FRANK BONGIORNO | LABOURING IN VAIN NO LONGER: THE 2022 VICTORIAN ELECTION IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
NICK DYRENFURTH | THE STRANGE DEATH OF AUSTRALIAN LIBERALISM?
2022 Young Writers Prize
NICK HAUGHAIN | FEAR AND LOATHING: OR HOW ENTERPRISE BARGAINING NEEDS TO CHANGE
What a year it has been for the Australian labour movement!
The Albanese-led federal Labor government took power in May. In South Australia, our former advisory board member Peter Malinauskas led Labor back into office after one term in opposition. Both governments have embarked on a bold reform agenda powered by the force of our ideas. Most recently, Dan Andrews’ Victorian Labor Party won a historic third term in government!
Over the past six years, the John Curtin Research Centre has become the premier labourite thinktank informing the election of and policy agenda of the Albanese government.
Thanks to our supporters, over the past twelve months we’ve published impactful research and submissions, including giving evidence at the House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue Housing Affordability and Supply Inquiry and most recently our Deputy Director and Chief Economist Dominic Meagher’s November submission to the Health Committee Inquiry into long covid and repeated infections, stellar publications from our influential policy report, Private Gain, Public Pain: Taking Stock of Privatisation, Outsourcing and Contracting Public Sector Work, a discussion paper on strengthening unionism by Alistair Sage and Lawrence Ben, and July’s pioneering call-to-arms to save our nation’s steelmaking, Clean and Mean: New Directions for Australia’s Steel Industry. Our election review edition of The Tocsin came out in July and as always we have been busy in the media from writing on the potential of artificial intelligence to the new frontier of high-tech national security and a recap of Australian politics in 2022.
Our events in 2022 started with Craig Foster AM’s fantastic Annual John Curtin Lecture on Australia Day eve our election-setting Gala Dinner with guest speaker, Labor’s federal Treasurer, Dr Jim Chalmers, a splendid gathering of true believers, and informative InConversation webinars, most recently hosting Misha Zelinsky on the situation in Ukraine and Professor Frank Bongiorno talking about his new book, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia. Stay tuned for news on our 2023 Gala Dinner, 6th Annual John Curtin Lecture, Fiona Richardson Memorial Lecture, and our rescheduled event with leading indigenous rights activist and Voice proponent Noel Pearson, and forthcoming work on housing affordability.
Finally, but not least we are proud to continue to support the brightest young labourite minds with our Fifth Annual Young Writers’ Prize, sponsored by Victorian Trades Hall, with the winners and leading entries being republished here in this the 17th pre-Xmas edition of The Tocsin, with a recap of the recent Victorian state election featuring pieces by leading public intellectual Frank Bongiorno, pollster Kos Samaras and yours truly.
To continue to advance a bold, practical and relevant Labor agenda in government, federally and a state-level, as we approach the end of the financial year we are asking for your support. Not only will you shape Australia’s future by fighting the battle of ideas but becoming a JCRC supporter provides you with exclusive access to all of our publications, including the Tocsin delivered hot off the press.
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Dr Nick Dyrenfurth
Editor, The Tocsin
Executive Director, John Curtin Research Centre
The overwhelming victory of the Labor Party led by Daniel Andrews at the 26 November state election was no aberration in recent Victorian political history, but it stood in stark contrast to the longer-term patterns of electoral politics. In a recent Guardian feature article on Andrews, Margaret Simons commented that historically, the Labor Party “got its firmest footing in Victoria”.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Labor did not win a majority in a state election in Victoria until 1952, when John Cain Senior became premier. After that government fell apart in the split of 1955, the party did not again take office until 1982 – this time with his son, also John Cain, at the helm.
The reasons for Labor weakness are complex. One was an electoral system biased towards non-metropolitan voters. Another was the lack of a mining industry when compared with New South Wales. And when Labor lost in a landslide to a Coalition led by Jeff Kennett in 1992, it looked like a return to the older patterns. I said so in a conclusion to a book on the early history of the Victorian Labor Party that I published in 1996. “When seen in the context of twentieth-century Victorian political history’, I wrote in The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875-1915, ‘Labor’s domination of the 1980s seems an aberration. The election of 1992 saw a return to a more familiar situation, as Labor was reduced to a rump, and J.G. Kennett assumed the mantle of W.H. Irvine with his attacks on the ‘privileges’ of unionists and public servants.”
That was a reasonable judgment in 1996 with Kennett riding high. Irvine had been premier of Victoria for just a couple of years between 1902 and 1904, but he had used his brief time in office to take the state’s politics well to the right. He brutally suppressed a rail strike in 1903. He cut government spending, drastically reduced the size of the parliament, and removed public servants and railway workers from the electoral rolls in the places where they resided. Irvine instead provided them with special representatives, a manoeuvre that ensured large numbers of their votes were wasted given the overwhelming support they offered the Labor Party. Not even Kennett went that far, but both governments represented a rejection of the progressive liberalism that has been identified as Victoria’s dominant political strand.
Since the defeat of Kennett in 1999, Labor has dominated Victorian state politics. The Coalition has had just one term in office, while Labor now enters its sixth. Labor’s victories in that time have often been landslides. Victoria was once considered the jewel in the crown of the Liberal Party. It now has that status for Labor – so much so that Simons could be unaware that the party’s dominance of the state was an entirely recent phenomenon.
How do we explain this shift? The political historian and commentator Paul Strangio has suggested that Labor’s success is indebted to its success in assuming the mantle of Victoria’s old liberal tradition, one stretching back to the gold rush era and identified with figures in Victorian history such as George Higinbotham, Graham Berry and Alfred Deakin. In twentieth-century state politics, Tom Hollway and Dick Hamer were its standard bearers. But in the latter part of the century, it was the younger John Cain who epitomised this liberalism and in our present century, Steve Bracks. The Liberal Party has meanwhile veered to the right.
What was this liberalism? It was once entwined with tariff protection, but it is perhaps better understood in more general terms as centred on a faith in the potential of government to be made an instrument of human betterment without such an enterprise undermining the essence of personal liberty. Expressed that way, we can begin to see why despite the criticism and the odds, the Labor Party has increased its majority to 56 seats from the 55 it won in 2018 – an election that had seemed to represent a high-water mark from which Labor’s share of seats could only recede.
Labor’s two-party preferred vote at the 2018 election was a little over 57%. At the 2022 election, it looks like settling just under 55%. That is a swing away from Labor but given the strength of the Labor vote in 2018, an exceedingly modest one. Labor’s two-party preferred vote looks about the same in Victoria as for the May 2022 federal election in the same state. Its loss of votes occurred in places where it could afford to lose them without any impact on its tally of seats: in safe Labor seats in Melbourne’s suburbs, and in country seats the party has no prospect of winning.
