God's Own Country

An article discussing the Australian Liberal Party's Work Choices policy, published in AFTENPOSTEN, Norway, in November 2006.


Imagine you wake up one day, open the newspaper, and read that new industrial relations laws have been passed. From now on, each employee will be asked to enter into an individually negotiated (Australian) Workers Agreement with his or her employer. Under the new laws, however, the employer can do all the negotiating with themselves. They don't have to consult you. They can simply present the'negotiated' Agreement to you as a fait accompli.

You laugh. Is this a Monty Python sketch, or a George Orwell spoof?

It is neither.

You read on, over your now bitter morning coffee.

The new system, the Prime Minister explains, makes everything simpler. Each Agreement has to conform to five minimum conditions. Okay, you think - then your heart sinks. There is a minimum wage - to be set by the Fair Pay commission, in private, without consultation. Four weeks holidays - but an employer can choose to pay four weeks, and only give two. A year's parental leave – unpaid. Ten days sick pay – at negotiated rates. And a maximum of 38 hours to be worked each week – but these can be averaged over a whole year. You can be asked to work 60 hours a week for half the year without overtime or penalty payments. And overtime, holiday, and penalty rates are all part of the individual Workers Agreement. They can be 'negotiated' to a minimum.

Your PM maintains that no employee will be worse off. And you voted for him.

A few months go past. You are unemployed. You'd refused to sign an (Australian) Workers Agreement, and fought to maintain the same weekly, holiday, and penalty payments. You received your termination notice shortly after. You accused the firm of
unfair dismissal, but the firm has less than 100 employees. Under the new laws, if a firm has less than 100 employees – and most do – there is no longer any right to claim unfair dismissal. Many other people have also lost
their jobs, and are being replaced by cheap overseas workers brought in on special permits that last only as long as each contract. These permits were introduced at roughly the same time as the new industrial relations laws: some political commentators think it's all connected. The government rejects that claim, calling it a left-wing conspiracy theory.

You contact the union, but the union is overworked. The overseas workers, most of whom cannot speak or read your language, are signing agreements that reduce safety requirements. Many accidents are taking place and the injured workers are sacked immediately, without recompense. The union is trying to fight for them. Some cases reach the press, but your PM points out that most of what is happening is well within the law, no worker is being unfairly disandvantaged, and this is the only way to maintain a strong, healthy, expanding economy
creating wealth and jobs. Reports suggesting wages are decreasing, conditions deteriorating, and foreign workers being abused, are being presented by unions and the left-wing, do-gooder press, he says. It is pointless to believe in their overtly biased reports. No worker has been or will be unfairly disadvantaged under the new laws.

You are bewildered. Language has changed. Positive images - 'Do-gooder', 'bleeding-heart', 'politically correct', 'chattering class' - have acquired negative associations. You can't remember any more, when it was that you willingly handed over the power of language to a perversion of meaning.

You should have been more circumspect during the 2001 run-up to the national election. This government looked set to lose. Then photos were released in the newspapers. Children in the sea, being rescued by navy officials. The official government story stated that asylum seekers trying to reach the coast by boat, had been intercepted by your navy. Children were thrown overboard by their parents in an attempt to force the navy to take the asylum seekers on board. In response, the government promised to introduce stronger measures to protect
the country's borders against the kinds of illegal immigrants who would stoop to such ruthless, inhumane methods, in order to gain unsolicited entrance into the country. Your PM publicly stated he couldn't believe anyone would throw their children into the sea. 'We'll
decide who comes into this country, and when!' he said.

The government won office with a resounding majority.

The photos had been doctored, their dates falsified. No children had been thrown overboard. The photos were selected from a labelled set showing people fleeing from a sinking boat. The labels had been removed and the dates changed. They no longer coincided with the recorded date of the sinking boat. The PM claimed he had only acted on intelligence given to him. But a Senate Enquiry found evidence that the PM
had known of the falsification of dates and the truth of the images, by at least November 7th 2001 - well before he publicly stated that he
couldn't believe people would throw their children in the sea.

You're beginning to wonder why your government wasn't impeached. And how it is that you didn't react at the time.

Your country used to be so promising. It was the first nation to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election. It was one of the foremost nations in recognising homosexual rights, and an early leader in recognising the land claims of its indigenous people after years of
denial. A nation priding itself on fairness, tolerance, and multiculturalism. Yet in the last ten years, all these gains have been pared down in the name of progress, patriotism, and economic growth. You voted for that. You've helped wreck this place beyond repair.

There's a land you've heard of, in the icy North. A social paradise - rich, community minded, forward thinking. Banking its wealth for future generations, not pissing it away in tax cuts and business concessions, as in your country. Money is spent on people, politics are based around services. The birth rate is booming: people are happy. There is a hint of acquisitive, selfish hungriness creeping in, allied with the slightly hysterical patriotism haunting the place. The party with similar policies to your country's government recently won over 20% of the vote. There is a chance they will win government one day soon. A chance the icy North may join the same Pythonesque/Orwellian world as yours -
where denial and conscious, cynical malapropism are applauded ways of conducting policy decisions; a savage skit on the past and the future. But there's some years before that happens. You might die first and not have to see it. And then there'll be at least one place still existing that you don't feel the need to apologise for, to the generation that will be the butt-end of the joke.

Children Overboard:
Industrial Relations changes: