Organise, or die.

I can’t muster my usual enthusiasm for politics at the moment. Or even for finishing off the two half-done pieces on Gonski that still sit staring balefully at me from my desk.

You see, I’m waiting through a dying. A shitty, complicated and messy dying. One where no one comes out looking pretty in a casket with flowers. And when the dying is done, my friend will be gone.

So, instead of policy analysis, today, I’m pondering a broader political landscape, both the recent past, and what happens next.

While my friend is dying, I’ve had time to think. No internet, no radio. Conversations that once covered the scope of philosophical wonderings, now tapered off to mere murmurings. Time sitting still.

My friend and I talk about politics a great deal. He asks me difficult questions that force me to be able to back up any claim I make.

He is far more radical, politically, than I am; and he was the first to ask me questions about why things weren’t getting better after the election of the ALP in 2007.

Why his friends still couldn’t get their teeth fixed. Why there wasn’t enough mental health facilities. Why his neighbour couldn’t get on the train at Redfern. Why climate change was getting piecemeal attention and action, at best. Why refugees were not welcomed. Why corporates were not made accountable for the GFC.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How policy is not abstract – it is part of the fabric of lives. Of my life. Of his life. And how dis-empowered most citizens are, to the point when one of the smartest political reporters in the country, dismisses that as having excessive expectations of government.

The policy process is so far removed from most folks. The lobbying, the Ministerial wooing, the marginal seat campaign, the stakeholder management, the strategic leaking, the PR guff, the on-message spokesperson, the timely survey, the Facebook fuckup. All part of the current process. All good for those that can do all those things. They get results. For the rest of us? Where are we in that process?

Is it as a political party member? A union member? A GetUp member?

And where are those, on the progressive side of politics, who are working with people to engage them with this process? With government at all levels, and more particularly, to influence policy development. The conservatives understand this – they are doing it right now.

You win the prize. Yep, no one. And yet, it’s only been five years since there was a campaign that did exactly that. A campaign that changed the Government, and changed policy – industrial relations. And what happened to that campaign is a total travesty.

In a rare moment of unity, unions agreed in 2005, to fund a coordinated, strategic campaign. that became known as Your Rights at Work,  to change proposed industrial relations policy introduced by the Howard Government. While they used professional communicators to brand the campaign, the real strength of YR@W was the grassroots campaigns that sprang up all around Australia. The YR@W campaign realised the potential of these groups and provided them with resources, training and connected them into the national story that was being told.

As Sally McManus of the ASU says:

“From the beginning these groups were obviously cross-union, they were pretty much rank and file. It was only in 2007 that there was any full-time presence at all in terms of union officials in most of these places. They had limited formal structures and didn’t have position holders, anything like that. So the decisions they made then about how they were going to campaign were completely controlled by those activists in those towns and suburbs. The fantastic thing was that this produced very effective campaigns, because the decisions they made were based on their local circumstances.”

One organiser described her experience in the campaign:

“The reason I got involved in this campaign was after eight years of a bloody Federal Liberal government, I was sick of screaming at the TV and sick of feeling powerless. So then I got involved and then discovered true democracy … It’s about getting our community back again and about the people. … [In the past] I wouldn’t have talked to anyone about this sort of stuff but I would have been screaming at a family barbecue about it. But now you go and have the conversation with thousands of people, it’s fantastic.”

Most of the people involved in this campaign had never done anything like it before. They learned how to get active in their communities, how to engage with the media and how to communicate effectively about complex policy issues.

So what happened after the 2007 election? Despite spending millions of dollars building the most effective marginal seat campaign that had ever been mounted, the ACTU abandoned its trained, capable, engaged and motivated YR@W teams and they drifted apart. A few in NSW reactivated in 2008 to fight against the sell-off of electricity assets, but it was sporadic and under-resourced.

It’s as though the fight was over. That these coordinated teams of experienced community activists weren’t needed any more now that the ALP had won.

Was anyone else interested in picking up these groups; of understanding the vast resource they represented? None that I know of.

Instead, with its usual mystifying lack of political timing, GetUp chooses, in the week of yet another sunken boat, to campaign about a big fishing boat. What a fucking waste of the best progressive email list in the country that could have been turned into a campaigning machine.

The ACTU’s Secure Jobs campaign is a good one, but I’m yet to see any sign that it is engaging as broadly within communities as the YR@W campaign.

The danger is that if progressive organisations don’t start getting out there and campaigning, Abbott will be the next Prime Minister. Changing votes is harder than a few ads on telly and some reTweets. It requires people on the ground. At BBQs. Handing out at train stations. Talking about issues at work.

The greatest tragedy of all this is that at the end of 2007, there were teams of motivated, trained people, ready to continue to campaign. They could have been enlisted for the original CPRS, or even better, for the original mining tax. How effective would the mining corporates’ campaign been if at every suburban shopping centre there had been a stall of locals, known from the YR@W campaign, talking about what the tax meant. I suspect much less.

But the ALP hacks didn’t understand the YRAW campaign. And the unions disbanded it. And GetUp ignored it.