Is the Labor Party under Andrews an authentic expression of the Victorian liberal tradition? In some respects, its progressivism does seem to have roots in that tradition. It believes in the capacity of the state, and it is prepared to use the authority of government to underwrite economic development. In its social and environmental policy, it has reasonable progressive credentials (as well as its critics on matters such as forest management), even as it faces a challenge from the Greens in some inner-suburban seats.
In other ways, the Labor Party under Andrews seems to represent a departure from liberalism as it is ordinarily understood, in Victoria or elsewhere. The government is criticised for the centralisation of authority with the premier, while some aspects of COVID-19 pandemic management earned condemnation for their excesses. The label ‘Dictator Dan’ is unfair and over the top, but it speaks to the reality that the premier exercises an overwhelming authority over his government. The government’s image – and so far as one can tell, its practice – is less collegial than that of Cain or Bracks. The sheer ambition of the government’s plans for the building of infrastructure suggests a faith on the state as an engine of economic development that may well sit outside any reasonable definition of liberalism, even for Victoria with its state-centric formulation of that tradition.
In terms of his authority, Andrews better recalls Henry Bolte than his Labor predecessors. His electoral success certainly has shades of Bolte, who won six elections – all of them easily – and remained premier for over seventeen years. Andrews, if he serves a full term, will make it to twelve. Bolte was a Liberal who often seemed illiberal, but his was really a shrewd pragmatism of a ‘can do’ sort calculated to appeal to a broad constituency. There is something of that emphasis on the practical delivery of results in Andrews too. As with Bolte, more than enough voters have so far signalled that they are satisfied with what they are getting, whatever misgivings some might have about some of the means.
From the mid-1960s, Bolte began to look out of touch with his times. His determination to secure the execution of Ronald Ryan, Australia’s last, clings to him to this day as the defining image of his role in public life. His fruity condemnation of teachers, university students and other do-gooders appeared to epitomise a man for whom an intolerant conservatism had become a reflex. He had little interest in the emerging agenda of heritage, the environment and the quality of life, and the smell of corruption hung around some of his ministers.
The Andrews Labor government is unlikely to head down most of these paths. But long-lived governments become tired, often look arrogant, and can get – or at least appear – out of touch with a widening circle of voters and their concerns.
There are dangers signaled in the November 2022 election results, quite apart from the obvious point that many thousands of voters abandoned the Labor Party. Labor is losing support in outer suburban seats where it has traditionally been unassailable. It is struggling against Greens in seats closer to town, and the ‘Tofu Curtain’ is moving north – Preston was a close call this time round, with the progressive, non-Labor vote split about half a dozen ways. The National Party had some notable gains. And the Liberals managed either to hold or maintain seats in parts of Melbourne where Teal Independents broke through in the federal election, notably in Kew and Hawthorn.
That last point brings us to the Liberals. At present, they look disastrous, dominated by cranks and extremists. Their crisis is a great asset to Victorian Labor. Indeed, in some respects, notably their lack of electoral success and their apparent incapacity to do much about it, they resemble the Victorian Labor Party of the 1960s. Like the Labor Party at that time, today’s Liberals have been unable to respond to changing demographics, aspirations and agendas. In Victoria as in Canberra, they seem more than a single term away from winning government again.
Nevertheless, complacency on Labor’s part would be inadvisable. The Victorian Labor Party got its act together in due course, with some help from federal intervention in 1970. For today’s Liberals, its national picture seems almost as bleak as its Victorian one, so assistance from any such quarter appears unlikely. But major parties do usually renew themselves rather than going out of business entirely. Labor cannot count forever on the Victorian Liberal Party’s continuing eschewal of a moderate, pragmatic and centrist liberalism in favour of an electorally unpalatable right-wing populism.
Frank Bongiorno is Professor of History at the Australian National University, and the co-author, with Nick Dyrenfurth, of A Little History of the Australian Labor Party. His Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia will be published by La Trobe University Press/Black Inc. in November 2022.
In its recently published post-federal election survey findings, the Australian National University (ANU) has revealed for the first time a trend that has been developing for many years. Tactical voting. Media reports of the survey findings focused on the tactical voting identified in federal seats won by the Teal Independents. It was a revelation to many that the Teal Independents’ coalition of support was not exclusively just former Liberal Party voters. However, that discovery should have been apparent to anyone who studied the overall results within these seats.
In the federal seat of Kooyong, both the Labor and Greens primary vote had collapsed and clearly benefiting the Teal Independent Monique Ryan. Her overall level of support was a product of former Liberal Party, Labor Party, Greens Party supporters and to a lesser extent from people who have a history in supporting independents or smaller minor parties. Based on data the RedBridge Group collected during the federal election, most of that coalition was also from voters under the age of 40, now commonly referred to as Millennials and Generation Z.
At the 2010 Victorian state election, approximately 10% of this combined generation was enrolled to vote. They were dwarfed by baby boomers and older Victorians who, at that time, numbered well over 60% of the overall number of enrolled voters. By the 2022 state election, the demographic electoral map had massively changed.
Millennials and Generation Z now make up close to 40% of all enrolled Victorians, whilst baby boomers and older Victorians had slipped into second place, at around 38%. For the Liberal Party, this electoral transformation was akin to a tidal wave crashing over their heads that they somehow seem to have ignored. Over the last decade, they honed their message to a reliable asset class. Today, baby boomers and older Victorians are mostly supporters of the Liberal Party. In some electorates, close to 60% of voters born before 1964 support the Liberal Party.
The 2022 electoral tsunami in fact slowly built-up as housing prices continued to soar year after year. The Liberals continued feed older Australians a policy diet focused on protecting their asset wealth and status in our society. They ignored the massive fault line developing between asset-owning Australians and those who don’t.
The home ownership rate of 30-34 year olds in 1971 was 64%. By 2021, 60% of Australians under the age of 35 were renting. Younger Australians who manage to enter the housing market, do so under massive duress, many choosing to settle along the outer fringes of our sprawling cities where housing stock is cheaper and more accessible.
This fault line has now produced a country deeply divided but one that also has potentially mortally wounded the Liberal Party in some states. At the 2022 federal election, the Greens secured 36% of all voters under 35. Only 18% of this same voter cohort supported the Liberals.
The news does not get any better for the Liberals. The majority of Millennials and Generation Z do not identify with any political party. According to the ANU (with Griffith University) 2022 AES, just over 35% of all enrolled Australians now identify as a rusted-on voter for one political party and the majority are over 40 years old. For many Millennials and Generation Z voters, tactically voting is the new norm.
Voters in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, tend to support political parties of the left, opting for a mix of Labor, Greens and other progressive minor parties. At the recent Victorian state election, the Greens discovered the pitfalls of tactical voting when they lost a significant number of voters in the Northcote state electorate, over 9%, most of it bleeding to the Victorian Socialists. Why? Perhaps the Greens anti-development stance makes them look like a political party more interested in defending the assets of the wealthy rather than allowing for more construction of medium density dwellings.
In the Hawthorn state electorate, Greens voters again put on a fine display of tactical voting. The Greens how to vote card directed preferences to the Teal Independent before Labor. However, just over 2000 Greens voters selected to ignore that advice and selected to preference Labor above the Teal Independent.
