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Star Chamber style Work Choices tribunals set to make a return

By John Tomlinson - posted Wednesday, 6 January 2016

In the few days before the New Year Prime Minister Turnbull convinced Jamie Briggs, then Minister for improving Cities for rich people, to resign. The story went something like this "A Briggs walked into a nightclub in Hong Kong …and after two enquires he realised that he had not lived up to the low ministerial standards expected of ministers in the Turnbull Government". They are quick in the Liberal Party.

A few minutes later Mal Brough, Minister for ensuring the highest ethical standards in the Turnbull Ministry stood aside after stalling for weeks in the face of a concerted Labor-led attack on the propriety of his remaining in office. The attack was mounted following a police raid on Brough's home seeking material relating to his role in the downfall of Speaker Peter Slipper. The story went like this "Dear Diary how I weep to see you fade away so soon, as yet the early rising sun has not attained its noon in a Canberra winery."

As his supporters keep telling us "Malcolm Turnbull is not Tony Abbott". One Bill Shorten spent two years boasting that he wasn't Tony Abbott either, if fact he banked his entire election strategy on pointing out that he wasn't the budgie smuggler. Julia Gillard was absolutely certain she wasn't Tony Abbott in 2012, so much that she declared "I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man" whilst pointing to a glaring figure with cauliflower ears sitting near Julie Bishop.


Nearly every politically aware person in Australia is convinced that "Not being Tony Abbott" is helpful to his or her political career. There is the odd, and I use that word advisedly, Liberal Senator from Tasmania who is yet to be convinced. However, as Bill Shorten has now realised, whilst it is helpful to one's political aspirations not be Tony Abbott, that fact on its own is insufficient to launch a successful political attack on the Coalition Government.

Malcolm Turnbull, has yet to comprehend that his current political chameleon performance creates a conundrum, he hints that he is not anything like Tony Abbott by avoiding the cheap jargon of "death cults" and "shirt fronting", he is after all a far more entertaining, urbane and intelligent man than the budgie smuggler, but he has yet to distance himself from the "coal is beautiful" and the "cuts to social, educational and medical programs" of his predecessor.

Whilst the left was distracted by the removal of the two Bs, Brough and Briggs, the antiquated conservative industrial relations investigatory machinery created by Abbott and Co in the form of a royal commission came to its anticipated end. Its own ex-judge, looking for all the world like he was wearing a death mask, found out that some union officials and some business executives have been very naughty boys and girls and they have been dispatched to the headmasters office.

The Labor Party has long maintained that if union officials and business executives are breaking the law they should be referred to the police and other prosecuting authorities. However this is not enough for the hysterical Senator Michaelia Cash in her role as Employment Minister. She wants to return to the days of crushing workers dreams by introducing Star Chambers such as was established in the days of the Howard Government's Work Choices regime.

Michaelia would have workers believe that their union leaders, are ripping them off and that she is from the government and therefore she is here to help them. If workers are misled into believing her then they deserve all that Michaelia and Malcolm will dish up to them. Clearly some union officials have been shown to have their hands in the unions' coffers but they are a small minority.

Most of the "crimes" the union officials have been accused of relate to their being aggressive towards the bosses on building sites and being too enthusiastic in pursuing the rights of workers.


Neoliberal economics, the creed of the Coalition Government, has since the mid-1980s succeeded in destroying the working conditions of half of the Australian workforce. Now only 17 per cent of the workforce is unionised. The conservatives and the bosses conspired to destroy the industrial protection offered by unions so as to make their assault on the working conditions of working people much simpler.

Certainty has disappeared from most workplaces in Australia, it has been estimated that over half the jobs now in existence will disappear within a decade.

Over half the workforce is now in precarious employment: part-time, casual, on-call or forced to pretend they are independent contractors. This is still not enough for the Malcolms and Michaelias who infest the Coalition Government. They want to extract the last millilitre of blood from the industrial stone. They want to ensure that unions are kept off worksites in order to water down safety protections and to prevent unions checking that workers receive their full entitlements. They don't want unions interfering with bosses' capacity to enforce compliance from a docile workforce.

Federal Liberal Parliamentarians when they moved against Tony Abbott understood he was unpopular. However they mistook the symptoms for the disease. It was not the singer it was the song he was singing that the Australian public wanted changed. At the moment the Liberals have turned to Turnbull to be their leader but unless they adopt more egalitarian, humane and just social policies Turnbull will, just like his predecessor, become electorally unpopular.

Many Canberra Liberal Parliamentarians are blindsided by the Neoliberal "greed is good" mentality and are wedded to the socially conservative policies that Abbott promoted. They are determined to keep Turnbull marching to same tired old conservative tune, which though it sounds like music to their ears, strikes a discordant note to most Australians.

Sensible Australians will join with unions, non-government parties and civil organisations to resist the push to destroy the social and industrial conditions that have made Australia what it is today. If we are to build a socially just future, we need to join those organisations fighting to come to an appropriate reconciliation with Indigenous Australians and those struggling to free asylum seekers from the concentration camps on Manus, Nauru Christmas Island and the mainland they are now incarcerated. The fight is on for decent social welfare and working conditions - if you don't fight now you lose. Soon it will be too late.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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