Restoring Freedom

Release date: 16/04/2014

Tony Sheldon Address to the National Press Club


I’ve come here today to talk about freedom.
Who has it.
Who doesn’t.
How we spread it to more people.
Freedom is a subject people on my side of politics have neglected for too long.
The result is freedom is being actively redefined by our opponents.
This is profound……it is the imposition of the conservative definition of freedom on the Australian economy, our society and our culture.
For them, freedom is an abstract idea, which is all about freeing the powerful from any sense of responsibility to other members of our community.
Freedom to them is something to benefit corporate leaders and loudmouth bigots.
But not the rest of us.
I have a different view of freedom.
I believe that to have meaning, freedom can’t be merely formal—like the right of everyone to fly first class and aspire to membership of the Chairman’s Lounge.
It has to be something all people can actually exercise.
It has to extend to everyone.
A freedom that applies only to a fortunate few isn’t freedom, it is privilege.
And I believe that extending freedom to everyone doesn’t mean government getting out of the way—it sometimes means government empowering people by legislating for the common good.
And whilst defining freedom can make for an interesting debate for the broadsheet opinion pages.
Freedom is something that is of more direct importance to everyone.
In many cases, it is of life and death importance.
Let me give you a prominent example.
The future of Qantas.
The venerable old airline, we are told, must be cut free of all other considerations but those of corporate profit.
‘Free’ from the requirement to be majority Australian owned for the purposes of national interest and security.
‘Free’ from the obligation to connect Australians in far flung parts of our geography.
‘Free’ from any requirement to service its aircraft here in Australia, keeping aircraft safe and Australian engineers in jobs.
‘Free’ from the requirement to obey the labour laws that protect the Australian people from exploitation.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider Qantas’s employment of Thai flight attendants on domestic routes for as little as $247… a month.
They’re flying in our airspace, on our trade routes, breaking our laws.
This is close to what Alan Joyce earns every ten minutes. 
And consider what’s happening to the people who clean Qantas’s aircraft and handle its baggage.
These used to be full-time jobs, with the sorts of guaranteed hours of work, regularity of shifts and reliable fortnightly income …
… things that enabled Australians to plan their lives, bring up children, and prove to the bank manager that they can repay a mortgage on a modest family home.
Today none of these jobs are offered full-time.
Let me repeat that…..Today none of these jobs are offered full time.
Instead Qantas has outsourced this work to dodgy contracting firms—some wholly owned Qantas subsidiaries …
… and made this workforce totally part-time, with constantly changing rosters and sweated conditions.
Aircraft cleaning crews, for example, have been cut from 8 to 5 to 3 people.
Theirs is back-breaking, physically draining work.
Injuries are up, stress is through the roof. But pay is through the floor.
These workers are guaranteed $200 less than the minimum weekly wage.
They have part time pay but full time bills.
Friends welcome to the casualization of the national icon…welcome to where the Flying Kangaroo meets the Golden Arches.
Welcome to the modern Australian economy.
To Qantas management, this sounds like freedom.
But to the people employed under such conditions, it resembles economic slavery.
You think I’m exaggerating.
Then think about the Government’s use of cyber-snooping and the new Code of Conduct being imposed on Commonwealth public servants …
… where public criticism of government policy, even when made anonymously, is banned, and workmates are expected to dob-in offenders to their managers.
This isn’t about the Government opposing alternative views, it’s about alternative views being silenced.  
Is this really the Australia we all grew up in?
Recently I’ve been meeting with lots of people on the receiving end of Qantas’s idea of freedom.
One of them is a lovely man. I won’t give his name because I don’t want to endanger his job. He’s in his early fifties, a Qantas cabin cleaner.
Until recently he had been looking forward to another fifteen to twenty years of modest affluence, paying off his house, watching his children grow up, before enjoying a relaxing retirement with perhaps enough super for the occasional holiday.
The freedom of retirement.
Thanks to Qantas’s decision to outsource his job, make it part-time and halve his income, he’s now ‘free’ to live the rest of his life in quiet desperation …
… expecting any time now to lose his job altogether and enjoy the freedom of unemployment.
Free time on his hands . Or as the PM said, liberated by the loss of his job.
The last time I saw him, he was crying. Guys like that don’t cry easily.