Throughout 2021 and the early part of 2022, many voters within Melbourne’s outer west expressed a want to see their electorates turned into marginals. It was clear to them that safe Labor seats did not get the same level of support from a Labor government compared to seats in other parts of Melbourne that had smaller margins. It looks like they got their wish.
Labor’s red wall, along much of Melbourne’s outer west and north west has been turned into a fence. Labor claimed a ‘great’ victory in the seat of Melton, where the Labor primary vote climbed to 38%. In other seats it struggled to climb over 45%. Voting centres in suburbs like Meadow Heights, St Albans and Sydenham, recorded swings against Labor exceeding 20% and 30%. 10 years ago most voting centres in these places would record a Labor primary well over 60%.
The median age for many of these electorates is usually in the low 30s. It’s here where many Millennials choose to buy a home, albeit via a massive loan from the bank. Yet, it’s here where Labor lost most of its support at the recent Victorian state election. Tactical voting has now turned these seats into marginals, giving voters exactly what they seem to want.
Tactical voting is also present in regional Australia. At the recent federal election, over five million Australians voted for a minor party or Independent. A significant number of these Australians reside in small town Australia, outside our large cities. Voters within the federal seat of Indi have now returned an Independent to Canberra for the fourth time.
Millennials and generation Z voters are going to transform this country’s political landscape. They are a generation shaped by a globalist perspective, empowered by a fragmented media market, where choice overrides market share but also deprived access to asset wealth. In Sydney, the largest occupied dwelling type are rentals and overwhelmingly they are occupied by this generation. Political parties that choose to ignore this class of voter may, like the United Kingdom’s 19th century Whigs, face a future of division, collapse into irrelevancy and ultimately political extinction.
The transformation of Australia’s housing market is possibly akin to the impact of the industrial revolution. Back then, the working class strived for industrial and political representation, their momentum ending the careers of many established political parties. In the years to come, we will see the same power wielded by a new class.
By 2026, Millennials and generation Z will be close to half of all enrolled voters in Australia. Politically homeless, they too, are looking for real representation.
Kosmos Samaras is a Director of RedBridge Group, a long-time former Assistant Secretary of the Victorian ALP and JCRC Advisory Board Member.
Shortly before the historic re-election of Dan Andrews’ Victorian Labor government for a third term, an overseas centenary anniversary passed with little local comment.
At the mid-November 1922 British general election, although victory went to the Conservatives, for the first time Labour surpassed the divided Liberal Party, reducing the latter to third-party status. The Tories dominated British politics for the next four decades, yet this realignment saw Labour become their main electoral rival.
These events were later chronicled in George Dangerfield’s influential 1935 book, The Strange Death of Liberal England. In its pages, Dangerfield argued that the Liberals had ceased to be a party of government owing to “four great rebellions” before the Great War of 1914-18: the Tories’ opposition the Parliament Act 1911 (removing the House of Lord’s ability to veto money and other public bills; the threat of civil war in Ireland; the rise of the suffragette movement; and a more militant trade unionism.
A century on, are we witnessing the strange death of Australian liberal conservatism? It improbable that the Liberals will cease to exist or become a third party (and indeed the Nationals performed well at this year’s federal and Victorian ballots).
Nonetheless, the various iterations of the Coalition find themselves in very poor health indeed – organisationally, campaign-wise, and ideologically. A brand problem in other words. The Coalition holds power in Tasmania and NSW. In the latter case, it is a good chance to lose power to the Chris Minns’ led party at the March 2023 election. At the 2022 federal election, the Liberals won their lowest seat share since 1946..
One reason for the loss of federal government, highlighted by the latest Australian Electoral Study and federal Labor’s election review released yesterday, was data showing Morrison to be least popular major party leader since it began in 1987. Views of his pandemic leadership flipped on their head in late 2021 onwards, underpinned by an explosion of Covid infections and lack of testing kits. The cost-of-living crisis created by the pandemic prior to the election was also a major factor. Any Victorian review will likely draw a similar conclusion, sheeting home blame to Matthew Guy.
Both major parties have major headaches, which go beyond one leader or one campaign. At the May federal election, the majors saw their primary votes collapse to historic lows. In previously safe blue-ribbon seats – historically producing Liberal leaders – the Liberals were assailed by both Labor and Teal independents. Some commentators suggest that neither party can boast a reliable base of safe seats. As the AES survey showed, only 37 % of voters have always voted for the same party. This is the lowest figure on record and the culmination of a long-term trend.
Whilst economic woes and ongoing geo-political tensions will test the Albanese Labor government across 2023 and 2024, it has performed strongly since its election. None of this it to argue Labor does not have electoral headaches of its own. Yes, Albanese’s victory was historic – in 121 years Labor had won national government at an election on just five previous elections. However, Labor received its lowest primary vote since 1934.
It lost ground in outer-suburban and peri-urban seats, a trend replicated at Victorian election. It too must address the concerns of younger voters attracted to the siren song of the Greens or outer-suburban and regional denizens to right-wing minor parties.
“It is reasonable to expect that the Coalition will target Labor-held outer-suburban and regional electorates,” Labor’s review noted, which demands “demonstrable improvements for communities in areas of long-standing support for Labor”. That is a tacit admission that working-class communities have in part been neglected. Labor cannot afford to keep losing these voters or lamely accept a shrinking primary vote.
However, the real challenge lies with the non-Labor side of politics. It is facing a demographic ticking time-bomb. The trend towards women voting for Labor rather than the Coalition is growing at pace – just 32 % of women cast a primary vote for the Coalition compared with 38 % of men. Younger Australians are fleeing in drives to the left, Labor, Greens and Teals. Just one in four voters under the age of 40 voted for the Coalition and only one in five voters among Generation Z (born after 1996) did likewise. The AES report notes that at no time in the 35-year history of this election study “have we observed such a low level of support for either major party in so large a segment of the electorate”. Anyone thinking that these voters will revert to Toryism as they grow older, as did their predecessors historically, are kidding themselves. Aside from gender and age, education is becoming a major marker of conservative decline. Among Australians holding a tertiary degree, Labor’s vote lead over the Coalition was 35-26 % and the combined Labor-Greens tertiary vote was 53 %.
Why? The middle-class base of the Coalition has become more socially progressive and less religious over time, a process which has accelerated in recent years. This is not to argue that the Coalition needs to become ‘Labor-lite’ on every social or cultural issue or matters fiscal, a pejorative accusation by some right-of-centre pundits, and even then, the Coalition were judged to be poorer economic managers than Labor, a traditional strength. It needs to formulate a 21st century blend of small ‘c’ conservatism and liberalism which projects a broad, unifying electoral appeal, adapting to some but not all of the growth of progressivism in the electorate, to reclaim the political centre.
