Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

August 2007 # 4

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Back to Editorials 2007

Eureka and the ABCC

Sometimes I like to play “let’s pretend”. While it is a rather facile, time wasting exercise, there is something cathartic in thinking about how things are and how they could be. So here goes. 

Lets pretend that a few years ago a government was elected that really didn’t care too much about the heritage of the working class. We could also pretend that one of the reasons they didn’t care too much was because their elevation was supported by the capitalist class from where many in their ranks were drawn. 

We could also pretend that this government attempted to portray itself as the friend of the ‘everyperson’, woman, man or child. This government committed itself to rebuilding the country by strengthening the economy, providing support for the less well off and promised to increase the wealth of even the lowliest labourer. 

Let’s pretend that their promises didn’t consist of “core” and “non-core” promises but that everyone had misconstrued their promises. Perhaps it’s possible to pretend that this government got into trouble because some of their most influential patrons weren’t satisfied with their performance or their pace in increasing the share of the common wealth coming to them. 

Let’s pretend that this government, in response to their patron’s demands, established a commission whose sole aim was to destroy the spirit and activities of the working class. Maybe it’s even possible to pretend that this commission was allowed to take witness statements in confidentiality from some while those it was prosecuting were, at the same time, forced to provide every jot and tittle of their own testimony under threat of extreme sanctions. 

Let’s pretend that hearings were held by the commission in which ordinary men and women were vilified with no legal recourse. Finally, let’s pretend that this commission had powers that even its members didn’t realise it had. When they find out they have these powers, let’s pretend they start to use them in an attempt to wipe out any vestige of worker solidarity. Let’s pretend this commission is called the “Australian Building and Construction Commission” and that the federal government is its sponsor. 

The ABCC has the power to not only coerce workers into giving evidence but also to demand certain actions of employers. In short, it has the power to intervene in the practices of business to the point it can micromanage the way a business allows its employees to associate, act and demonstrate their aspirations. 

In last weekend’s Age newspaper there was a story which outlined the way the ABCC had demanded the removal from a work site of, what is, a long standing workers expression of solidarity, the Eureka flag. The Age report details a letter sent to a building company demanding that the flag be removed from their site. An ABCC commissioner confirmed that they took this action because the flags were “not consistent with the code”. The acting Victorian Secretary of the CFMEU, John Oliver, hit the nail on the head (so to speak) when he responded by saying, “No law in Australia … prevents workers or employers flying flags or wearing union T-shirts.” He said that orders like these “… stop workers from freely expressing themselves”. 

This seems to be what our government is afraid of; we, the people, expressing our solidarity. You see, we inhabit a totally different world than the masters of the universe. While they live off the sweat of the brow of the working class and get to enjoy the ‘high life’, we, the working class continue to bear the burden of providing the baubles that keep them amused. What the ruling class is afraid of is that we, who are many, will rise up gathered around symbols of resistance and solidarity and take back from them that which is, rightfully, ours.

While the BLF is long gone and many, including me, had strong reservations about the conduct of certain officials within that union at the time, the lasting legacy we have inherited from them is the symbolic presence of those who gathered around that flag to resist and demand. To resist the imposition of intolerable conditions by the government at the behest of the big end of town and to demand a much better deal. 

The star-chamber powers the ABCC has been given should be a wake up call to all working class people not only those in unions. While we live in a time in which unprecedented profits are being reported and unbridled greed continues to be the prevailing attitude, we need to find not only symbols but also actions that demonstrate our desire for a better deal for all. 

While it might seem trivial to play “let’s pretend”, it does provide an opportunity to see how fiction and reality are blending. With ANZAC day and its powerful message being high-jacked for purposes that seem more akin to nationalist propaganda than homage to those killed in the botched landing and subsequent slaughter on a far away beach, the Eureka flag remains the symbol of the working class.  

It would seem that the intent of the government, through the ABCC, is to see this beacon of solidarity extinguished. However, only extinguished until it can be reignited as a symbol of the status quo or worse, high-jacked by the ruling class and sold off as a trinket for their amusement. This latest action from the ABCC, delivered by them on behalf of the government’s true masters, is a telling tale of what happens when a citizenry becomes too complacent. 

So let’s pretend that one day the widescreen plasma TV, the gas guzzling four wheel drive, the high tech computer with broadband internet and the business class flight to Bali all come crashing down around our ears, ceasing to exist or be accessible or functional. To whom then, at the darkest hour, will we turn? The ruling class will unite to buy, bribe and cajole their way out of their problems. But the workers, without the power to mobilise the reserve army, will be forced, in the ensuing chaos, to corral themselves inside or be forced to relocate to internment camps. 

Let’s pretend that we, the working class, have had removed from us any sense of collective ownership and empowerment. Let’s pretend that we have no sense of solidarity or our own collective power to take back from the rich the common wealth we, and we alone, have created. Let’s pretend that our sons and daughters are left to the ‘righteous’ power of the state under martial law. Let’s pretend that all civil rights are stripped away in the name of “national security”. Let’s pretend this is just pretend. 

And finally, let’s pretend that rather than uniting with the ruling class and turning against our own interests, we, the workers of Australia, will unite as one, with our brothers and sisters in the building unions and raise up, for all to see, the flag that can, potentially, unite us, the Eureka flag. Let’s remember the legacy of those who did, truly, fight the good fight for the working class. Then and only then will ‘let’s pretend’ lose its attractiveness to those of us who dream of a better world for all. Then will be the time we can move towards the establishment of a more caring, just and equitable society.

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