I want to acknowledge that we are on the lands of the Ngunnawal people, and recognize that these lands were never ceded, and that still, in 2020, there is no treaty, recognition or voice to parliament. I also want to pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.
2020. What a year. And as we head towards Christmas, we reflect on what a privileged position Australia is in compared to the rest of the world. Our thoughts are with the millions of people globally still struggling with the pandemic, and in particular health care workers, many thousands of whom have died in the line of duty, and the many more who continue to turn up to work in extreme and horrific circumstances. As we look forward to our near normal Christmas – which felt impossible only a short time ago – particularly during the cold, grey Melbourne winter – we have the opportunity to take a deep COVID-free breath and reflect on how we got here, and what comes next.
Australia’s handling of this crisis should forever put to bed the notion of the lucky country. In calling us the lucky country, Donald Horne was delivering a backhander to a wealthy nation that he thought was lazy due to its own dumb luck – and that we would come up short if we were truly tested. This year, we have proved that wrong. Getting through the pandemic has had little to do with luck – and everything to do with the strength of our national institutions and an enduring social contract that many of us thought may have been broken.
When the Prime Minister said back in April – “we are all in this together”, he put Australia’s social contract back in the centre of our national politics. At the heart of Australia’s social contract is a commitment to collectivism – a notion that when any of us stumble, the rest of us will be there to help them back up. That no-one will be left behind. This is deep in our national story-telling and embedded in many of our national institutions. But a Government simply telling us that we are “all in this together” does not, on its own, work.
The people must believe it, and see it, for it to be true.
To beat COVID, our Governments asked that we put individual needs aside to protect others, to protect strangers, to protect the whole. And Australians overwhelmingly did this – we did this together. The success of the Victorian lockdown – in which 6.5 million people committed to collective action that would protect not only their themselves and their families – but the whole of Australia – is testament to this. It is that same collectivism, looking after everyone, that through our history has delivered key public institutions and the social safety net – things like Medicare.
It is these things that have helped protect Australia from the ravages of the pandemic. This year the idea of this social contract was enlivened. We also got a glimpse of what is possible. For a brief period of time we came close to eliminating poverty by lifting JobSeeker; we cancelled punitive work for the dole in indigenous communities; we introduced free childcare for all, ended homelessness housing people in hotels, and radically increased job security for the majority of the workforce with JobKeeper.
I look at the disaster that is the US and wonder what can President Elect Biden do to defeat the virus when they are coming so far behind on so many fronts? 2020 has made more obvious the deep cultural and institutional differences between Australia and the United States.
The United States lacks the enduring social contrast that underpins our way of life. From afar, they appear to lack the social cohesion and the capacity to put aside individual wants and needs for the greater good. There are too many powerful “loud voices” demanding everything stay open in case profits suffer; too many science rejecting conspiracy theories; too deep a strain of blind individualism where people are not be prepared to make any personal sacrifice for the greater good, even to wear masks.
They do not have the institutional capacity, the trust or the social safety-nets needed to protect the health of their people or their economy. In the face of the pandemic, the primacy of the individual has made them weak, not strong; incapable of pulling together when they need to. Chaotic and divided.
Arguments put up about individual freedoms seem ridiculous, when there is no individual freedom on a ventilator in an ICU. What is more beautiful and valuable – the individual freedom to not wear a mask or the exercise of individual freedom to saving the lives of others?
Back in March, as the crisis was unfolding, US journalist Anand Giridharadas tweeted – “Coronovirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst insured, worst cared for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor not the height of the ceiling.”
Closer to home and more recently, when asked about the outcome of the US election, the CEO of the BCA, Jennifer Westacott took a moment to remark on the differences between our two countries: “I want to make this point…no-one should ever underestimate the importance of the Australian way of life in terms of a strong growing economy and a strong social safety net.” “Note to national self” she said “Don’t let go of those core things – a strong and growing economy and a decent social safety net for people”.
Both Girdharadas and Westacott are right. Australia’s social contract – a decent safety-net, collective minimums that lift the height of the floor – Medicare, minimum rights and protections in Awards – these are our national treasures. It is what makes us who we are as a nation, and it should be guarded jealously.