This will entail overturning Liberal shibboleths. One, is the over reliance on the declining Boomer vote of asset-rich voters. As precariously employed younger people locked into no real wage growth for well over a decade and locked out of home ownership and are forced to rent for longer, often permanently, their politics shifts to the left and is staying left. The centre-right has nothing to offer these voters, either in terms of home ownership or the problems of rental stress and insecure tenure. If young people have nothing to conserve – i.e. owning a property – why would they vote conservative?
As a by-product the Liberals must end their ideological opposition to superannuation, especially industry funds, which looks likely to play a major role in boosting the supply of affordable, secure housing in line with the federal government’s ambitious Housing Accord. Superannuation if a form of thrift, one of the core values of Menzian liberalism.
The same can be said of Medicare. It is a communitarian, popular and arguably conservative institution whose universality has been shockingly eroded. Ditto climate change policy. According to the AES study, among voters, the environment favoured Labor 51-19 % and global warming favoured Labor 50-18 %. Education and age are critical. The Liberals need to stop framing it as an inherently radical agenda, but compatible with conservatism, and an economic and job-creation opportunity.
Ultimately, housing, health and climate are material issues – barbeque stoppers along with cost-of-living pressures, wages and secure work. Only when the Coalition has something meaningful to say on these matters will it be able to recover its parlous position. Otherwise, it faces the predictable decline of liberal-conservatism.
Nick Dyrenfurth is Executive Director of the John Curtin Research Centre and the author or editor of twelve books largely on Australian politics and history. This is an extended version of piece which appeared in The Australian Financial Review.
We are delighted to announce the joint winners of the John Curtin Research Centre/Victorian Trades Hall Young Writes’ Prize for 2022 are Mitchell Evans and Mungo Sweeney. Mitchell makes a well-argued case in ‘Back from the Brink’ that the Federal Labor government can make a quick and effective impact on scientific R&D through simplifying the application and assessment processes for research support. He places R&D at the centre of a concerted effort to revive and energise Australian manufacturing by government working in partnership with the private sector. It is encouraging to see young writers like Mitchell putting an emphasis on science-based creativity as integral to the reinvigoration of a positive national economic policy.
The other joint winner, Mungo Sweeney, in his piece on indigenous youth in detention and custodial care has sounded a moral cause to match Mitchell’s rational policy initiative. Sweeney correctly calls on Federal Labor to provide a practical lead to state Labor administrations especially in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, with some attention also paid to Queensland. On the moral challenge of providing hope to indigenous youth, and breaking the cycle of incarceration, Sweeney condemns the blame-shifting game between the States and Commonwealth. This inability of Labor to coordinate effectively across different levels of government was a curse in 2007-2008, marring the early years of the Rudd Government, and it remains a crucial moral and practical challenge today.
Honourable mentions go to strong arguments on education by Ned Graham and Keegan Peace, and on industrial relations by Nick Haughain. Graham calls on Labor to inject a massive funding top-up to public schools, underwriting a benchmark of at least 125% funding to all schools of their assessed Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), while Keegan suggests a new paid internship for teachers’ aides for all tertiary education students, to address a critical shortage of teaching staff in schools – effective ‘on site’ trade training for teachers of the future. Nick takes a clinical approach in dissecting the failures of enterprise bargaining, and its role in the long-term decline of the Australian union movement and makes a clarion call for urgent remedial action by the federal Labor government – it is fair to say that the reform proposals currently before Parliament go some way to satisfy Nick’s concerns, but the exclusion of the construction industry still rankles as an unjust carve-out.
These five essayists all contribute something valuable to public policy debates. We thank all entrants to our competition and wholeheartedly congratulate the winners.
Neglect is a word that is frequently used to refer to the approach taken by the previous Liberal-National coalition government towards many sectors of public policy. This disregard quickly comes to mind when one examines the state of Australian scientific research. Commonwealth investment in science has been continuously plummeting for a decade and the current peak research funding agency of the federal government, the Australian Research Council (ARC), has only seen minor legislative changes since its introduction and has not seen any major review or reform in its twenty-one year history. However, this looks set to change after an announcement in September by Minister for Education Jason Clare of a review of the ARC. This review presents an enormous opportunity for the new federal Labor government to reinvigorate scientific research in this country through legislative reform, to forge a research sector that benefits working people, and to actively encourage young people to pursue a career in science.
It goes without saying that high quality scientific research is critically important for the development of quality of life improvements, commercial innovation, economic efficiency, and is overall a good indicator of the developmental progress of a nation. In this sense Australia generally has a history of scientific research to be proud of. Over the years we have been the birthplace of game changing innovations such as the black box flight recorder, the electronic pacemaker, penicillin and the development of WI-FI technology. Yet, over the past decade that trajectory of excellence has slowly been shifting and urgent action needs to be taken to maintain our status as a modern nation of exploration and innovation.
The descending volume and calibre of Australian research in recent times has largely been induced by two fundamental derelictions. One being the decline of public spending on research and development (R&D), and the second being the outdated nature and unnecessary complexity of the current administration of that public funding.
Firstly, the overall quantity and scope of research funding in Australia has been continually degraded for a decade. Government investment in R&D has nose-dived from a peak of 0.67% of GDP in 2009 to only 0.56% of GDP in 2021, and overall gross domestic spending on R&D sits at 1.797% as of 2019, almost an entire percentage point lower than the OECD average of 2.52% The ever-declining pool of funding for research creates an extremely ruthless and sometimes hostile setting in which emerging researchers have to navigate to obtain secure funding for their research, severely limiting and oftentimes actively discouraging young people from pursuing a career in science. The undermining of R&D funding has not been equal across all sectors of research, and the proportion of funds allocated to either applied or fundamental research has shifted dramatically. In the period from 2018 to 2020, the proportion of funding towards applied research increased by 14% or $824 billion, to the detriment of fundamental research which fell by 11% or $314 million, according to ABS data. While applied research is an extremely important class of research, fundamental research is also equally as indispensable and the rapid shift away from this form of research in the context of an overall declining funding base is a cause for concern. The causes for this shift are many, but a likely contributor is a growing need for projects to have a clear and immediate commercial incentive in order to attract the funding needed to achieve their defined research objectives. This shift also reflects the growing share of privately funded research in overall research funding. Now that researchers are beginning to look elsewhere as public funding becomes harder to access, we risk limiting the scope of scientific research in this country to the interests of the companies who can afford it rather than the interests of the Australian people.
While some may argue that the shift to applied research improves the net efficiency of R&D spending, it turns a blind eye to the innovations that can come about from proper public funding of fundamental research. The most prominent example of which is the development of WI-FI technology, which came about through the study of radio signals emitted by black holes. Radio astronomy is not typically a field which springs to mind when it comes to obvious returns on R&D investment, nevertheless the unintentional discovery of WI-FI technology has revolutionised the communications sector globally and brings in millions of dollars of royalties to CSIRO annually.