The English politician Lloyd George once said: “The precariousness of work leads to the servitude of the worker. The certainty of work means freedom.”
He knew something about the realities of life our present-day business and political leaders also know but choose to ignore.
Take senior management at Qantas.
Last December, the day after Qantas’s credit rating was lowered to “junk” status and the company foreshadowed restructurings and mass sackings, its Chairman headed off to the golf links for 36 holes …
… secure in the knowledge that his position and earnings wouldn’t be affected.
Another executive tweeted that he thought it a good day for a late lie in.
Along with the subsequent announcement of 5000 lost jobs, there was, of course, the pledge of a theoretical executive pay freeze.
I say theoretical, because while we’ve been promised an executive remuneration freeze at Qantas for the last four years, executive pay at the airline has actually gone up by 82 per cent.
Yep, you heard right—82 per cent in four years.
Mr Joyce last year earned $3.331 million—up from $2.288 million the previous year.
More than 150 times what he pays his part-time cabin cleaners.
The combined executive team earned $10.1 million—up from $6.869 the previous year.
Six employees. More than ten million dollars.
And so what did the last Executive Pay Freeze yield? It yielded a pay rise in excess of $3.1 million for six executive employees.
This is obscene, especially in a company losing money.
In the face of this obscenity I announced that my union would be considering civil disobedience to support the civil rights of the forgotten employees and to stop Qantas destroying their living standards.
That’s why I announced that I and other officials of the union would be willing to be arrested if that’s what it took.
I’m prepared to give up my freedom if it can help our members achieve economic freedom.
Let me tell the Qantas board—we are not bluffing.
Just as they were not bluffing when they closed down their own airline a few years ago.
We have a just cause and we will fight for it.
When you free the people at the top from their moral and corporate responsibilities you load everyone else with the consequences.
And sometimes those consequences are devastating. Allow me to explain.
As a speaker here at the National Press Club, I’m extended the privilege of inviting two guests
And I had to think long and hard about whom I would invite.
Perhaps a political leader I admire.
Or a television celebrity who could add public relations magic to my address.
Or a thoughtful economist.
The sorts of people used to getting their lunch for free.
Instead I invited two Australians whose fate symbolizes just what has gone wrong with our economy.
Two women who are in fact are quite extraordinary.
Their names are Lystra Tagliaferri and Lisa Sawyer—the wife and sister of David Tagliaferri, who was killed when a truck drifted off the road and struck and killed him and another man called Albert de Beer, in February 2011.
Albert de Beer’s wife Suzanne also wanted to be here today but couldn’t make it.
It was later revealed that the man behind the wheel of that truck had been driving for more than 13 hours at the time of the incident. The judge found the driver had most likely fallen asleep at the wheel when his vehicle left the road.
Ever since, all three of these brave women have taken the fight directly to the management of companies like Coles whose low rates of pay and perverse incentives are the ultimate cause of tragic deaths like these.
‘Free’ of the constraints imposed by safe rates, companies like Coles require drivers to drive inhuman hours in inadequately maintained trucks to earn enough money to make ends meet.
40 hours becomes 50 hours. 50 becomes 60. And sometimes 60 becomes 90. Just to make ends meet.
No 18 holes at the golf course. No Friday lie in.
Just increased loads increase, delayed brake maintenance, more stress, more pressure, more risk and tragically more loss.
The big companies like Coles call it increasing productivity—but I call it sweating.
I also call it morally unconscionable and a crime that should lead to prosecution.
The consequence is that Lystra, Lisa and Suzanne are now ‘free’ of loving husbands and a loving brother.
And their children are ‘free’ from having fathers to love them, watch over them, guide them to adulthood, and give them a decent standard of living.
For those left behind, this isn’t a theoretical freedom that philosophers can debate, but a cruel, unrelenting, heartbreaking reality of life.
With 330 Australians being killed each year in truck-related incidents, often the end result of sweated conditions imposed by penny-pinching major retail clients, it’s a heartbreaking reality that reaches into far too many Australian homes.
One of my union members has told me that over the years he has attended the funerals of no fewer than 52 truck drivers.
That’s right: 52!
This is what the relentless drive to bash up unions and deregulate every aspect of industrial relations means for everyday Australians.
