Tony Abbott has received much political mileage in recent months with his carbon tax scare campaign. While most of what he has said has pandered to the worst possible instincts (just worry about yourself and not the risks of climate change to others and to the future of the world), he has been able to play on a very real feeling in the broad Australian community: insecurity. Indeed, stoking and then pandering to insecurity―over terrorism, refugees, cost of living and so on―have been the key strategies behind Abbott’s leadership, and much of John Howard’s before him (remember Howard’s early insecurity campaign around native title and the ‘threat’ to suburban backyards, not to mention interest rates).
The truly remarkable political achievement of the Coalition has been to divert attention from the true causes of insecurity to a populist grab-bag of groups, people and issues that make easy targets: Indigenous people, refugees, ‘elites’, unions, political correctness, law and order, the ABC. It should be obvious that none of these groups or issues should play any substantial role in causing insecurity. Only an already insecure society is vulnerable to believing that a few thousand desperate refugees arriving by boat pose any threat to anyone.
The difficulty the Gillard government faces in selling the need for a price on pollution also stems, at least partly, from this widespread insecurity. Some of that is a result of the insecurity that arises from an uncertain, diffuse threat that is difficult for many to understand, and, paradoxically, while potentially catastrophic, is not currently pressing in most people’s lives.
Partly through careful political manipulation by Abbott, the price on carbon has become a lightning rod for broader fears about cost-of-living increases. The reason such fears are so potent is, once again, because of insecurity. One source of this is the recent near-death experience of the Global Financial Crisis: news emanating from Greece, Ireland, the United States reminds us that there but for the grace of God (or China and a whole lot of government spending) go we. In addition, the unsustainable increase in Australian house prices has led to a greater level of household mortgage indebtedness than ever before, and a chronic fear of interest rate rises. The recent levelling off in price growth and home lending surely indicates some rudimentary awareness that the whole Ponzi scheme of house price inflation will come to an end at some stage―a rather frightening thought for all those heavily geared folk who bought into the market at the wrong end.
But a seldom considered, although extremely important, source of insecurity in contemporary Australia is precarious employment. One of the reasons you don’t hear much about this is because the Coalition and its backers in big business and the corporate media don’t want you to hear about it: it is in their interests to prolong the situation whereby 40 per cent of Australian workers do not have the protection of the National Employment Standards. Consider these facts:
- Over 2.1 million Australian workers do not have access to paid leave entitlements because they are casual or engaged as independent contractors (often in sham contracting arrangements).
- More than one million workers have been employed casually in their current job for more than five years.
- A third of a million workers are employed on fixed term contracts.
- Over one million workers are independent contractors, and 43 per cent of them have no authority over the work they do―that is, they are employed in sham contracting arrangements.
- Casualisation has contaminated all sectors of the economy: 60 per cent of the waterfront workforce is casual; there are 67,000 casuals teaching in Australian universities, and more than 50 per cent of teaching is done by them.
Precarious work has grown rapidly in Australia in the last twenty years, and much quicker than almost any other comparable country. Employers―big and small―have, with the encouragement and assistance of governments of both stripes, shifted economic risk from businesses and government to individual workers to an extent comparable only with the 19th century. Precarious work means lack of control over hours, uncertainty about the source or size of the next pay cheque, lack of holidays, lack of sick and family leave, no long service leave, no career progression, no training, difficulty in getting bank loans, and worries about household budgets.
It is no coincidence that the growth in precarious work has paralleled the decline in union membership―both as cause and symptom. Unions are crucial to the maintenance of good jobs, with decent terms and conditions; and unions find it difficult to recruit and maintain members among precariously employed workers (the undermining of unions is, of course, one of the key motivations behind casualisation: casuals who join unions or stand up for themselves simply lose their shifts).
Of course the argument is frequently made that a ‘flexible labour market’ has enabled Australia to have a low unemployment rate. There is little evidence of this, especially when one takes into account the level of under-employment, and especially when one takes a long-term view: the Australian unemployment level was about a third of its current rate during the 1960s when there were far fewer casual, part-time and contract employees. Do the proponents of the flexible labour market really mean that there are only two choices: tenuous jobs with no leave entitlements or unemployment? Is that the best we can do in 21st-century Australia?
If the Gillard government wants to get back on the front foot and reclaim its natural support base, it would do well to start talking about the scandal of precarious work, and its connection with insecurity. It would enable the government to focus attention on the real causes of insecurity and away from the diversions that the Coalition has exploited so successfully―refugees and cost-of-living increases in particular.
But that would require Labor to come to terms with its own complicity in fostering the world of precarious work through the abandonment of employees to ruthless market forces in the determination of their pay and conditions. It would require Labor to acknowledge the victims as well as the successes of its own grand restructuring efforts of the 1980s―the unskilled, the former industrial working class, regional cities. It is from these wellsprings that climate change denialism issues, from people who remember only too well what happened to them the last time a government decided the Australian economy needed to be restructured for the benefit of the future.
Doing something about the scourge of precarious work would enable the Labor government to reclaim a social justice vision, a vision much more likely to grab voters’ attention than its current mantra of returning the budget to surplus―hardly the light on the hill. Since insecurity is the oxygen of the Coalition―those who talk most about security (law and order, border protection) have the most interest in undermining it―restoring a sense of security through improved employment standards for all workers would enable the government to conduct real, necessary reforms, like dealing with climate change, without the distraction of a Coalition preying on people’s insecurity.
It would also sheet home the blame for precarious employment―and insecurity more generally―to where it really belongs: big business and its voices in parliament.
By Colin Long
Colin Long is the Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union.