The other, more structural barrier limiting the potential of Australian research is the complex and tortuous administrative barriers that researchers are subjected to even have a chance of receiving funding. The ARC acts as the primary research funding agency for all fields except for medical research, and, as previously mentioned, has not undergone any major review or reform since its inception in 2001. The application process for research grants through the ARC is a long, arduous process and has not been fit for purpose for some time now. Nature magazine reports that the success rate of grant applications has collapsed dramatically, from 27% in 2011 to 19% in 2021. The extremely low success rate of grant applications is an appallingly poor translation of effort with many applications being between 90-120 pages in length despite only between 5-10 pages being relevant to the project, with the remainder comprised of administrative filler. This process can take weeks or even months to collate only to have a marginal chance of even being considered for funding. This gross inefficiency results in large tracks of time and potential research wasted, leaving many researchers spending more time writing grant applications than actually conducting research.
Even more egregious is the metrics by which many grant applications are rejected. An overly punitive approach is taken toward specific formatting criteria, with some applications being rejected for having figure captions in 11pt font rather than 12pt font or for mentioning preprints. Perhaps the most public rejections of research grants occurred in late 2021, when then Education Minister Stuart Robert vetoed six research projects that had been recommended by the council for funding based on the grounds that they were ‘poor value for money’ and did not meet the national interest. For the most part these strict requirements have been implemented to ease the burden on reviewers attempting to sort through hundreds of applications which get longer and more administratively complex year on year. However, this temporary measure fails to address the root cause of the unnecessary complexity, instead actively punishing researchers and potentially locking them out of any form of funding for their research.
After the neglect of the previous decade, Labor is now in the unenviable position of having to re-invigorate Australian science at a time when high inflationary pressures have all eyes trained on outcome-focused government spending. While there has been an announced increase in ARC funding of $30.5 million as well as an increase in staffing in the recent October budget, the road to ensuring a secure future for Australian science remains uneven. To guarantee that the resuscitation of the Australian research sector is not merely temporary, there needs to be a frameshift in the relationship between researchers and ARC through purposeful and considered legislative reform.
The primary locus in which any efforts to improve the functioning of the ARC should be focused on the reduction of the administrative burden on both applicants and reviewers. Currently the application process for publicly funded research grants is an unwieldy, decaying relic in comparison to the frameworks used by other comparable forward-thinking nations. Other nations with high quality and quantity research outputs such as Norway and our neighbour New Zealand use a much more concise 10-page application method. This method acts to maintain the quantity of relevant information in the application, avoid unnecessary administrative burdens on the applicants and reviewers, as well as ensure that grant rounds are reviewed and released on time. In cases where more information is needed, the system used by New Zealand incorporates this 10 page “pitch” as a first round of an application, then promising applications are shortlisted to give a full 90 page application. By limiting the need for a 90 page application to those shortlisted, the bulk of the administrative burden is avoided while retaining the depth of detail sometimes needed to advance responsible public funding of research.
While it is already plainly clear that Australian science is in dire straits, the eventual findings of the ARC review currently underway will be a telling diagnosis of its ailing state. Moreover, the swift implementation of its recommendations to ensure that Australian research receives sustainable funding and has a well-functioning, modern administrative framework is critical. We need to make sure that participation in research is not discouraged, we maintain our status as a modern innovative nation, and that our research sector ultimately provides the Australian people the benefits it should.
Mitchell Evans is currently studying a Master of Biosciences degree at the University of Melbourne and recently completed a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Marine Biology. His current research focuses on sustainable aquaculture development. Mitchell also works part time as an Electorate Officer for Peter Khalil, the Federal Labor MP for Wills.
In 2016, shocking footage from Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin came to light. You’d be forgiven for assuming the graphic videos were taken from inside Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Saratov Prison or another infamous facility far from our shores. However, you’d be wrong.
Among the disturbing images, the footage showed a young Indigenous boy strapped to a chair. He is topless and held down by mechanical restraints with his face covered with a ‘spit hood’, a crude mesh hood that covers the entire head. He is left alone for close to two hours. When correctional officers return, he is almost unresponsive.
It is no secret that Australia’s youth detention system is under pressure and underperforming. To say that Aboriginal Australians are affected the most is an understatement. Our Indigenous incarceration rates are among the highest in the world, and Indigenous children and teenagers are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indigenous peers. In contemporary Australia an Aboriginal kid has a higher likelihood of being locked up than of completing year 12.
It doesn’t stop there. The conditions in many juvenile detention centres across the nation are appalling. Detainees are regularly denied access to food, water or toilets as punishment. Some are subjected to periods of solitary confinement for hundreds of hours, with the risk of sustaining extensive psychological damage. There are also regular and well documented reports of kids having been singled out and bullied by guards. These facilities contain children as young as ten or eleven. In some cases, children as young as fourteen have been transferred to adult prisons.
Not only does this abuse cause severe and in some cases irreversible psychological harm to the individual, but it also impacts the wider community. It precipitates recidivism and makes it harder for former detainees to readjust to society, making reoffending in some cases almost inevitable. It has been estimated that two thirds of young people released from prison reoffend within twelve months.
The imprisonment of young offenders also comes at enormous expense to the taxpayer. Public money that could address social issues is being funneled into prisons and punishments. It is estimated that the cost of holding youth in detention exceeds $713,900 per child annually. The current approach also erodes public trust in the justice system overall. Personally, I find it immensely distressing to see kids my age and even younger being gravely mistreated in detention.
There can be little question that the juvenile justice system needs substantial and wide-ranging reforms in order to address the issue at hand. However, as with many issues of a complex nature, it cannot be solved by any government alone. Given this, there is a unique opportunity right now for the new federal Labor government to make great strides forward in resolving the crisis in our youth detention systems.
West Australia and the Northern Territory have historically had the highest disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners. They have also had the most frequent allegations of serious misconduct in youth justice facilities. Today, Western Australia and the Northern Territory both have Labor governments. By liaising with state governments, unions and business, Prime Minister Albanese’s federal Labor government can forge a path forward to a more humane and equal Australia.
Firstly, for progress to be achieved this would involve the detailed, regular and continuing vetting of potential correctional officers. This important check would help monitor any racial biases, psychological trauma, propensities for violent behaviour or other undesirable traits that a correctional officer may have. Putting this into action would likely involve both state and federal Labor cooperating to establish a national framework to provide clear guidelines to ensure the highest levels of professionalism and integrity.
Further, an independent advisory board should be instituted for the purposes of auditing, observing and overseeing youth detention facilities nationwide and immediately investigating any complaints. This commission should be funded by the government, however, to avoid it becoming motivated by partisan politics. Ministers and departments should have no influence over what will be investigated or the scope of these inquiries. It’s imperative that this includes a clear and direct process for detainees to lodge formal complaints. These must be investigated thoroughly and speedily in a way that reflects and respects the time sensitive nature of the allegations. For the sake of convenience and cost-efficiency, it may be logical to combine these two commissions into one body.
