bit of spooky news about terrorism that just keeps them frightened enough to want to return the incumbent government to power. But generally speaking, theyre somewhat disengaged from the political process and what theyre engaged with is things they feel are within their control and that tends to be very personal, the immediate, the local, domestic issues.

Now, just briefly looking to the future out of all of this, I think were on the cusp of further significant social change, in particular Sharan has mention a lot of interest now in the sense of imbalance that people are experiencing between the working and the non-working parts of their lives, increasingly for those with full-time work the job just crushing them, working hours that are unreasonably long, unconscionably long to the point where you have to ask about exploitation of the full-timer, of course, and people saying isnt there some better way of getting our lives into some kind of balance young people especially are coming into the workforce with that fixed firmly in their minds.

Young people also, I think, are a bit of a sign post to another social change which is a much more community aware attitude, a communitarian kind of approach. This is a very tribal generation of young Australians and I think their characteristic is that they are inclined to be less individualistic in their attitude, to look out for each other more, to be more concerned about the health of the whole group, not just the health of the individual. That isnt yet showing up as young peoples vigorous participation in the life of the community necessarily, but I think thats where its heading and I think that the important sign post into our future is young people saying to the rest of us look, if you want to survive, if you want to thrive in an environment like this where you cant rely on what the future holds, your most precious resource is each other. If you want to survive, get connected. I think thats probably an important message for our society.

Sharan Burrow: Questions?

Journalist: Given the anxieties youre referring to, why are unions struggling to get members?

Hugh McKay: Im not an expert on the phenomenon of union membership. There are various reasons for this: theres clearly been a reluctance of women to join unions to the same extent as men, and I think thats partly because were still dealing with a generation of women who are relatively new to the workplace and havent got the same traditional approach to work as men have had.

I think the opportunities, however, for the trade union movement have probably never been greater than they are looking ahead for the next 10 or 15 years because of the feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness that so many people are now experiencing – to which unionism and organised labour can be a response in the sense that in the workplace theyre being exploited, but also this more communitarian attitude thats beginning to emerge is good news for the idea of formal and informal organisations that provide us with the feeling of security and comfort and protection thats been the mainstay of the union movement forever.

Journalist: The communitarian attitude, Im a bit intrigued by this although theres empirical evidence in young sporting groups that have been expanding where does this come from? Youve had Generation Xs, youve had the sort of self-preservation mentality during the late 70s and presumably 80s and 90s. Wheres your evidence and where are the demographics to give credence the view that the tide is turning in terms of collectivism?

Hugh McKay: Yes. Well, theres no demographic evidence as such because what were talking about is a mood, an attitude which emerges from diagnostic research rather than from just looking at some sort of statistical evidence. I think where it comes from is the very state of society that Ive been describing. I mean, if youre under 30, that means by definition youve only lived during the last 30 years and thats been a very revolutionary period. If youve grown up in that kind of period, thats taught you a couple of things. Its taught you to stay flexible, its taught you to keep your options open, to exercise choice because theres been so much choice with so much change.

But its also taught you that your most precious resource for coping with life in a turbulent world with a high divorce rate among your parents, a high rate of unemployment when you come into the labour market, a high rate of drug use so you know all the temptations and pressures, increasing rate of debt among all these things the most precious resource youve got is your mates.

One reason why in the younger age group television programs like Friends and The Secret Life Of Us and even Big Brother are so attractive because theyre all about how groups function, theyre all about connection. I think thats the real Im seeing this as the early sign of a trend rather than saying its an established trend. I think its a sign post to a more communitarian society in the future because youve got these kids who have said in order to deal with it we need to stay close to each other. They cant get enough of each other. I mean, the mobile phone phenomenon, the text messaging phenomenon especially, has allowed them to have almost 24-hour continuous access.

Journalist: MSN and chatrooms and things like that?

Hugh McKay: Yes, exactly.

Journalist: The change of Labor Party leadership today, is that going to tap into this young generation, and are we seeing a generational change happening now?

Hugh McKay: I think this concept of generational change is a bit overplayed. Its another one of these catch words in politics, a bit like the aspirational voters you know, I have yet to meet an unaspirational voter. The age gap between Messrs Beazley and Latham is I think 12 years, which is not what any demographer would describe even as one generation. So effectively you could say theyre in the same generation, but its a bit irrelevant. I dont think age is the issue at all. I think the issue clearly is to what extent any politician, any political leader can understand the mood, the yearnings of the society and respond to them with policies that seem to be pointing to the kind of society we want to become.

Journalist: You said that the incumbent government obviously has the strength. So how is Mark Latham going to overcome that hurdle?