 And that’s why we’ve campaigned so hard for regulatory oversight of the road transport industry and its clients….. to make sure drivers have safe rates and are not forced to put at risk the lives of your families, your wives, husbands, children and friends as well as their own.
Our victory in 2012 of setting up the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal to finally address this issue is now under threat.
In November last year, Minister Eric Abetz announced a review of the Tribunal to be completed by March 2014.
We thought the review was a formality and that a decision to abolish the Tribunal had already been made—on purely ideological grounds.
But even we were surprised in January when Parliamentary Secretary Josh Frydenberg effectively announced the outcome of the review—that the RSRT would be abolished to cut red tape —before it had even commenced, collected evidence or conducted hearings. 
When will they ever learn? Road safety is not red tape.
This should not be about ideology.
It is about lives. And surely the party of market forces with all of its intimate knowledge of the impact of price signals and incentives…you think they would get it…..would get that just as incentives drive behavior, in this context they are driving Australians to the funeral parlors of this country.
Friends, what we need in this country is a better sense of the public good.
One that goes beyond the narrow ideas of productivity and managerialism.
One that understands that insecurity, worry, stress and physical overwork are damaging to our quality of life, unworthy of a modern economy, and a sign that something is going wrong.
We can do better than this.
We can measure the consequences of the new ‘free’ economy we are creating in other ways too.
Notably by the divides that are opening up in income and wealth in this country and across the.
This is not merely an obsession of unionists.
 The World Economic Forum now lists widening income disparities as the major cause of global tension.
Archbishop Pell has said something similar, lamenting the decline of the middle class and the growth of economic extremes in Australia.
Oxfam has recently reported that the richest 85 individuals in the world today own as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population.
When Davos, when fund managers, the Catholic Church and charities alike are saying this, it is not “class warfare” but a lack of economic freedom.
And whilst figures like those from Oxfam stagger me, they don’t surprise me, given what I see with my own eyes going on at companies like Qantas and Coles.
CEO and management remuneration up. Family incomes down.
What is happening at Qantas, Coles and other firms is a microcosm of a trend that’s been going on for the last 30 years or so.
It is the creation of a super-salaried elite at the expense of everyone else, and the concentration of economic and political power in fewer and fewer hands.
The costs of this inequality can be seen all around us.
In high rates of youth unemployment.
In unhealthy diets and obesity due to the lack of access to affordable fresh food.
In the rising costs of education and the resulting unequal access to education.
And in a tax system full of loopholes and incentives only the wealthy can exploit.
Friends, I believe our society is reaching a crossroads.
We are now seeing a massively irresponsible and undemocratic concentration of political and economic power, the likes of which we have not seen in Australia for generations.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls it “a new gilded age”.
Others call it “the Downton Abbey Society”.
But I call it “The Airport Society”.
Baggage handlers and aircraft cleaners on one side—the Chairman’s Lounge members on the other.
The battlers being squeezed harder every day—the lounge members getting everything handed to them freshly chilled on a silver platter.
The little guys doing what they’re told—the big guys telling everyone else what to do.
The big guys getting more rights—and the people who serve them being stripped of their rights completely.
We used to be a country where people felt empowered to stand up to the boss.
Now, with just over 12 per cent of Australia’s 11.6 million workers on some form of temporary work visa, that part of our national character is being stripped away.
We’re told constantly that there is no alternative to this.
That market logic makes challenging this state of affairs impossible.
That is a lie.
I’m here today to say there is a better way than this ideology being imposed upon us by stealth in the false name of freedom.
The people who run the Liberal Party not only know it but they intend it!
Which is why they’ve set out to crush all opposition.
For this is an assault on our freedoms, on our cultural inheritance and on our right to have an elected voice in the workplace.
As you know, a Royal Commission is underway into the union movement.
It’s quite obvious that this witch hunt is specifically designed to embarrass the Labor Party and its new leader.
But it’s more than that.
It’s about crushing all opposition to the sort of society the Liberal Party’s ideologues want to impose on the rest of us. 
“They will decide who works here and the circumstances in which they will work.”
That’s what this Royal Commission is really about.
They’re going for broke.
Enough crocodile tears from the Coalition about the rights of rank and file union members.
If anyone understands the real threat posed by corruption in union ranks, it is the delegates, activists and organisers who devote their lives to workplace justice.