The government should collaborate with unions and the labour movement to identify the most pressing issues in youth detention. Those closest to the problem could help navigate the best way to address these concerns. Unions such as the Western Australian Prison Officers Union (WAPOU) and the Prison Officers Association have consistently campaigned for workplace rights and mental health support for officers, and these recommendations should be implemented. The potential of a general pay raise for positions in youth detention could be discussed as a method of attracting experienced former social work or law enforcement personnel. Making these positions more desirable could make the sector more competitive, ensuring that only the best trained and most applicable officers are employed, reducing a reliance on lesser suited staff. Currently, a corrections officer only needs to complete one fourteen week training course before being eligible to work. This period should be dramatically increased, to guarantee the utmost competence, professionalism and preparedness for what is a complex and challenging workplace.
It’s essential that additional funding is dedicated to employing more social workers, behavioural therapists, educators, medical professionals and people with a background in law and criminology in these facilities. This is to make certain that industry best practice is being followed and that laws, both domestic and international, are abided by.
Creating a healthier work environment for correctional officers and improving conditions in juvenile detention is pivotal to reforming the justice system in this country, and in some extreme cases could, for some, literally be the difference between life and death.
Additionally, in terms of closing the vast gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids in juvenile detention, the new Labor government should commit to funding new initiatives to facilitate the connection of young Aboriginal people to country and community. Justice reinvestment funding would see the movement of resources from funding incarceration to facilitating hope and alternatives. By developing collective mechanisms, fostering positive attachment to land and strongly funding Indigenous focused legal aid programs, particularly in remote communities, we can take positive steps towards ending the over-representation of Aboriginal kids in youth detention.
Finally, federal Labor has to negotiate with state governments, especially the Labor governments in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, to amend or abrogate legislation that permits the use of abusive and inhumane measures such as mechanical restraints.
It’s worth briefly considering how these reforms should be financed. One potential source of funding could be from the cancellation of Coalition grants. In this year’s Budget, Treasurer Jim Chalmers announced approximately $2 billion in Coalition promises that had been scrapped. Labor has also cancelled $250 million from a regional grants program known as the “Building Better Regions Fund” due to the fact the grants were not found to have been granted on merit. While the government is reinvesting $1 billion of this into regional projects over the next three years, a fraction of the leftover money could comfortably finance all of these suggested approaches.
Additionally, some of these changes could be financially backed by the increase in fines that the Budget outlined. Commonwealth penalty units are set to rise from $222 to $275 next year, which is expected to raise over $60 million over a four-year period.
Finally, funding for the aforementioned amendments could be obtained by not proceeding with the Stage 3 tax cuts that are expected to cost over $254 billion over the next decade. Any of these three sources would prove more than sufficient in terms of providing the necessary finances for reforming the youth justice system.
In May this year, Australians voted for a fairer country. One that values integrity, honesty, compassion and empathy. Our country voted for change and for hope. A more decent Australia is one where youth justice is focused on rehabilitation, not punishment. A fairer Australia has less kids in jail. Anthony Albanese and the Australian Labor Party have the ability to give our nation a chance at a more equal future. Not one where cell doors are locked on teenagers, but where “the doors of opportunity are open to us all”.
Mungo Sweeney is a 16 year old high school student who lives and studies on unceded Wurundjeri and Bunurong land in Melbourne/Naarm. He has a keen interest in music, history, politics, contemporary issues and supporting the voice and agency of young people in creating a fairer future.
“The pursuit of knowledge is far more important than even knowledge itself. It involves discipline and training, which in turn are moulders of character. That is why the Labour movement has always striven, even passionately, for educative opportunities for all.”
John Curtin, ‘The Views of Labour’, West Australian, 16 April 1932.
Australia has always taken pride in its egalitarian ethos and its obligation to provide each citizen with a high-quality education. In striving for a universal education system, we seek to reduce the influence of a newborn’s unchosen circumstances on future outcomes, with an aim to assess innate ability rather than external fortune. In striving for a high-quality education system, we endeavour to maximise the individual’s potential to ensure a prosperous future for the collective – one whose betterment is never denied or restrained by an insufficiently educated populace.
However, these aspirations have been hamstrung by a lack of ambition; Australia’s education system is of a decreasing quality and the enjoyment of schooling that remains high-quality is limited to the privileged – the privately- and selectively-educated minority. It is imperative that the Albanese government rekindle the Australian labour movement’s commitment to providing what John Curtin described as first-class “educative opportunities for all” by adopting an ambition education platform – one that promises to fund all public schools at or above 125% of their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS –a method devised by the ‘Review of Funding for Schooling’ published in 2011 commonly referred to as the ‘Gonski Report’ and used to determine the funding required for an individual school to operate).
The twenty-first century has seen Australia’s educational performance decline at a time when an educated, skilled workforce is touted as the answer to the future unviability of Australia’s fossil fuels industry. By 2060-61, worker output is set to double, with productivity (driven by higher levels of education) projected to comprise 100% of contributions to real GDP per person growth, according to the commonwealth treasury’s ‘2021 Intergenerational Report’. Therefore, it is concerning that between 2000 and 2018, Australia’s international ranking in the reading, mathematics, and science components of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) fell from 4th to 17th, 5th to 30th, and 7th to 16th, respectively. Consistent with relative performance (rankings), Australia’s average performance across these three subject areas similarly decreased, falling by 3.94 percentage points from 106.12% of the international (OECD) average in 20066 to 102.18% in 2018.
Despite lacklustre student performance, Australian secondary school teachers are expected to work more hours per year than all 13 of the nations that both outperform Australia’s average PISA score and publish the number of hours worked by teachers. Tasked with 839 hours of statutory teaching and lesson preparation time annually, Australian high school teachers work 53 hours per year (6.74%) more than the OECD average and 258 hours per year (44.41%) more than secondary school teachers in Finland – a nation renowned for its world-leading education system and twenty-first-century pedagogy.
Australia cannot continue to sustain diminishing educational performance and an increasingly over-extended teaching force if it wishes to regain its standing as an international trailblazer in education, but it is only through a significant increase to government expenditure that improved educational outcomes can be attained. Through an additional investment of $19.55 billion per annum, the Commonwealth government should assist state and territory governments in funding all 6692 Australian public schools at 125% of their Schooling Resource Standard.
For a public secondary school with 800 students from non-priority cohorts, facing no significant disadvantage, and funded at 100% of its SRS, a 25% increase in funding would provide it with an additional $3.1 million per annum. As staff comprise 76.36% of schools’ expenditure, said increase would provide $2.5 million for teaching staff – enough for an additional 31 ‘graduate’, 28 ‘proficient’, or 21 ‘highly accomplished’ teachers. With additional teaching staff, public secondary schools would be able to deliver higher-quality education universally by reducing class sizes and the administrative burden currently borne by public school teachers.