Hugh McKay: Well, ask Mark Latham.

Journalist: What would your advice be? How should he pitch it?

Hugh McKay: I wouldnt presume, today of all days, to give Mark Latham advice about what he might do. I would only say that its quite clear that border protection and international terrorism are the governments home ground, and generally speaking the economy is regarded as the governments home ground, but theres lots of other policy areas health, education etc where the government is clearly vulnerable and where presumably Labor will be doing a lot of policy work.

Journalist: So its an insecure electorate still with an overriding perception – – –

Hugh McKay: Yes, absolutely, and that hasnt changed for a long time. It is an increasingly insecure electorate but we have to so the overlay on that is that it is a disengaged electorate. On political issues the electorate is rather sombre. One of the challenges for leaders on both sides, if theyre interested in policy debate and thats always a question of itself, if theyre interested in policy debate one of their challenges will be to wake us up.

Sharan Burrow: I think thats probably all the free advice for political leaders that we could ask of Hugh today. Mind you, can I just say that leaders, wherever they come from political, community and indeed the union leadership can benefit greatly from listening to the understanding and the insight of Australians and Australian communities that Hugh McKay has. Were very grateful that hes been prepared to share that with us today. Thank you very much, Hugh.

Hugh McKay: Thanks very much.

Sharan Burrow: Well, to other industrial issue, clearly the issue of the day for us is Medicare. It seems just incredible to us that the government could call their proposition a safety net. Its actually full of holes in the sense that it will destroy bulk billing, it will impose a $1000 charge on each and every one of our working families, and to that extent, frankly risks an increase in labour costs because theres no doubt that unions, should this go through, will have to think about how it is that we can generate a capacity for working Australians to pay for health care.

We dont want an American model, weve fought against an American model for a very long time. Not only do you have employers bearing the cost of health care in America, you have up to one-third of Americans being marginalised from quality health care. Thats not the kind of society that we want when we look to the future.

I might add, what we find really insidious is that working families indeed pensioners and health care card holders will now be basically at the charity of doctors as to whether they have to pay for a trip to the doctor or not.

That just seems for a rich society like ours, one that doubled its wealth in GDP terms since 1981, that we are saying despite the fact as a rich nation that we can afford quality health care for everybody, were now going to hand your fate in terms free health care over to the judgment or the charity of a doctor.

Its not the kind of fair or equitable society that we envisage. We also believe that thats incredibly outrageous given that every working Australian pays already twice for health care once through their taxes and once through the Medicare levy. Theyve given up wages 2.6% in the 80s – to actually pay for Medicare, and now we see John Howards long term ambition to smash bulk billing on the table.

So we say to the Democrats and the independents in the Senate, dont go there if you want to preserve the basis on which labour costs are now established in Australia; dont go there if you genuinely believe that everybody in Australia should be entitled to quality free public health, and certainly dont go there if you want a fair chance of getting support from Australians at the next election.

Beyond that, as I said, we have a new Labor leader today in Mark Latham.

The Executive has taken a resolution that congratulates Mark, that welcomes him to the Labor leadership and which puts on the table our commitment to work with him to raise the issues of public health, public education, childcare, work and family and indeed of course the question of industrial rights for Australians.

We know that as parliament comes back in the new year that the bills on the agenda for the parliament will put in place one of the most audacious challenges from the government, and that is a bill that would effectively deny all working Australians the right to strike. You only have to ask yourself what kind of Australia we would be if industrial action hadnt been part of the campaigning tactics that union members could use to establish fair wages and conditions. Wed be a much poorer society without the weekend, without establishing some limits on hours, without looking at fair distribution in terms of wages, and of course without occupational health and safety provisions that keep people free from injury and death.

So to have a government that would simply deny working Australians what is a fundamental industrial right recognised internationally, that is the right to strike, will become a major campaign along with public health and public education into the new year.

I might say on the question of Mark Latham, we are delighted as he has a young family and well understands issues associated with paid maternity leave, childcare, the balance of work and family issues, so we look forward to him being able to articulate those things as well as those social guarantees and the need to rebuild the damage to social infrastructure inflicted by the Howard government.

Journalist: On the way in a Labor backbencher Harry Quick said he was disappointed that you were involved in twisting and cajoling people into supporting Kim Beazley. Have you picked the wrong horse for this race?

Sharan Burrow: Well, I think if you look at us on the public record, weve picked no horse in fact, and Im not sure where Harry Quick gets that information because I certainly havent spoken to Harry over the last few days.

Journalist: Have you been involved in canvassing support for Mr Beazley?

