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Smoko: Bingo, bombs and Bali

By Ern O'Malley - posted Thursday, 24 October 2002

Don the hardhat and grab the Mortein! Workplace health and safety has become a major issue here at Concrete Warranty Motors. The month kicked off with a beam falling from the roof and nearly cleaning up one of the lads. Upon inspection, a third of the shed was found to be termite-ridden and was closed off for renovation. Before the dust had even settled, another of the guys was hospitalised after a spider bit him in the locker room, leaving a badly ulcerating wound. Needless to say, our blue-collar warriors are more than a little unhappy at the conditions they work under. Tempers have become very frayed lately, resulting in the dismissal of one of the longest-serving members.

The manager, who in style and substance bears more than a passing resemblance to Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss, unwittingly provided some comic relief. Known as Broccoli (‘coz he’s smarter than the average cabbage), his ability to talk in circles is only exceeded by his penchant for wearing more silly hats than an electioneering Peter Beattie. The monthly "Toolbox" management meeting is a cornucopia of buzzwords and acronyms strung together with meaningless platitudes. As one of the Dirty Dozen, our team of truck mechanics, remarked: "It’s like talking to a revolving door." Why is it that management seems increasingly unable to relate to, and earn the respect of, the workforce?

Anyway, Broccoli was more than a little surprised when the lads paid close attention to his speech this month. The workforce seemed to be hanging on his every word, and apparently even taking notes. His surprise quickly flashed to anger when one of the guys leapt up and shouted "Bingo!" having been the first to fill his card of acronyms and buzzwords. There is a lesson here – if you can’t talk straight to those whose respect you desire, then keep your mouth shut.


Why is all this relevant is a column about domestic politics? There is a simple answer. The workforce has come to see politicians as another level of management. At best they are aloof, inept and overpaid. At worst they are greedy, obstructive and corrupt. Elvis, a Vietnam Veteran with red hair and a temper to match, is particularly disdainful of career politicians. "Just look at them. They go straight from uni to politics without getting any real-life experience. They don’t know what life is about. They’ve never had to struggle to put food on the table." Old enough to recall the Whitlam experiment, his 30-odd years in the mining industry amount to more life experience than many of us will ever know. "Crean and Beazley, just following in their daddy’s footsteps. Not that the jumped-up budgerigar salesman (as he calls Howard) is any better!"

I reported last month that the smoko room was quietly against the idea of war with Iraq. That changed suddenly when Tony Blair put forward his Case Against Saddam Hussein. They felt Blair put forward a convincing argument for military action against Iraq. When asked if Australia should commit forces to any American action against Iraq, the response was almost unanimous. "Of course we should," said Taff. Lanky and bellicose, you can always count on the shop steward for an opinion. "If we don’t fix the problem (state-sponsored terrorism) over there, Pakistan and then India will be next. Sooner or later it will be on our doorstep in Indonesia, which will explode like the Balkans did. It is just a powder keg waiting to go up. We will not be living so smugly when that happens." The Snowman, so named because that is what our resident joker resembles, chimed in with "We'd look silly if we didn’t. After all, we are the 51st state. Little Johnny didn’t do all that arselicking for nothing!"

However, the West has failed to strike while the iron is hot. Our Welsh windbag, Taff, accused Bush of dithering. "You didn’t see Maggie Thatcher fiddling around when the Falklands were invaded. Bush is incapable of making a decision." The Dirty Dozen now will only support war with Iraq if UN weapons inspections fail.

I was taken by surprise when the topic of conservation was raised one day, as it is something very rarely discussed. Penguin (if you saw him in a suit, you would understand) blames much of our current problems of salinity, land degradation and prolonged drought on broadacre farming practices. "You can not rip the guts out of the land for a hundred years without doing some damage. The farmers don’t even use 90 per cent of the land they have cleared." The Snowman spoke strongly in support of wildlife and vegetation corridors through farmland as a way of restoring balance to nature. Nice to know that your average grubby truck mechanic is environmentally aware, isn’t it?


I’ve held this column back to capture the reaction of the Dirty Dozen to the Bali bombing. Suddenly, terrorists have struck close to home, killing many young Australians. Taff’s words earlier in this column have proved somewhat prophetic, though I imagine he was thinking in terms of years, not days. According to Sanjeev, a New Australian who couldn’t be more patriotic if he had the flag tattooed to his forehead: "They should get these terrorists, line them up against the wall and shoot them. The rest will then try to dig their way through the concrete with their bare hands." Don’t worry; I’m not sure what he means either! The initial anger and revulsion at the carnage soon gave way to serious debate. This covered three main topics.

First, the selection of the target was discussed. Some argued that Westerners were the general target, with the high number of Aussie casualties not having any real meaning. Others insisted that Australians were targeted specifically as a retaliation for our involvement in East Timor and the governments strong support for American policy decisions regarding the War on Terror. Elvis got people thinking when he said that the primary purpose of the bomb was to undermine the presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri, with the victims being simply collateral damage of a domestic political agenda in Indonesia. The smoko room took him seriously, as his experience of the country goes as far as having found a wife there. Naturally, they have cancelled their own upcoming Bali holiday!


Then the debate turned to what Australia’s response should be. One thing they all agree on: we should not commit forces to the Middle East when there are such severe problems closer to home. Saltbush Bill likened the situation to Australia’s dilemma in 1942, when our commitment to distant wars left Australia relatively undefended against the Japanese onslaught, recalling former Defence Minister Jim Killen’s comment that Australia would be flat out defending Bondi Beach on a Sunday afternoon. However, no one could offer any ideas as to what action Australia could actually take. The do all agree with Senator Robert Hill’s comment earlier this year that "It probably never made sense to conceptualise our security interests as a series of diminishing, concentric circles around our coastline, but it certainly does not now". Going on to lay the unpreparedness of Defence to deal with the situation directly at Kim Beazley’s feet.

Finally the Dirty Dozen discussed the possibility of terror attacks on Australian soil. Elvis pointed out that "All the terrorists have to do is wait one month, and then light a match". They are all in total agreement with Dr Rohan Gunaratna that there is a very real danger of attacks upon Australia, and would like to see the government doing visibly more in terms of internal security. Indeed, they rubbished the suggestion that Australia was safe from terror. As our resident Kiwi, Penguin, noted: "That’s what they used to say about Bali."

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About the Author

Ern O'Malley works in a mechanical repair shop in NSW. Of course, this is not his real name.

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