Due to the current teacher shortage across Australia (particularly in NSW), the Commonwealth government would need to engage teacher unions such as the NSW Teachers Federation in partnership with state/territory governments (the latter of whom teachers are employed by) to negotiate appropriate pay rises, ensuring the impacts of increased public-school expenditure on educational outcomes are not hindered by a lack of teaching staff. Working with trade unions, the Council of Australian Governments, and the National Cabinet, the Commonwealth government should determine what portion of the 125% increase to the SRS is devoted towards increasing teachers’ salaries, attracting individuals into the profession, and what percentage is used to create new teaching jobs to ease teachers’ workloads, retaining those currently employed as teachers, both actions reducing the teacher shortfall.
Australian non-government schools are projected to be overfunded by $5 billion between 2019-2916, with some private schools’ public funding as a percentage of their SRS entitlement persistently over 220%, despite public schools being underfunded by $6.7 billion annually. To both mitigate the burden of an ambitious education policy on taxpayers and reduce the educational inequalities between public and private school students, it is thus necessary for the Albanese government to cease funding non-government schools receiving over 125% of their SRS (either from private or public revenue streams) until every Australian public school is funded at 125% of their SRS.
Whilst many private school communities may be dismayed by increased school fees or decreased funds at their school’s disposal, defunding overfunded private schools is a necessary step towards improving Australia’s overall educational performance and equality. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth government must work with all non-government schools to develop a timeframe for defunding that allows private schools to develop alternate financing arrangements (e.g. raising school fees) and avoid unintentional underfunding.
Regarding financing, productivity improvements require either new revenue streams or a policy of austerity across other government services. Though increased taxation is rarely the most politically popular method of financing increased expenditure due to the adverse reaction it typically receives from the public, the former option is far preferable to the latter given the already considerable strain on public services and the need for deflationary economic policies. Furthermore, by communicating increased education spending as an investment that provides future financial returns through productivity gains, rather than mere expenditure, the Albanese government can energise the public whilst simultaneously generating the revenue required to set Australia on a path towards prosperity.
To fund all public schools at 125% of their SRS, the Albanese government would need to increase education expenditure by $19.55 billion per annum – a 34.1% increase to the Commonwealth’s current education budget. Through the introduction of a 2.5% education levy on personal income tax, the Commonwealth government would raise $20.55 billion22. This additional revenue could fully-fund the proposed policy while simultaneously producing $1 billion to be spent on other fiscally discretionary educational measures (e.g. subsidising university education for disadvantaged Australians). In 2014-15, the Medicare Levy raised $14.6 billion ($16.44 billion adjusted for inflation) and is a flat, regressive rate of 2% on personal income tax. Thus, a 2.5% education levy would raise $20.55 billion annually.
As education is a residual power held by the states, the Commonwealth government has historically devoted a portion of its revenue to education to correct the vertical fiscal imbalance between itself and state/territory governments. However, many federal governments, particularly Labor governments, have taken an active interest in pursuing “educative opportunities for all” to not only promote economic growth through supply-based productivity increases, but to create an egalitarian land of equal opportunity. The Albanese government must continue Labor’s legacy and recognise the future needs of the Australian economy by placing education back at the centre of its plan for ‘A Better Future’, funding all public schools at 125% of their SRS and re-introducing fee-free university. Political pundits may expect the electorate to react poorly to what it views as mere ‘tax and spend’, but Australia knows what it must do not just to survive, but thrive, in the modern world. Labor must take a progressive course of action, and they must take it now.
Ned Graham has recently graduated from his local public high school in Sydney’s Inner West. He was Vice-Chair of the NSW Education Minister’s Student Council, overall winner of the Whitlam Institute’s ‘What Matters?’ writing competition, and Premier of the NSW Youth Parliament in 2022. He plans to begin studying economics and politics in 2023 at the University of Sydney.
Australia is currently experiencing an unprecedented teacher and teacher aide shortage. The crisis, which has existed since long before the coronavirus pandemic, is one that has been reported on by media outlets, universities, and education authorities for years. The current federal Labor government has worked to incentivise careers in education to address this, creating well-intentioned programs to draw high-performing high school students into the sector. However, incentives can only go so far and fix so much. In times of crisis, aid is needed.
The solution to all of these disparate problems is one short answer with many ramifications. The study of education must be restructured to provide a new internship system that allows student-teachers to be placed into government schools as paid teacher aides for a part-time duration of their studies. While there, these education students will be paid at a set rate, gather first-hand experience on-site under the supervision of teachers, and be able to fulfil the role of a teacher aide at the same time. Aiding the shortage of teacher aides, incentivising new teachers into the profession with paid experience during their study, and supporting teachers with passionate aide and relief aide staff who put students first.
While this may seem like a difficult measure to implement, the severity and urgency of the problem merits a proportional response. There is a well-documented and surging shortage of general teachers and an even worse shortage in the specialised subjects of mathematics and science. This issue is particularly dire in institutions located in remote and rural areas. The profession of teacher aide is one that has also found itself in similar shortages to that of teachers in recent years, further exacerbated by the pandemic.
A teacher aide plays a valuable role in the education of students. The roles of an aide may include assisting teachers with the planning of lessons, providing students with individualised assistance with literacy and numeracy, monitoring students’ progress, and assisting children who struggle with mental, physical, or behavioural development or who have other special needs. These roles are similar to that of a teacher, and essential to that of a student-teacher.
There is also reason to believe that university students currently training to be teachers are a suitable and yet untapped demographic from which to draw teacher aides. It is a role that does not necessarily require years of training, nor paid programs to train for. This qualification can be earned at technical and further education (TAFE) institutions or other recognized educational institutions, and the typical amount of time necessary to finish it is between six and twelve months, which fits neatly into the academic timeline of teachers-to-be. Additionally, the vast majority of current teacher aides are middle-aged women who are working part-time. The majority of these women are employed in other jobs as well. This suggests that university students similar to this demographic should be able to balance other academic obligations and time commitments while functioning as teacher aides, but very few university students currently have the opportunity to work in this field.
The number of young people who are enrolling in educational programs is on the decline, and at the same time, an increasing number of instructors who are currently working are considering quitting their positions to pursue other career prospects. In Australia, the market for educational services is thriving, and this growth will likely carry on at a quick pace for the foreseeable future as well. And yet, Australian teachers experience lower salary growth than their peers in other professions and find that their increasing expertise is poorly rewarded. The hope is that incorporating an opportunity for income into the curriculum to become a teacher will help defray costs for those who find the education required financially prohibitive and who are drawn to other careers with greater potential for salary growth over time. In turn, this will incentivise people to join the education sector, fill the need for teacher aides in the short term, and fill the shortage of teachers in the long term. The solution to this crisis is a simple one, the new federal Labor government should structure the study of education at university, scrapping the unpaid practicum program in favour of new reform. A reform that will allow those passionate about education a window into experience and guidance during their studies. What the education sector needs, like any teacher in their class, is the help of their teacher aides.
Keegan Peace is an educator and author. He has published two books, The Polka Dot Prince and Conrad Curlew Makes a Newspaper. A proud Queensland Teacher’s Union site rep, he is also a Branch Secretary and Area Council Delegate. In 2020, he won the Independent Education Union’s Beginning Teacher Award.