Sharan Burrow: Weve actually said to both candidates that whoever wins would have our support and that we will work with them to see the defeat of the Howard government. What were saying today and what Ive said publicly is that we welcome the parliamentary partys choice of leader. The important thing is now that the parliament unites behind the leader. Its a democratic process. In that context, weve got a lot of work to do to look at the issues that Hugh has raised this morning: what is it that is making Australians feel disengaged? Why are they feeling worried about their life? We know part of it is about the damage to social infrastructure, the uncertainty created by the Howard government, and thats now the challenge for Mark Latham and the leadership team.

Journalist: (indistinct) Harry Quick, on that question he said he was disappointed that you may have had a private conversation – – –

Sharan Burrow: Wed say to Harry Quick that Mark Latham has won the contest. It was a democratic contest. He has our full support. The labour movement knows the importance generally whether its a parliamentary team or whether its the union movement of the next election if were to see a fairer society.

Weve got a society right now that if you look at the macro indicators of the growth in wealth, the increase in growth over 12 consecutive years, the superficial unemployment figures whatever the figures are at the macro level, the creation of jobs, they look very good. When you look underneath that, we know weve got two Australias: a divided nation where of 1.8 million jobs, 89% of them earn under $26,000 a year; 49% under 16,000. As Hugh McKay said, weve got 20% of our community trying to exist households trying to exist on $12,000 or less.

We know that underemployment is more than double the official employment rate and we know people are working incredible hours and the damage to families that thats doing. Theyre the issues. Frankly, the leader is the person responsible for now making sure that the combined message not one mans message, but the combined message of the Labor Party is such that these issues are clearly on the table for Australians to make a choice about at the next election.

Journalist: Given that, given you talk about equity and all that, how does the ACTU view Mark Lathams position on tax relief for higher income earners?

Sharan Burrow: Well work with Mark Latham. He understands that our position is first and foremost to put money into rebuilding social infrastructure. We know from our own polling, and of course there are many other polls, that 76% of Australia agreed with that proposition health and education first.

We would then say to the extent that theres money left over from issues that are really pressing like health, education, childcare, paid maternity leave, then you put it into firstly redistributed support for the lowest paid, for the poorest people in Australia, and beyond that if there is money left over, if we do have the wealth as a nation, then of course you can consider appropriate tax cuts. But first and foremost rebuild services.

Social infrastructure is at risk in Australia, that means equity is at even greater risk. Then look at the plight of the low paid and the unemployed and then finally any other needs we might determine have priority in regards to tax cuts.

Journalist: (Indistinct) quite clear policy differences between the trade union movement generally and Mr Latham free trade agreements, for example, things like that.

Sharan Burrow: I dont think so, actually. I think youll be surprised to see just what a convergence of views there is. Ive spoken to Mark Latham this morning, weve congratulated him and weve indicated that our leadership will sit down with he and his leadership team within a couple of weeks and look at in fact what commonalities there are. But I can assure you that the line that Ive just put forward that is, first and foremost we must rebuild public infrastructure was inherent in that conversation and I see no fundamental difference. On free trade, I suspect that Mark Latham will, as he gets to understand that issue, its not been part of his portfolio – – –

Journalist: So he doesnt understand it?

Sharan Burrow: Well, Im sure he does. Ive never had a conversation with Mark because hes not been the shadow responsible to the extent that we have a clear understanding with Stephen Conroy, the current shadow minister responsible for free trade, that the US/Australia free trade agreement as its currently constructed is not in Australias interest. No question about that.

Journalist: Do you have a view on who should be shadow treasurer? Does the union movement have a preference?

Sharan Burrow: No. In fact, thats also of course a discussion for the parliamentary Labor Party. We wouldnt expect that they would have a say in who should be our leaders, and vice versa they have to work that out for themselves. What we do say is, whoever the leadership team is the challenge is to unite for the interest of Australia in rebuilding public infrastructure, in getting some equity back into the Australian area and making sure that rights for working Australians are preserved.

Journalist: On the tax issue, Doug Cameron said on Sunday there could be a showdown (indistinct) Has a position emerged today from Executive of a combined tax strategy for the ALP Conference in January?

Sharan Burrow: Weve had no change of policy since our Congress. You clearly saw that we indicated our first priority was services. We also indicated that were very concerned about the plight of the low-paid and the unemployed, the poor in Australia and the increasing divide. Thats got to be up there and discussed about equally. Then of course to the extent that tax cuts are affordable, let’s look at them. Thats been our position since Congress. The Labor Party leadership and the parliamentary team understand that and well continue to talk to them about that. I dont believe youll see any real difference between whats good for Australias working people and the ACTU and the ALP leadership team, and Id say watch this space.