We know our institutions held up during this crisis – but we must not forget the people who got us through. In the first few weeks of the pandemic there was a reckoning as to what and who was essential to our society and our lives. It wasn’t hedge fund managers or mining billionaires. It was cleaners, health care workers, transport workers, supermarket and warehouse workers.
It was the workers in our post offices, electricity and water workers keeping the lights on and the water flowing. It was manufacturing workers producing essentials or re-purposing workplaces to make masks and personal protective equipment. It was the public sector workers – the public health officials, scientists, contact tracers. All these people were essential and we must NEVER forget what they did.
At the start of the pandemic – people panicked about being able to buy food and essentials. It was supermarket workers who absorbed the fear of the community when fights broke out, turned up to work when there was so much that was unknown about the virus. They turned up because they knew that they were needed, that the community was depending on them. Brave, calm and on minimum wages. And our health workers. Annie Butler is the National Secretary of the Australian Nurses and Midwives Federation, she told me that early on when we knew we were a month behind Europe, her members on the frontline were preparing and waiting for the tsunami of sick people to start appearing in our hospitals.
Her members also knew that at that time, we did not have the necessary PPE or the ICU beds to cope if the worst happened. The health workers of Australia were watching closely what was happening in Italy – with ICU’s full and health workers getting the virus and many, dying. They knew what they were facing and yet they kept calmly planning, preparing and turning up for work.
Many came out of retirement to help. Annie has also spoken to me about the experience of the nurses in Victoria who volunteered to go into the aged care homes when the crisis was raging, people were sick and dying and existing staff had been put into isolation. What her members experienced was horrifying and traumatic – but day after day, nurses put their hands up to step into these roles. They are absolute heroes. Their bravery is something we must never forget as a nation.
There are also essential workers that people do not see. Disability support workers. People in warehouses who kept supply lines going, who had to stop work to demand COVID safe plans when their employers would not act. Their actions, like the wharfies who refused to unload ships who had not quarantined, the Qantas cleaners who refused to clean COVID planes without PPE, the meat workers who refused to return to Plants without proper social distancing, their actions kept not just themselves, but our whole community safe.
Posties who kept delivering, not just essentials but sometimes also delivering perhaps the only smile people in isolation saw each day. And the delivery riders who fed our cities. Many of them visa workers we left behind with no JobSeeker or JobKeeper, spending the last of their money on a bike to keep feeding themselves and others.
It is a shameful tragedy that five delivery riders working for tech companies who have gone through a boom time during the pandemic have been killed in the last two months. Abandoned by our Government, abandoned by these tech giants and abandoned by inadequate workplace laws. The heroes of 2020 are these essential workers. Hard working, brave and humble.
When the pandemic is over, they deserve a parade and the keys to our cities. A permanent and enduring acknowledgement of what they did to support our country in a crisis.
I want to talk about the role of the union movement in this crisis. At its core a union is a group of people coming together to pool their resources and capacity believing that what we can do together will always be more than we can do alone. This has never been on display more than during this crisis. I personally have never experienced such an intense time – with such high stakes – where fear of the virus was compounded by massive job losses and major rapid workplace change at a time everyone was stressed and many were afraid for both their health and their jobs. It was every workplace crisis happening all at once.
Many of you in this room are well aware that the leadership of our movement worked closely with the Federal Government at the height of this crisis. But many of you will not know the work done by the dedicated hardworking union representatives in workplaces all over Australia, the majority of them volunteers. When the crisis hit, union reps around the country stepped up to protect not only their members BUT THE WHOLE COMNUNITY.
They worked with their employers to make the necessary changes to see through shutdowns and adjust to the new COVID reality – to make workplaces safe, fairly manage reduced hours and rapidly transition to working from home. Employers and unions in the construction industry worked together to keep worksites open safely, even setting up their own testing facilities and careful social distancing. Aviation unions stood beside and supported Virgin Airline workers as the company collapsed. They supported all aviation workers as they were stood down for an indefinite period.
Thousands walked off the tarmac and out of airports with no idea when or if they would ever return there again. And now 2000 Qantas workers will not be back as the company is using COVID to outsource their work. Teacher unions have supported and managed a huge transition to remote learning, and like childcare workers risked being in workplaces for children of essential workers when so much was unknown about the virus.