They’ve all been ribbed at pubs and barbecues about credit cards and prostitutes.
Their kids have been harassed at school.
Their solidarity and activism on behalf of their workmates is now presented as craven acts of self-interest.
They know all too well about why corruption can never be tolerated in our ranks. Why every trade-unionist has a collective responsibility to act against transgressions that bring our movement into disrepute.
So if any investigation is successful in identifying corruption, we will applaud it.
Just as we will applaud if an investigation exposes government members channeling public funds to the Liberal Party and trying to use influence to win state contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But whatever the Royal Commission finds will not invalidate the critically important role of unions in our modern economy and our modern society.
The Australian people know this. They know unions are good for the balance of our society, even if they’re not in a position to join a union themselves.
The last time that AUSPOL ran its State of the Unions survey, 90 per cent of Australians disagreed with the idea that Australia would be a better place without unions.
And other studies by the Centre for Applied Social Research and Monash University have found that many more people would join unions if unions had more reach. These days, unions simply don’t have the resources to recruit every potential member.
So much for the claim that unions are too powerful and have too much influence over our economy.
People who know what it’s like to be powerless and at the mercy of management, want unions to be stronger.
They don’t want penalty rates abolished for retail workers and cafĂ© and restaurant staff.
When the leader of the S.D.A., Joe de Bruyn, recently fronted the Productivity Commission he was actually asked to justify why Australia’s retail workers are among the highest paid in the world.
Most Australians think this isn’t something to justify but to celebrate.....the freedom to be successful….
They think the idea of Australia as a fair-wage economy that treats workers with respect is something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of.
Friends, if we’re wondering why certain parts of the Australian community are turning against mainstream political parties in droves …
… It’s because political parties no longer seem to articulate the concerns of everyday people.
We can turn this around.
It starts with a belief that in a democracy we do have the right to challenge the dominant interpretation of freedom and can make the economy work for everyone.
And unions have an absolutely critical role.
The last trade union leader to address this National Press Club called for a “Grand Compact” of unions, employers and government to address Australia’s economic future.
In the best of all possible worlds that would be an ideal outcome, and I applaud his sentiment.
Sadly, though, the government and much of the business community isn’t up to this job of reconciliation just yet.
There’s just not enough ethical leadership.
Not enough give and take.
No spirit of compromise and self-sacrifice.
No sense of national community.
No leadership.
Not enough care for fellow Australians who have to be part of the deal as well.
I’m not just talking about union members and other employees.
I’m talking about small retailers being crushed by giants like Coles.
People on the land being driven into insolvency by ruinous farm gate pricing.
Franchise operators being dictated to by franchising companies who want to mandate every single aspect of how they do business—from how l they pay their employees to how much tomato sauce they can put on their hamburgers.
Men and women in their fifties thrown on the scrap heap of life by employers who won’t give experience a go, and others fleeced of their retirement savings by excessive fees and charges, and unfair returns.
People on 457 Visas being told they don’t have the rights of other Australian workers, threatened with deportation, left at the mercy of bigots unleashed by the planned repeal of vital sections of the Race Discrimination Act.
Surely all these people deserve more freedom as well.
So what I’m saying is that before we can have a “Grand Compact”, we need a “Grand Realignment” of our politics—to bring unionists, employees, hard-ridden farmers, struggling small businesspeople, migrants, the self-employed and the retired together to demand economic freedom.
This is the sort of Grand Realignment Labor needs to lead.
This is the opportunity for Labor to lead. To represent all of those people whose freedom has been taken away.
And to do so proudly with a roar and not a whisper.
Friends, the Australian people are worried about what’s happening to their economy and society.
They want us to make things. They want us to have our own airlines. They want fairness and they want economic freedom.
They’re worried about the lack of fairness in our community, about the disappearance of our manufacturing industries, about the prospect of losing important national icons like Qantas, and about the fate of those thrown on the scrapheap by an uncaring government.
They’re worried about the way we are now letting corporations make too many decisions without care for the consequences.
And they’re worried about their lack of freedom in an economy that increasingly gives freedom only to those with wealth and power.
It’s the job of the union movement to stand up and not be intimidated into silence by a government that is out of control.
I assure you that is exactly what the Transport Worker’s Union will do. We will be the loud voice that freedom needs.
Thank you

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