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Issue 576, 7 December 2007 - Union Campaign Smashed Howard

Landslide vote demands real change

Finally John Howard has got what he deserved. This time, there was no way his government could avoid a crushing election defeat.Landslide vote demands real changeThe swing against him was the largest in any election since 1975. John Howard and three other government ministers lost their seats in the election rout.

But media commentary has sought to downplay the extent to which the electorate voted for any real change. They claim that Rudd won because people were looking for a change in leadership but not a change in policies.

For example Paul Kelly of The Australian claimed the result was basically due to the fact that Howard had stayed too long and was out of touch, and that Rudd offered 'new leadership'.

But the crushing blow delivered to the Liberals was not a case of people wanting change for change's sake - it was based on a rejection of Howard's hated policies.

Opposition to WorkChoices was the key. Polling by Essential Media during the campaign found that 88 per cent of those who identified themselves as shifting to Labor said WorkChoices was their main reason. The electorate saw the laws for what they were - a massive free kick for the big corporations to attack working conditions and make us work harder for less pay.

This was combined with anger about interest rate rises and other economic issues like the cost of food and petrol prices which Rudd cleverly tapped into.

WorkChoices also symbolises the wider neo-liberal agenda designed to drive down ordinary people�s living standards to boost corporate profits. This agenda remains intensely unpopular.

Every survey of public opinion in recent years has found an overwhelming consensus amongst the population for increased government spending on health and education, for an end to privatisation, in support of union rights, for distributing society's wealth more equally and against war. The idea that Australians became conservative under Howard is a myth.

The importance of the campaigns against Howard's treatment of refugees and his support for the 'war on terror' to his defeat should also not be discounted.

Scandals like children overboard, Vivian Solon's deportation, Mohamed Haneef and the lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction helped tar Howard as a ruthless liar who was prepared to do anything to hang onto power.

Howard's racism became so discredited by scandals that it became a liability for him, not a vote winner. People became immune to Howard's wedge politics, meaning exercises such as the indigneous intervention failed to win popular support.

Union campaign

The credit for Labor�s election victory goes largely to the trade union Rights at Work campaign.

It was the unions that won the argument against WorkChoices way back in 2005. Since then opinion polls have consistently registered around 60 per cent opposition to the laws.

This meant that even with Beazley as leader Labor maintained a lead in the polls, despite his lack of popularity. The minute Rudd took over and Labor was seen as vaguely competent the party's vote soared.

The cases publicised by the unions of workers who had their pay slashed or working conditions cut under the laws were immensely powerful.

But just as important were the mass delegates meetings and protests nation-wide. These could even have stopped the Liberals introducing the laws in the beginning if the ACTU had been prepared to escalate its campaign of demonstrations and industrial actionIn fact had the unions waged such a concerted campaign against any number of Howard's attacks in his 11 years in power - whether the 1996 budget cuts, the GST, the previous waves of industrial relations reform or even refugees - Howard might have been long gone. Despite its decline in membership, the union movement remains a powerful force for change, because of its potential to champion the interests of working people everywhere.

The unions deserve the credit for keeping WorkChoices at the centre of the election campaign, and making it a decisive factor in many marginal seats.

Without the union campaign, Labor could very easily have lost the election. Rudd ran a conservative campaign, stressing the similarities between himself and Howard. Instead of trying to capitalise on the opposition to WorkChoices, Rudd continually qualified his plans to �tear up� the laws and has spent much of the last year distancing himself from the unions.

As John Robertson, the head of Unions NSW, put it: "Rudd could barely bring himself to mention to word union during the campaign".
Raised expectations

Unfortunately, Kevin Rudd has no intention of breaking with the neo-liberal agenda.

As The Australian commented approvingly: "there are few deep disagreements between the new government and its conservative opponents." But the right-wing press have expressed one concern: "the expectation of some of [Rudd's] own supporters."

The vote against Howard expressed an overwhelming desire for change. But it is clear that Rudd is going to dash the hopes of those who want to see a sharp break with Howard's policies.

The challenge ahead is to unite unions, Greens, Labor supporters and the left in a new mass movement to demand an end to the agenda of neo-liberalism and war. Building that movement from below is the only way we are going to get real change.

By James Supple