They have supported a generation of children and young people through such a difficult year. So many unions representatives absorbed and shared the trauma of people losing their jobs. The higher education unions have and still are faced with devastating job losses. 30 000 jobs look to be permanently lost making this industry – the academics and university workers of our country – the hardest hit. We think about them this Christmas.
And like the media and entertainment union, have had to support their members abandoned by the Federal Government, excluded from JobKeeper. During this pandemic, the voice and role of unions has been central not only in our members and workers generally, but central to the national interest.
In early March, despite decades of hostility, the ACTU made an offer to both the Coalition Government and the national employer organisations to work together to do what was necessary to save jobs and save lives. We made this offer twice before it was taken up. We did it because it is in our DNA to want to work together for the greater good. We knew that our country and working people could not afford us to be doing anything other than focusing 100% on saving jobs and lives.
We worked rapidly with employers to make temporary changes to awards so there were uniform and orderly changes across whole industries to cope with shutdowns, social distancing rules, reduced hours and working from home. Our system of awards and an independent umpire in the Fair Work Commission meant we could respond quickly and flexibly while ensuring fairness.
The fact our system and institutions delivered when needed is something we should be very proud of. Our IR system is uniquely Australian. It balances fairness and flexibility, and it showed it was capable of changing rapidly and delivering both. It applied uniform rules for all employers and protections for all workers. This is something we should pause to acknowledge.
The next time an employer lobbyist wants to say the system is inflexible, it should be understood that this is demonstrably untrue. But there were the gaps in our safety-net, our workplace rights, that had been known for decades. This year our levels of casual insecure work threatened the health of everyone and damaged the whole of the economy.
Early in the pandemic – on the 3rd March – before any restrictions or shutdowns, the union movement called for paid pandemic leave for all working people. We knew that people would not have the leave needed for this crisis – leave to stay at home when sick, or when waiting for test results, or because a close contact was positive, or when required to quarantine. And because they did not have this leave, the virus would be spread in workplaces. We could see the huge hole in our pandemic defence. The danger of 30% of the workforce not having any sick leave. The threat to public health by the labour hire business model which relies on shipping casual workers from workplace to workplace. The risk of the virus spreading via 2.1 million workers who have no choice but to work more than one job to try to string together a living wage.
The only way to address this was to give all workers paid leave to isolate, this was the way to significantly reduce the risk of the virus spreading with sick people going to work. It was incredibly frustrating to listen to claims by some that casual workers are already paid for sick leave, and they should have been saving up for the day a pandemic hit. We wrote to the Prime Minister on March 11th asking for support for universal paid pandemic leave, but at that early stage, we did not get a positive response. But we knew we could not sit back and wait.
If the Government would not act, we had to do everything we could to fill the gaps, to cover as many people we could. So, every union went and fought for it workplace by workplace. By mid-April our unions had won paid pandemic leave with hundreds of employers covering over a million workers, in Australia’s biggest companies as well as across the public and community sector. We knew we couldn’t stop as the health of everyone depended on whether there were any workers without this paid leave. Then we won it at the state level – one by one individual states and territories announcing their own schemes. We kept going. And we won it for all aged care workers. We didn’t give up. We kept fighting because we knew if we did not lift the height of the floor – everyone’s health and the economy would continue to be at risk. By the end of July, the PM wrote to the Attorney to initiate discussions with the ACTU about how to implement a national paid pandemic leave scheme.
In early August, employers such as the Business Council came out in support and then the PM announced the Government’s support and funding. It wasn’t everything we wanted – but it was necessary and have no doubt – more people would have gone to work sick, more people would have caught the virus, more people would have died without this program. It helped save lives, jobs and the economy.
Similarly, on March 25th we called publicly for a wage subsidy. It was at first rejected by the Federal Government. Major employer groups told us it would be too hard to administer and it should be delivered via unemployment benefits from Centrelink. We stood alone but were not going to take no for an answer because we could see what would happen if we lost this fight.
We got together a coalition of economists and academics who argued our point – that the only way through this pandemic was to commit to an historic level of Government support for workers in the form of a wage subsidy to keep them in their jobs during lockdown and downturns. We analysed schemes being introduced overseas. Labor, the Greens and others gave their support. Lockdowns began and so did the mass job losses and the devastating queues outside Centrelink. These heartbreaking scenes could have been avoided.
