Towards a fair, secure and equitable society

When in government Labor has always been at the front with balanced social and economic reform, both nationally and internationally.

    • From its earliest days it sought a fair system for determining wages and conditions, the foundation of a fair economy
    • it was a founder member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919. It influenced the structure of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    • it governed Australia through WW2 and the post war reconstruction. The Snowy Mountains scheme and migration being two examples.
    • after 23 years of Liberal rule Labor ushered in: No fault divorce, pulled out of Vietnam and ended conscription, recognised China, established Medibank (killed off by Coalition), social welfare reform, supported equal pay, established Law Reform Commission, Family Court, free university, national sewerage program, voting at 18, Order of Australia.
    • in the 80s and 90s it introduced reforms to the economy balanced with benefits for our citizens, superannuation for all.
    • after Howard Labor said Sorry to the Stolen Generations and established Closing the Gap, handled the GFC fairly, introduced Gonski, NDIS, NBN; in 2009 it proposed an ETS but was stopped by the Greens, but made a carbon tax later.

It is critical in 2018 and 2019 for Labor to clearly outline its balanced economic and social reform objectives. In December it will be the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) strongly influenced by the Australia Foreign Minister and his team.

2019 is the centenary of the establishment of the ILO. Its Global Future of Work Initiative requires all member States to bring together organisations of workers, employers and government to prepare for the coming disruption of technological change.

This year or next there will be a Federal election. A Labor Government must continue this balanced approach to reform. Critical areas for reform are:

    • making a fair compact with our First Nations People
    • urgently addressing global warming
    • reforming industrial relations laws, especially broadening the scope of ‘employee’
    • addressing the issue of the future of work in the face of technological disruption
    • spelling out a vision for the society we want, identifying the revenue required and setting taxation policy to achieve it, to pay down the deficit and when that is done to establish a future fund
    • establishing a federal ICAC
    • resolving the situation of off-shored refugees and developing a regional solution.



The issue:

The coming  ALP National Conference, the Federal election, the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Centenary of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) provide an opportunity for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to develop a succinct statement of the society for which we should aim: a fair, secure and equitable society in which every individual and organisation contributes according to a fair and equitable taxation regime and receives the assistance they need to be a fully functioning member of society; in which representative forms of organisation, such as trade unions, are recognised and encouraged to work ONLY in the interests of their members. Despite the assistance granted to corporations by society (society funds the roads, etc, noted by Barack Obama) they have adopted a principle that their ONLY obligation is to the interests of their shareholders.

This has meant tax avoidance/evasion, out-sourcing, off-shoring, wage theft, precarious work, plant closures, environmental degradation (still the greatest moral challenge of our age) and more. Whereas the concept of the triple-bottom line (social, environment and financial obligations) has been side-lined by the neo-liberal agenda, in the U.S. Benefit Corporations have been legislated (these are a type of for-profit corporate entity, authorized by 33 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals). Evidence suggests Benefit Corporations perform better and also better meet the needs of society.


Australia was once heralded as a social laboratory in which the organisation of workers was a key element for developing fair wages and working conditions. In 1904 the Commonwealth established a body to conciliate and/or arbitrate wages and conditions of workers which established many important advances, a good number of which are, sadly, now defunct. Union officials were virtually 'officers of the court’ able to enter workplaces to check wages books that had to be kept on the premises in English, in ink. In the current age Australia lags far behind more progressive and egalitarian lands. The father of the basic wage (see UDHR note below), Justice Higgins, established the idea of a basic wage to which each worker was entitled taking into account:

rent, food, and fuel, light, clothes, boots, furniture, utensils, rates, life insurance, savings, accident or benefit societies, loss of employment, union pay, books and newspapers, tram or train fares, sewing machine, mangle, school requisites, amusements and holidays, liquors, tobacco, sickness or death, religion or charity …  (necessary to rear) a family (of five, in), sobriety, health, efficiency, proper rearing of the young, morality and humanity,

with extra payment for 'skills'. These latter were not narrowly defined as resulting from a formal qualification but, for example, recognised skills of

exceptional heart and physique, as in the case of a gas stoker, exceptional muscular training and power, as in the case of a shearer, exceptional responsibility, e.g., for human life, as in the case of winding or locomotive engine-drivers.

Now ‘employees' are narrowly defined so that contracting out and casual work encourages sham employment contracts, in which wage theft, and insecure, unsafe and unhealthy work are the norm. The result is that a significant proportion of the  ‘workforce’ (not, you may note, the 'employee force') is ripped off, intimidated, and in a word made insecure. Former High Court Justice, Mary Gaudron argues that the definition of ‘employee’ is too restrictive, narrowing access to Fair Work Australia and other relevant legislation.

International aspects:

On 10 December 1948, with the vital assistance of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, H. V. Evatt and his staff, the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The General Assembly, in doing so, limited the powers of the US, USSR, UK, France and China (the Security Council). A number of its clauses deal with individual rights of which, for workers, freedom of association, work and a ‘standard of living adequate for the health, and well-being of himself (sic), and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services’ were key requirements (note the similarities to Higgins’ criteria).

Today Australian industrial laws breach a number of clauses in the UDHR: 20, 23, 24 and 25. They also breach numerous UN-based International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions and Recommendations. In the immediate post-WW2 era full employment meant 3% unemployed, secure employment meant casuals received higher wages to offset the insecurity of the job, lack of holidays and sick leave. Many awards provided for a casual worker to be made permanent after a certain period of full-time working.

