Sally McManus – Speech to the Melbourne Press Club. 8 February, 2019

Speeches & Opinions - February 8, 2019

I want to pay my respects to the people of the Kulin nation and their elders, past, present and emerging.
Thank you for inviting me to speak at The Melbourne Press Club.

As you know, I’ve written a book called On Fairness published by Melbourne University Press.  Fairness is going to be a central theme not just of the election campaign, but I think into the future here in Australia and, in various expressions, across the world.

In Australia we have a unique relationship with fairness. It’s the value we hold most dear, the single yardstick by which we measure ourselves – and our leaders. In America they talk about freedom. In England, it’s resolve and perseverance. All admirable qualities. But in Australia, nothing comes before the fair go.

If you ever doubt how much Australians care about fairness and equal treatment, I’d invite you to attend a sports match and pay special attention to comments directed at the referee.

If a referee ever became truly, deeply one-sided at a match regardless of the sport or code, chaos would ensue. The players and fans would lose faith not just in the rules of the game, but in the game itself.

Our economic and political system is perilously close to that chaos and to losing the people’s faith.  Scott Morrison continues to make calls that only favour the big end of town, and to write rules that put his people – the already rich – ahead of the rest of us.

The result? Inequality. Work insecurity. Record low wage growth. Services starved of funds. A splintering of the vote to micro-right parties, opportunists and cynical peddlers of cheap nationalism. Many people are losing faith. Not just in Scott Morrison, but in his party, and in the institution of Government itself.

It amazes me that even as the din of the crowd grows louder, members of the Morrison Government and conservative commentators continue to deny we have a problem with inequality. They simply refuse to hear what people are saying.

Just as they deny humans have created climate change. They cannot admit that inequality is a problem because the consequences of doing so would require them to take action that cannot be accommodated within their worldview.

Their neo-liberal worldview says the free market is always good, cannot be faulted and never causes harm. And if it does, then on balance it does more good than harm.

In their world, the market always makes the right call, and the market writes the rules.

It’s for the same reasons Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have an unshakable belief that corporate tax cuts will trickle down as pay rises. As the United States example shows; they are wrong.
But Morrison and Frydenberg, just as Malcolm Turnbull before them declare this to be, “Economics 101”. For Josh Frydenberg two weeks ago, it was faith in, “The invisible hand of capitalism”. For the rest of us not under the fast-fading neo-liberal spell, this seems like a bizarre cult that demands total and unquestioning adherence of its followers.

They cannot accept the results of 40 years of the neo-liberal experiment. Privatisation hasn’t led to the fantastic array of choice, cheap prices and efficient delivery of services that we were all promised. It has led to an erosion of services, a proliferation of rent-seekers, the unjust enrichment of a small and elite group of big business owners, and a fundamental decline in the quality of life available to the rest of us.

The denial of working people’s rights and the suppression of unions that commenced under John Howard has led to a rise in insecure work and record low wage growth. These policies have seen workers’ share of GDP diminish to a near 50 year low…

Now inequality is at a 70 plus year high. The wealthiest 1% of Australians owns more wealth than the bottom 70% of all other Australians combined. But just like they do with climate change, The Morrison government rejects these truths. They cannot accept that the economic cult they have followed for so many years is not just fallible but failing before their eyes.

And just like climate change, there is a point where people’s own experience speaks far louder than any economic jargon, selective statistic or confected argument. No-one can be convinced after weeks of 40-degree heat, after fish kills and bushfires, catastrophic floods and melting polar ice caps, that climate change is not a human made catastrophe.

And we cannot be convinced that inequality is not real or increasing when we see CEOs awarded obscene salaries and bonuses while they refuse to give us pay rises that even keep up with the cost of living.

We are feeling the consequences of five years with no real wage growth at a time of record profits. People have been cutting into their savings. People have less to spend. This is not just a problem for retail sales, but for the quality of life for most Australians.

Stagnate wage growth means the bills can’t be paid on time, the kids don’t get taken out to the movies or the city for the weekend, the car doesn’t get filled up until the light comes on. Being told to wait for wage rises to trickle-down doesn’t cut it anymore.

Working people have also seen once-secure jobs converted to contract, casual or ABN jobs in our own workplaces. We see our cities full of riders on bikes delivering food, and we watch young people struggle to find permanent jobs that were readily available 30 years ago. To us, the insistence of Government Ministers, and certain business groups, that insecure work is not a problem, seems to come from another world.

And it’s the same with tax.

Last year one third of big Australian companies paid no tax. Sixty-two people made a million dollars yet paid no tax ., But working people pay tax. We see our schools and hospitals and aged care system struggling, pushed to breaking and outright failing.

No wonder people just did not believe it would be better for us if big companies paid even less tax.

But then I wonder if they – Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg, many business leaders – even care about inequality or unfairness. Let’s face it, neo-liberalism has delivered for them. They are doing extraordinarily well.

What is clear to me is that with growing inequality, we are actually living in different worlds. Their experience of life is not ours.