Is it too late to reactivate this network? To put tools in the hands of community members so they can campaign about progressive issues in their areas. To engage away from the shrill wails of the petty day-to-day dirge that is what passes for political debate.

I don’t know, but I promised my friend that I would at least try to find out. He won’t be around to see the outcome of the next election, so I’m glad he’s still up to asking me some last few difficult questions.

Organise, or die.




About bluntshovels

Freelance writer, with an unhealthy interest in Senate committees.
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11 Responses to Organise, or die.

  1. Adam Kerslake says:

    We are rebuilding the YR@W networks right now. Contact us. Adam Unions NSW

  2. Adam Kerslake has been sitting at a dsk in Trades Hall for nearly a decade now, and what has he got to show for it? Sorry Adam if we don’t rush to your banner given the fact that dear leader Robbo jumped ship for the coin in Macquarie Street and left us that bubbling font of charisma Mark Lennon to lead us…where exactly?

    It was the Your Rights At work group that formed the nucleus of the Blue Mountains People Power campaign that pushed then MP Phil Koperberg to a position of saying he would vote against electricity privatisation in 2008. Robbo, after campaigning semi-effectively against electricity privatisation (at least enough for his old boss Bernie Riordan to prop up his members pay packets), then went and joined a cabinet that signed off on NSW Treasury’s act of social, economic and environmental bastardry.

    At any rate Unions NSW has bought into the neo-liberal bullshit that we must prop up market economies, despite what they are doing to our communities and our standard of living.

    Then we get the Brian Howe circus on secure work. Brian Fucking Howe, the Social Security Minister in the Hawke Government that created the wellspring of casual jobs by tightening the work test for Newstart to force people to accept low paid insecure work, turns up scratching his head that the big end of town benefited from the very policies he introduced! Hypocrite thy name is Howe.

    As for the Your Rights At Work campaign being little more than a booster for the ALP, this was forewarned days after the 2007 election by a very astute blogger:

    It’s a bit fucking late Adam. Qui Bono? Your mates in teh ALp, the ones you used to share a lunchroom with, like Senator Thistlethwaite and Ed “one-percent-a-year-payrise-for-posties” Husic?

    I think it’s a bit late to expect the ballot box to help working stiffs in this country old son. What else have you got?

  3. Redsully says:

    I’ve been there and done that. Screaming at the tv, etc. I probable haven;’t been asking the hard questions as much as I used to but the point here, I think, is that there are still people around who are prepared to do those things, like the author of this “blunt shovels” entry. It’s people like this that keep old comrades like me interested with blood in the veins. I look at others who,like me were “there” when we were needed and i pray that our passions never fade from the workforce. They won’t as long as there are people prepared to speak out and to lead. I despair that the Australian worker refuses to become political aware and to make a decision in respect of their political leanings. The YR@W was, as said, disbanded by the Unions, ignored b y GET UP and totally misunderstood by the Labor hacks. If someone can explain to me how our once great political party managed to descend into the abyss where we today find it, I’d be fascinated to hear. Where has the passion gone?

  4. Emily says:

    This is a beautifully crafted and considered post, thanks. It was an incredible campaign – and it was ultimately successful. We ‘got rid of WorkChoices’ (and Howard), which as I recall, was the point. I remember sitting exhausted on election night and tears rolling across my face, over one of my many YR@W t-shirts, and into my schooner as I watched Bennelong go. I’ll never forget that moment. Never.

    • Bullshit we got rid of WorkChoices! The fair Work Act keeps restrictions on right of access for union officials, still makes it illegal for me to ask someone to join the union at my work, gives an out for just about every workplace right you can imagine if employers cite ‘operational reasons’, keeps statutory individual contracts (and ABN work), strips awards of many civilising clauses and basically conforms to the zeitgeist of driving down the standard of living for working stiffs so that others can increase their rate of return on investment without doing any actual work.

      In short Gillard has delivered, both as Minister and Prime Minister, many of the things that would have been viewed as a wish list of the industrial right even ten years ago AND they kept the Bulding and Construction Commission that made anyone who worked on a building site a second class citizen at law.

      If you work for a living none of Gillard, Abboit or even Christine Milne are your friend. The Trots area joke and we are left with nowhere electorally to gain support.

      And in the meantime we have to put up with droogs like Paul Howes, Kathy Jackson and Jim Metcher using News Limited as a platform to play out their own personal agendas at the expense of people what work for a living.

      Your tears were in vain. The $21.07 hourly rate on my paypacket is a testament to that.

  5. Gerry says:

    Labor’s problem is that somewhere along the line, while a whole bunch of people were asleep at the wheel, it managed to grow a right wing. Sort of like the Vatican appointing an atheist Cardinal. Much of the hamstrungness within labor is due to paralysis caused by wars between its left and right wings. It’s suffering from DPD (dual personality disorder.) I’d be happy to give it a brutal dose of psychotherapy.

    Sorry about your friend dying. 😦

    • bluntshovels says:

      Thanks mate. He died a week or so back, so it’s been hard to think much about politics.
      I’ll have to think some more about the therapeutic response to factions in the ALP!!

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