The ILO has 187 member States and is a unique UN body in that it comprises representatives of workers, employers and governments.  Next year (2019) is its centenary. As part of its celebration next year it has commissioned the Global Future of Work Initiative, recognising the prospect of serious disruption in work given new technologies, shifting bases of production and access to education. Greg Vines, an Australian, is Deputy Director, on the Future of Work Initiative and was in Australia last year to see how the forums mandated under the initiative are progressing. Given the attitude often expressed by the Coalition about UN bodies and trade unions it would be interesting to know what, if any, meetings have been held and whether any progress has been made.

The coming election:

The coming election makes it urgent for the Parliamentary Party to identify the core elements of a strategy to ensure Australians live in a FAIR, SECURE AND EQUITABLE SOCIETY. It is vital that all Party propaganda supports that objective. We believe that he Party should demonstrate clearly in what ways Australian society would be different under Labor. A fair and equitable society would include acceptance by all that we have to pay for what we want; that taxes are the mechanism for funding that objective; that everyone and every corporation should pay their fair share with minimal deductions in which the objective is to pay for our societal wants; actually pay off the National Debt; and develop a sovereign debt fund. After 117 years it is time to review the Constitution. It was written by colonial politicians who, following the US model, turned over limited powers to the Commonwealth. In fact some thought the Commonwealth Parliament would need only to meet for a few weeks each year once it had established White Australia, tariffs and defence. There is not a single issue that is not bedevilled by the Constitutional division of powers.

We believe that relations with the First Nations Peoples should also be a major element of constitutional review. The Party must formally accept the proposal made in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and commence, in the pre-election period, consultation with the Uluru representatives about the practical implementation of the proposal. Constitutional renewal should be a key objective to support the achievement of a FAIR, SECURE AND EQUITABLE SOCIETY.

We believe that it is also past time for the Party to accept that the current treatment of refugees who reach our shores is unconscionable. Accepting we have an obligation to protect borders and that there are limits to the immigrant intake, we should work for:

    • the establishment of collection centres in transit countries funded by participating host countries where there is humane treatment and education,;
    • community based reception centres in host countries should be established to welcome and help to settle newcomers, with our intake managed by UNHCR.

The 2018 National Conference has the opportunity to weaken the constant demonisation of trade unions. But the process by which this demonisation may be weakened requires a thorough review of the operations and actions of trade unions, especially of those affiliated to the Party. Some union officers have clearly not acted in the interest of members, but of their own advancement. This review should also deal with the question of the continued value to both the Party and unions of affiliation. In many countries with strong trade unions such a separation has benefitted both.

If affiliation is to continue, we believe that steps should be taken to ensure that affiliated unions (which represent currently about 8% of the workforce) have no more than 20% of the say in various Party bodies. The Conference should turn its attention to mechanisms to strengthen the involvement of Party members, and members of affiliated unions, in all levels of decision-making.

Another key objective should be common rules and procedures throughout the Party, not varying by State or Territory. A particular issue is the role of members in the pre-selection of Senators. Rather than an Australia-wide mechanism involving members in pre-selection each State branch interprets the mandate in their own way. The ACT Branch being the most progressive.

The most pernicious aspect of trade union demonisation is the constant attack on 'the union superannuation funds'. These 'industry superannuation funds' are managed jointly by representatives of unions and of employers, i.e. they are jointly managed funds not union-run funds. What is most egregious about this aspect of demonisation is that the industry funds perform, on average, better than for-profit retail funds. Unlike industry funds for-profit funds are run by unknown directors appointed by banks and insurance companies.

Finally, it is no longer possible to claim that there is no corruption in the Federal sphere. Surveys of Australian public servants indicate that many have seen corrupt practices in their workplaces and in government. A National Independent Commission Against Corruption must be high on Labor’s agenda as Bill Shorten has indicated. It must have, at least the powers of the original NSW ICAC and must be open and public in its investigations. There is no place for secrecy in such a body.


The ALP should, therefore:

      1. prepare for, widely disseminate and celebrate on 10 December 2018, the 70th Anniversary of the UDHR. Identify, and where appropriate, remove legislation that offends UDHR and ILO Conventions.
      2. prepare for, widely disseminate and celebrate the centenary of the International Labour Organisation, review what progress has been made in Australia on the ILO’s Global Future of Work Initiative, and press the unions, employers and government to be more active in support of the Initiative.
      3. review the current Federal and State legislation affecting the right to organise and the definition of a ‘worker' rather than an 'employee’ 'to any person who for monetary reward provides work and/ or personal services to or for the direct or indirect benefit of a corporation'. A key objective of this review being to establish nationally consistent workplace rules (something for which all corporations, especially multi-national ones, call).
      4. develop a code of conduct to apply to all ALP members, trade union officials and officers of corporations which ensure that the best interests of members, shareholders and our society are protected.
      5. begin a campaign calling for regional meetings throughout the country to review the creaky 117 year old Constitution.
      6. draft legislation to enable and encourage ‘benefit corporations’, if not requiring all corporations to become benefit corporations.
      7. review how industry superannuation funds may be protected from mis-representation and are recognised and encouraged, while also ensuring greater transparency is required of retail funds, including naming directors.
      8. formally accept the proposal made in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and commence pre-election discussion with Uluru representatives about practical steps to be taken.
      9. undertake a root and branch review of the Party’s structures and procedures with a view to increasing the involvement of members in decision-making, candidate selection, policy making; restricting the influence of affiliated unions to 20%; ensuring common rules and procedures at all levels.
      10. pursue a more assertive approach on climate change.
      11. return to the negotiation of regional organisation on refugee policy.
      12. establish a national ICAC with real power, transparent in its investigations.