History: Nest of Traitors
Interview: A Nation of Hope
Unions: National Focus
Safety: The Shocking Truth
Tribute: A Comrade Departed
History: Working Bees
Education: The Big Picture
International: Static Labour
Economics: Budget And Fudge It
Technology: Google and Campaigning
Review: Secretary With A Difference
Poetry: The Minimale
Satire: Howard Calls for Senate to be Replaced by Clap-O-Meter
The Locker Room
To the Victors The Spoils
The Story in General
Thinking of America
A Nation of Hope
Interview with Mark Hearn
You started as an ACTU research officer in 1958, a few years after industrial relations teaching began at the University of Sydney. What have we gained, and what have we lost, from the changes you've witnessed in Australian industrial relations since the 1950s?
I think one of the things we've gained, which is not in the system now but was gained as a result of it, was superannuation. The whole concept of the Accord and the social wage was to minimise the potential adverse impacts of money wage increases by providing awards and benefits that were of importance to workers, and in that framework superannuation developed. Now before we did that superannuation was limited to a very few and privileged people in the workforce. Now it's a right for everyone. The losses are fairly easy to identify; it's a weakness of the system now that that we don't have readily available the processes of the resolution of industrial disputes.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott wants to ban industry-wide bargaining by unions; he wants unfair dismissal reform and secret union ballots. Do you think these kind of changes simply fulfil the logic of industrial relations deregulation initiated by Labor?
No, because it springs not from any sort of logic, but a basic antipathy which the conservative parties have to workers and their organisations. And this is the wellspring from which these various manifestations emerge. Leaving my own partisan position to one side, I think it is just stupid economics for a government to approach economic management from a strand of thinking regarding unions as enemies. There is no doubt that this government and this country are benefiting from the reforms that we brought in the 1980s, and that couldn't have been done without the co-operation of the trade union movement. In my judgement you are not going to optimise the economic environment, let alone the social aspects of it, if you have a government which treats trade unions as enemies. The significant increases in productivity that have occurred in this country have basically been as a result of the changes that were made to make the economy more competitive, and we couldn't have done that without the co-operation of the trade unions.
Do you think it's going to be viable for a future Labor government to restore a more interventionist role for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission?
I think they can certainly go some way towards it. I think the important thing to say is that you won't get a full return to the Accord sort of structures, I don't think, and it's probably not necessary. But I do think you will have a situation in which the incoming Labor government will listen more closely to not just to unions but to employers - and it shouldn't be thought that employers in a monolithic sense are supportive of the approach and philosophy of this government. A Labor government will sit down with the employers and the unions and say "look, there is obviously a better way of handling these things", and I think that both sides would tend to recognise the need for the earlier intervention by the arbitral tribunals to deal with industrial disputes.
Given that union membership is down to 23%, do you think that there's a need for unions to rethink their organising and recruiting strategies?
You sit down and talk to [ACTU secretary] Greg Combet and it's very interesting to see the impetus that's coming from the ACTU. I talked recently to the first national meeting of the health workers union in Sydney - because you know that they've been split up all over the place - and one of things that impressed me very much was the emphasis that they have been giving to organising, the need to adopt new methods, so it's happening. At the national level, the ACTU is giving very strong impetus to this. And it's always necessary when you're analysing the economic and social developments not to too easily establish causalities - union membership is declining but it's not simply declining because trade unions have not kept up with the times - that's an element. But it's also a function of changes to the economy, composition of the workforce and the nature of work. All these things are having a major impact on the capacity to unionise.
Will Education Minister Brendan Nelson's higher education reforms develop a clever country?
From what I've read I'm very concerned that the net impact is going to make it harder for kids from low income families to sustain themselves at university. The changes proposed at the tertiary level reflect the government's approach to secondary education; one of the most objectionable elements of this government's approach to education policy is the perverted pattern of the division of funds at the secondary level. The already rich schools are getting proportionately so much more than the schools that need it. I think it's also reflected at the tertiary level. Whether there is room for improvement in the structures of universities I leave that open. The thing that worries me is that it does seem - and this is a concern expressed by the vice-chancellors - that it is making it more difficult for people from relatively low income families. I find that totally objectionable because the whole thrust of our education policy was to change that. The statistics on school retention rates show that less than a third of kids stayed on to senior high school - Australia had one of the lowest retention rates in the developed western world. It was appalling. You could just put a grid map on Australia and saw that the retention rates were in the wealthier suburbs. So with a very specifically targeted system of means tested grants we lifted that from 33% to 75%. And the whole concept of HECs which we brought in - which the kids didn't like at the time - was absolutely right. The phrase "free education" is an absurdity; there's no such thing as a free education - it's a question of who pays. We just took the view that when graduates reached an "A" level income they should repay some portion. That's totally consistent with a philosophy of equality of opportunity. That's being eroded.
Is it a good idea to tie higher education research to workplace reform, as the government proposes?
It may be the case that in the universities that there is some room for workplace reform - unlikely that there isn't. But I have may doubts about tying the thing to research. The whole question of research and development in Australia has been such a black mark on this government, that I'm suspicious of any approach they adopt on it. The statistics on research and development for the public and private sectors in the ten years before we came in real terms a 40% decline. It was disastrous. We switched that around by targeted programs, including the establishment of the co-operative research centres between universities and sectors of industry. Since the Howard Government has come in they've allowed the whole structure to fall away. Now to come and say we going to make this area of research conditional on workplace reform is just indicative of their ideological thinking.