Could it be that they’re not concerned the minimum wage is only $37 000 a year because they don’t actually have any mates or neighbors who are paid award wages?

Could it be that they do not understand what insecure work is like because their only experience of job insecurity is resigning from politics to take a well-paid appointment or a lucrative lobbying gig with the big end of town?

Just like CEOs are guaranteed golden parachutes no matter how badly they stuff up, just like their bonuses that flow regardless of performance.

And we see despite the Banking Royal Commission finding hundreds of thousands of possible criminal charges, there are limited referrals to the DPP or police in stark contrast to the treatment of unions.  In fact, one wonders if it will be just business as usual for the banks.

They see us – working people – as something to be examined in focus groups until they find a line that resonates. No wonder they have spent hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars on ads.  And yet the Coalition is still seen as “out of touch”. Because they are. We know we are being sold stuff, not genuinely listened to.

I don’t just want to talk about the morality of all this.

I want to talk about the possible consequences.

Working people in Australia know we can do better. Those of us who have lived here for more than 30 years remember a more egalitarian society. Economic divisions may have existed, but not to the extent we see them today.

The fact there is now a class of people who do not even see us is new.

The same thing is happening in France, and the unseen people are making sure you cannot miss them in their yellow vests. The same thing has happened in the US where the unseen people have been part of electing Trump. In the UK with Brexit and elsewhere with the rise of the extreme right.

We are now seeing a menagerie of individuals and parties on the right of politics. They are all trying to take advantage of the unseen, the fed up. Many of the working and middle-class people who’ve become invisible to the monied elites in the Coalition and big business are not necessarily racist or extreme.

They are angry that the country they thought they lived in – where every generation has a better life, where young people can buy a house and get a job – has been taken from them.

Here opens a huge expectation gap. That gap in Australia is larger than elsewhere as our promise of a fair go and fairness was a bigger and tangible one that is in people’s lived experience.

People will look for explanations and some self-interested and cynical politicians will fill it with fear and misdirected blame, stoking division, prejudice and hate in the pursuit of their own self-interest.

The Australian trade union movement stands between Australia and the unhappy events we see unfolding across the world. We see clearly what the problems are and we know how to fix them.

We will not stay silent about the dangers of inequality, of work insecurity, and political disenfranchisement. Trying to shoot us, the messenger, will not fix the problem, it opens up new ones.

This has been the approach of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government. They think the more they can delegitimise what we say and do, the better for them. Unfortunately, there are some in the business community who think the same.

But it has been the trade union movement that has made our country more equal and fairer. We have done this by insisting on rules for fairness. We had to fight for them and eventually they became law – Medicare, Superannuation, safety, working hours, wages.

And we have done this in a way that aligns with our principles that is about looking after each other and giving everyone a fair go.

We want a more friendly, cohesive, generous and equal country where we respect each other.  Where every generation can be confident and look to something better. Where working people have dignity, equality and respect. I believe this is what the majority of Australians want.

We want a fairer share of the wealth being created. Pay rises. Greater job security. A fairer tax system.

When people know they are sharing in growth, sharing in wealth creation, everyone benefits. This is good for business, it is good for our democracy.

When people are denied their fair share, we become more divided, more separate, more suspicious. People either feel angry or helpless.

Inequality. Greed. Unfairness. Misdirected blame. This all holds us back as a country.

But we in the union movement believe in the fair go. We know we can win equality because we have done it before – again and again.

We cannot turn around inequality without a strong union movement.

It’s time for the powerful, for politicians to work with us for a fairer country. If change is not bought about through active Government action, people will give up on Government’s capacity to actually do anything.

Neo-liberalism has led to a situation where people believe Governments are incapable of doing anything about their lives because if the problems are all caused by an “invisible hand”, what is the point? This is how people lose faith in democracy.

So, we must change the rules. The choices Governments make to the balance the power between employers and workers affects our pay and affects our job security. And when that balance is tilted too far towards the employer it negatively affects our lives.

We are the messenger. You can try and shoot us (and I am telling you that won’t work), or we can work together to build a better, fairer country. To resurrect the fair go.

We have always been the force that has bought about fairness. None of it happened by accident, and yes, much of this was bought about by working people breaking unjust laws.

We are sounding the alarm now. Yes, we have been pointing out that big business has too much power, but we are also providing solutions. Solutions that can deliver fair pay rises, better job security, and a fairer Australia.

We are ready to work with those businesses and business leaders who also want a fair and equal country, instead of one driven with suspicion, division, inequality and anger. We are ready to build a wages system that works for everyone. That delivers productivity but also rewards and respects working people with fair pay rises that boost living standards   Co-operation and consensus are possible, but only when both sides are willing to admit we have a problem.

Business can work with us to deliver fair pay rises, they can work with us for greater job security. We want business to be successful, working people want to be part of that success and share in its benefits. We want rules that mean good businesses giving workers a fair go is not undercut by unethical operators.

We simply want to change the rules so working people get what has always been the promise for working people in our country – a fair go.

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