Our Centrelink union members talk about these days as easily being the worst, most heartbreaking of their working lives. It was a horrible 48 hours of employers panicking, laying off all their casual staff, mass stand downs and announcements of mass redundancies as they believed they had no other option. Then finally, Employer representatives came onside. And then the Government acted – announcing the JobKeeper program – the largest ever injection of money into the hands of working people, the biggest job saving decision in the nation’s history.
Over 3.5 million workers and sole traders have kept an income; and kept their jobs because of JobKeeper. Again, it was not exactly what we wanted, it left out far too many people, but I hate to think what this year would have been like without JobKeeper, without paid pandemic leave, without the protections of our safety net of awards and workplace rights.
Two things have happened to unions during this pandemic. Firstly, nearly every union has grown in membership, despite job losses, as workers looked to their union and the union movement for protection and support. Secondly, the union movement has had its national role returned to where it should always have been – as a widely accepted part of Australia’s civil society, and a trusted social partner for Governments and businesses.
This consultation and cooperation must not only belong to the pandemic – it MUST become business as usual again in Australia as it makes us better as a country. Governments and employers may not always like, or agree with what we have to say, but decision making is improved when our capacity, as well as workers experience and perspective are at the table.
If we are good enough to be relied upon during a crisis, if we are trustworthy enough to have in the room facing a pandemic, if unions were needed to get us through the toughest of times – surely the voice of working people has a place at the table in an ongoing way. What is good about Australia that makes us different from the United States is that unions here still play a strong role in setting and protecting minimum standards, protecting the safety-net for all, and advocating the perspective of working people to Government. When workers’ voices are listened to our country benefits.
The Government sponsored talks with employers and unions which occurred for five months in the middle of the pandemic were challenging. But the union movement entered them in good faith, we abided by our commitments and the process. We approached the problems in new ways, reaching out to employer groups finding new common ground with some.
Unfortunately, not all employer representatives could put aside self- interest and act in the national interest. The moment was too big for them. While the pandemic was raging, so was their ideology. It is not workers’ rights in law that is inflexible, it is the thinking of employer lobby groups that’s inflexible. Some of the proposals that came to the table were the same things we have seen regurgitated again and again over the last 30 years.
There weren’t new solutions to problems, it was the same old snatch and grab – leaving workers with less rights and hurting many of the same people who were on the front lines of the pandemic. We are told that the governments IR omnibus Bill is imminent. I want to be very clear about the tests that we will apply to this legislation. Firstly, we must not forget the debt owed to the essential workers, the heroes of the pandemic who rely on these workplace laws to protect them.
The working people of our country have already sacrificed the most and have paid the highest price:
• Almost a million are unemployed and 1.4 million are underemployed
• Many have exhausted all their sick leave, annual leave and long service leave
• And 3.3 million people have raided their super account
As we have said from the beginning, we will not accept workers being worse off – cuts to pay or the taking away of rights. And finally, the changes have to make a start in tackling the biggest problem facing working people as exposed by the pandemic, the unacceptably high number of casual, insecure jobs.
However, we are concerned that the industrial relations omnibus legislation, will indeed seek to take rights off workers, that it will punish the very people who have already sacrificed so much – supermarket workers, young people, women. We fear it will seek to weaken protections, when the experience of the pandemic has shown the importance of having these protections, when we have been reminded that our social contract must be treasured.
We are also deeply concerned that the Federal Government maybe considering dismantling another key part of our safety-net that has transformed the lives of Australian workers – superannuation. Only a generation ago the majority of workers retired in poverty. Superannuation has transformed this lifting up the floor so cleaners, tradies, nurses can not only enjoy their retirement but have something to pass onto their children to lift them up too.
We cannot allow the pandemic to be the opportunity the Government uses to attack the very social institutions and safety-nets that we should be treasuring. Any taking away of rights, any attempt to weaken workers protections is a weakening of our social contract and will be resisted by the union movement.
A key lesson of the pandemic is we need to finally confront our biggest weakness – the fact we have far too many insecure, casualised, labour hire, gig jobs that have no security and few rights. At the start of the speech I spoke of the social contract that many of us thought might be broken. It was not broken, but we must acknowledge that it is fragile and remains so.