Your government introduced universal health coverage in 1983. Is Medicare now unsustainable, as the Howard Government claims?
No, and I think they are going to pay a very heavy electoral price for this further emasculation of the concept. If you read Howard's statements over the years you'll see that he hates Medicare - hates it with a vengeance. And he's just taken his time, he's allowed a gradual erosion, now he's going to try to acceralate that and I think he's going to pay a very heavy price for it. He seems to be becoming more and more Americanised in everything he does - in his foreign policy, and now he's going to move more and more to the American style of health where the richest country in the world has 40 million people uncovered. It's a tragedy because we fought the fight under Whitlam and myself to bring in this sort of system against the very, very rigid opposition of your Howards and so on, but the people have shown that they are committed to it. And I hope very much that there anger will be reflected in the way they vote.
You've spoken out against the recent war in Iraq - particularly as a distraction from the war against terrorism. How should a future Labor government handle the campaign to defeat terrorism?
There are things that can't be undone, unfortunately; my opposition to Australia's participation in the war was not based upon the proposition that by participating we will increase the danger to Australia. And if the case for Australian participation was clear and right then you don't walk away from correct policy because of fear. My point was that the war was intrinsically wrong, and as a result of our participation we haven't improved Australia's security but created a greater danger at home and abroad. That can't be undone. What we can do in regard to the threat of terror is a range of things -we should have the best possible relations with countries in our region - not just with the United States, although relations with the United States are important. One of the things that has happened with this government is that our relationships with the region - both in the bilateral sense and in terms of collective arrangements - have weakened, and we could pay a very high price for that. An essential part of the war against terrorism is international co-operation. And we've diminished our capacity for co-operation, we are not regarded by many countries as a serious [independent] player - the deputy sheriff syndrome is alive and stronger than it ever was in the minds of many people in our region. So there is a lot of work to be done in recreating the bipartisan work in regional co-operation that started with Whitlam, Fraser kept it up and I certainly did and so did Paul [Keating]. Indonesia has sided with Malaysia in opposing Australian involvement in ASEAN, and the other countries haven't felt sufficiently strongly to go in pitching hard for us. And that's a reflection of there assessment of Australia now.
"Creating a Nation of Hope"
Unless and until something concrete is done about addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue you won't get a real start on the war against terrorism. The point is that we've been on this hurdy-gurdy of hatred now for 55 years and we are getting nowhere - if anything the hatreds are deeper now than they ever were. My idea is the "Powell Plan", which recalls the Marshall Plan, one of the most enduring initiatives of the twentieth century. You met the threat of expansive Soviet hegemony by rebuilding the economies of western Europe. Now there's no point in talking about the creation of a state of Palestine - which must come - but if you create a state that is economically unviable you'll just make things worse in many ways. There's got to be an enormous expenditure of money, led by the United States, with some of the wealthy Arab states, and with Israel and Europe, saying to the Palestinians we are going to create a viable economic entity, not just a political one. We'll help to create industries and an education system that gives you hope in education, hope in employment, and obtain preferential treatment for exports from the World Trade Organisation. The money's there; but I think that if the United States should take the lead in this and really show that they are committed to creating a nation of hope for the Palestinians. That may not remove the terrorism threat but it will remove a festering sore and a source of recruitment.
The Powell Plan refers to US Secretary of State Colin Powell -
[George] Marshall was the Secretary of State, and I've dubbed it the "Powell Plan". I've conveyed it to them and I'm working on it, talking to a lot of people.
Do you think it's capable of being extended to Iraq and Afghanistan?
They're doing it in Iraq, which is a different case because of oil, which if they handle it sensibly they've got a very, very solid economic base there. But Palestine is the critical one, because it is the embodiment in the minds of the fanatical muslims of the identification of the United States with the Zionist cause and if the US comes out and says "we really want to make this work" it will attack this core issue.
Do you think the proposed Australia-United States free trade agreement is a good idea?
No, I think it's crazy. Independent research has shown that in net terms, it's not an economic benefit. And I doubt that Bush will ever be able to get an agreement through the Congress that allows access for our agricultural products. It will also further isolate us in the eyes of the countries of the region. The Chinese are definitely concerned about the tendency of this Australian government to align itself with the United States.
There have been reports recently of human rights abuses in China, particularly of labour activists protesting job losses. How should Australia manage its desire for trade and good relations with its regional neighbours while defending human rights?
I think that's overstated. It is the case that China and other countries have practices that are not our practices. What gives me the shits in large lumps is to hear the Americans preaching to the Chinese about human rights. It's only in recent times that they've given equal rights to blacks. Look how long it took them to industrialise, and they expect China to do in a twinkling of an eye what took them centuries. Look at what the [US] did in regard to regimes they saw as strategically good, like Chile, where they were responsible for the murder of a democratically elected president and the installation of a dictator. The right thing to do is to do what we did - we talked to China, we expressed our concern about certain issues, and they will listen to you. The fact is that since 1978 and the opening up to a market economy China has become a more liberal society. The China of today is unrecognisably different from the China of 1978. If the Chinese have the belief that foundationally, Australia wants to be friend of China, help it in its development, understands its importance, if they understand that's your basic position and you don't share in anyway this concept that that is widespread in America that China is an enemy, that that's no part of your thinking, then within that framework you are able to talk with them about any range of issues.
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online