In possibly the closest that we will ever come close to a unanimous opinion in Australian industrial relations, enterprise bargaining under the Australian federal system is considered fundamentally broken and needs significant reform. Reform is essential to achieve greater labour productivity, greater economic certainty for Australian businesses and improved wages and conditions for Australian workers.
The Albanese Labor Government recently excluded the entirety of the commercial building and construction industry from multi-employer bargaining as part of the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022. This is yet another disappointing sign of the unwillingness of the ALP to execute the systemic, radical reforms needed to structurally alter the fundamentals of industrial bargaining. Serious reform must occur to ensure immense, lasting improvements in the wages and conditions of Australian workers.
The Keating Government’s introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1991 through the Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993 (Cth) might not have been the major cause of the continual decline in union density in the Australian labour force as stated by some but was a symptom of the deep-rooted malaise that has infected industrial relations in this nation. Enterprise bargaining, in the original form presented by the Keating Government to the Australian union movement in Accord Mark IV, was intended to somehow improve overall per-unit lab productivity, whilst paradoxically restricting the ability of trade unions to conduct industrial action. Industrial action was and continues to be only permitted for an extremely limited period after the expiration of enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs). In particular, the introduction of the no-disadvantage test in which the Australian Industrial Relations Commission was required to ensure that any proposed EBA did not reduce the overall wages and conditions of covered workers. It was also designed to guarantee that Australian workers were not left behind in the pursuit of greater economic efficiency and productivity.
In principle, I agree with the introduction of enterprise bargaining as it fundamentally allows for negotiating localised wages and conditions reflecting Australian businesses’ unique operational requirements whilst ensuring that workers get paid fairly.
However, since its introduction by the Keating Labor Government, enterprise bargaining has led to the pitiful fragmentation of the Australian trade union movement. The result is trade unions competing amongst each other for coverage in particular industries whilst growth and emerging industries are simultaneously neglected or derided as being ‘too hard to organise’.
The Howard Coalition Government’s introduction of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Cth) further distorted the original intentions of the Keating Government’s introduction of enterprise bargaining with the introduction of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). This allowed unscrupulous employers to completely circumvent having to abide by awards and EBAs by forcing individual employees to sign individual agreements. The Howard Government’s introduction of AWAs can only be seen as a depraved, cynical attempt to splinter the Australian trade union movement by reducing the scale and coverage of all forms of collective bargaining.
Additionally, the High Court’s decision in Electrolux v The Australian Workers Union to rule that unions mandating that non-union members pay bargaining fees to cover the costs of enterprise bargaining was invalid under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Cth) was yet another dismal blow to the principles of enterprise bargaining.
The much-derided WorkChoices legislative package introduced by the Howard Government through the Workplace Relations (WorkChoices) Act 2005 (Cth) further watered down the scope and coverage of collective agreements through the reduction of coverage for awards, the expansion of AWAs to a broader section of the Australian workforce and excising the no disadvantage test from the evaluation of new EBAs. WorkChoices further simplified the EBA evaluation process by requiring all EBAs to be approved by the newly established Workplace Authority.
The Rudd Government’s Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) prohibited new AWAs. They introduced the Better Off Overall Test (the BOOT Test) which the new industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, would be required to evaluate all proposed EBAs. The BOOT Test required all workers under a proposed EBA to be better off in terms of their wages and conditions, a significantly higher bar than the no disadvantage test which merely required workers to not be worse off under any new EBA. Sadly, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) erased the legal distinction that existed between union and non-union EBAs, reducing the paramount nature of the trade union movement over the collective bargaining of wages and conditions. Additionally, the Rudd Government maintained the ludicrous restrictions on industrial action with trade unions only permitted to conduct protected industrial action after the expiration of an EBA and only if approved by Fair Work Australia.
Firstly, the proposal in the Secure Jobs, Better Pay 2022 bill to give the power to the Fair Work Commission to set wages by ordering pay increases for workers in low-paid, female-dominated industries will be a landmark legislative change that will restore much-needed fairness and equity to the wages and conditions of Australian workers.
The November 2022 decision of the Fair Work Commission in the Aged Care Value case to award aged care workers employed in direct care roles an increase in minimum wages of at least 15% per annum was a landmark decision. Thanks to the relentless campaigning and the industrial advocacy of the Health Services Union, the Aged Care Value Case underlined the Fair Work Commission’s importance in increasing wages in line with community standards and expectations.
Additionally, the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill will explicitly make striving for gender equity a central goal for the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), particularly with regard to modern awards. For modern awards in low-paid, female-dominated industries such as the Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services Industry Award and the Hospitality Industry (General) Award, promoting gender equity will help make a significant, structural improvement in the wages and conditions of low-paid, female workers.
For these proposals, the Albanese Government should be applauded for making structural, permanent changes to the Australian industrial relations system which provides genuine fairness and balance in the workplace.
The Albanese Government’s proposed expansion of the existing ability for unions and employers to undertake multi-employer bargaining is another significant measure that will dramatically restore the balance of the workplace towards the union movement and individual workers. However, the exclusion of the entirety of the commercial building and construction industry from the proposed expansion is a mealy-mouthed concession
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (the CFMEU) is a powerful union and has achieved significant industrial outcomes for its membership. However, in a construction industry where total union density is at a mere 10.1%, the ability of the CFMEU to stop construction work from occurring, as stated by construction employers, is vastly overblown in a vicious industrial regulatory environment.
By conceding to the ludicrous demands of peak employer associations such as the Master Builders Association and the Australian Industry Group, the Albanese Government has signified that it is the place of the Australian union movement to be seen but less heard from. What should be a time of hope and future for the broader Australian union movement due to the significant changes which will be brought into law by the Albanese Government is instead a time of confession and disappointment.
To ensure genuine fairness in enterprise bargaining, the Albanese Government must treat all industries fairly and equally. Extending multi-employer bargaining to the construction industry would help correct the vast abuses of power within this industry. To do so, the Albanese Government requires rare political courage and not to accede to the myth of the militant trade unionist bogeyman that is so readily and easily espoused by vicious, extremist employers in the construction industry hellbent on the wholescale destruction of the wages and conditions of Australian workers.
I propose that the expansion of multi-employer bargaining to the construction industry be paid for by construction industry employers who have ridden the construction boom to vast riches in the last few decades whilst continuing to attack workers’ rights. Unfettered conciliation with employers is not possible nor is it desirable.
The Australian Labor Party must remember that it was founded and mostly exists to serve the industrial interests of the Australian trade union movement. Much more is needed than moderate, milquetoast reform of enterprise bargaining. Only a complete transformation of the enterprise bargaining system will ensure that the rampant inequity of the wages and conditions of the average Australian worker is significantly improved.
Nick Haughain is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Laws at Macquarie University. Nick has been involved in politics and the labour movement since the age of 17 and currently serves as Chair of the NSW Young Labor Economics Policy Committee and Secretary of the Macquarie University Labor Club. Nick currently works for a major NSW trade union.