The virus made it impossible for our society and our Governments to ignore the terrible reality of casualised and precarious work. The growth of insecure work has not happened naturally. It has happened by design. It has been pursued by conservative Governments, employer lobbyists and too many employers. It has been our version of Americanising our way of life.
This is also a virus Australians would have been sensible to shut its borders to keep out. It has not served us well. It has made us weak; undermining communities and stressing families. The cognitive dissonance I witnessed this year of employer groups arguing that we do not have a problem with insecure work whilst insecure work was literally spreading the virus ranks up there as the most frustrating moments in 2020.
Many employer groups and some in Government have actually refused to acknowledge the facts of the widespread nature of work insecurity and the ways in which it disadvantages people. And there are others that even argue that more insecure work is good. Good for whom? These arguments now need to be left in the past. As a country we cannot hide from it anymore.
This is an issue our generation can and MUST fix.
Young people have been hard hit with jobs disappearing, lost education and empty super accounts. Let’s pass on something better, the genuine opportunity to have a job they can count on, a permanent job with permanent rights. We want to see Governments and employers commit to working with us to making this happen. As a country we should aim to half the number of insecure jobs over the next decade.
This is completely achievable if Government, employers and unions all work together as we did during the height of the pandemic. Employers could prioritise the creation and maintenance of permanent employment. Governments themselves are large employers and can lead the way.
They can also commit to not giving government contracts to companies who do not prioritise secure work. This means stopping outsourcing to companies who have built business models on job insecurity like labour hire companies and as we have seen in cleaning, hotel security and aged care. There are multiple levers that can and should be pulled if there is the political will.
We need to update our laws to reform fixed term employment, gig economy work and labour hire. This is something other governments around the world have already done or are considering doing. This is something unions, employers and Governments can work on together to make our country better. Setting a target and measuring our progress on insecure work should be one of the critical data points that we use to gauge the economic health of the nation. It is a critical measure of social stability and economic security. A critical measure of the strength of our labour market.A key measure in our quality of life.
The challenge ahead Despite the difficult year, and the huge job of reconstruction ahead of us, the way we have handled the virus makes me optimistic about Australia’s future. Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist who wrote a much-read article about responses to the pandemic in Rolling Stone said: “COVID-19 attacks our physical bodies, but also the cultural foundations of our lives, the toolbox of community and connectivity that is for the human what claws and teeth represent to the tiger.”
During lockdown, we all had to rethink that toolbox of community and connectivity. We relied on our families, friends, neighbours and even strangers to get us through. We demanded our Governments step up to lead and support those who have needed it most. During this period, isolation and disruption has forced us to contemplate what is really important about our lives and about our work – and we know that beyond financial security, work is a central part of the human experience, and can be the difference between a dignified and fulfilling life, and a life of anxiety and insecurity.
The role of the union movement is critical to both these elements of work – financial security and a fulfilling, dignified working life. And the role of our parliaments should not be to find ever new ways to limit aspirations for decent jobs, fair wages and fulfillment at work.
The union movement would rather not spend the start of the new year in the trenches again – trying to stop legislative changes that further threaten the foundations of that which protects the rights of working people; their security in retirement; Australia’s unique social safety net.
When the Government issued the invitation for the national talks, the Prime Minister asked both sides to put down their weapons. We were happy to agree, but the truth is we haven’t been carrying weapons – we have been holding a shield for the last few decades, trying to protect what Australian workers have in our laws and institutions that provide fairness and dignity at work.
If we need to, we will be ready to fight and defend the rights of workers. But 2021 could be so much more productive. We would rather start the year working with Governments about their capacity to lead the way in creating and saving secure jobs.
We would rather be working with employers and Government on the big issues that help to grow our economy and strengthen the safety net – lifting all Australians up by driving down unemployment levels, by saving and creating jobs, improving wages, making work from home a shared opportunity for employers and employees, increasing workforce participation through free childcare, supporting dignified retirement incomes for workers, and planning for good high skilled jobs in Australian manufacturing.
A genuine national economic reconstruction plan. Let us learn the lesson of Australia’s COVID response – by working together we are better. Leaving some people behind, holds us all back. And the most important lesson of this crisis – the social safety net doesn’t just protect individuals – it protects every single one of us – our whole society and the economy. The whole country benefits from individuals having security. Whether we believe it all the time or not, we ARE in this together. Thanks very much