Despite the extraordinary suppression of parliamentary debate as it tries its hand at a macabre resurrection, the recent defeat of the misnamed Ensuring Integrity Bill has left the Government and those whose interests it serves apoplectic with rage.
Their deep disquiet over the bill's defeat is not about the bill alone; it is about their fear of the collective power of ordinary working people to defend themselves against a neoliberal agenda that is precisely aimed at limiting, and ultimately eliminating this power, even though there is already a clear imbalance that favours the privileges of corporations, including multinationals, over the rights of working people.
The defeat of this bill by no means signals the conclusion of the struggle in defence of democracy. But it is a significant victory for the union movement and a tangible sign of hope.
The Bill, as everyone knows, was defeated in the Senate due to the final decisions of Jacqui Lambie and the One Nation Senators to vote against the government. A number of explanations have been given by these senators on their dissatisfaction with how the government handled the Bill, ignoring their concerns and taking their support for granted. But just as parliamentarians don't exist in parliament alone, politics doesn't happen in parliament alone.
And the grass-roots campaign, by working people to protect working people from the extreme effects of this legislation, is an outstanding example of how politics really is a battle between those who want to concentrate power in the hands of the few and those who fight to place it in the hands of the many. Thousands of ordinary workers rang, wrote to, visited and spoke to, the cross-bench senators and others. In doing so they achieved three things.
First, they blew apart the false construct that "unions" are officials. They demonstrated with their words, their actions, their passion and their personal commitment that they, ordinary people doing all kinds of jobs, people who care about the future and are willing to fight for it, are what make up unions.
Second, they showed what collective aspiration looks like. For all the neoliberal chatter about aspiration being the indicator of individual success, unions are hated by neoliberal governments precisely because they are a vehicle for collective aspiration, historically showing that the real improvements to the lives of ordinary working people come when they are fought for collectively.
Rather than limiting aspiration, which is a common neoliberal claim, unions organise aspiration: the aspiration for better pay and conditions, health and safety regulations in the workplace, paid leave for when you are sick, when you need to care for someone you love, when you are having a child, when you need to deal with gendered violence, or when you need an annual break.
Third, they showed that the truth spoken by people pushed to the margins by neoliberalism will always, in the end, drown out the lies told about them. Workers told their stories with simplicity and honesty. They did not need anyone to speak on their behalf. They did it themselves. They told why their union matters to them. They explained why the Ensuring Integrity Bill would harm them. They analysed its destructive impact on democracy. They shared their fears about how it would lead to worsening pay and conditions, worsening safety, less respect, less control over their lives and wider inequality. They told their stories in their own voices on social media, in print and in person, in emails and over the phone. No pretense, no PR, no big-noting, no bullshit.
There is nothing more powerful than the truth being spoken fearlessly by the people who are in the firing line. As the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy puts it so beautifully: "There's no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard."
Ensuring Integrity had to be seen in the context of a deliberate government strategy to silence the voices of workers by dismantling their unions and effectively dis-organising those who had organised themselves to form a collective. This continues to be the Government's agenda alongside alarming attempts to censor the media, to suppress advocacy, and to shut down the rights to protest, to boycott, to dissent. This is why the defeat of this bill is such a blow for the proponents of neoliberalism and such a strong lesson on the hard work of hope.
For hope is hard work. It is not cheap. It is not the same as the glib disbursement of "thoughts and prayers". It is not about making a wish and leaving the outcome to fate. It is not about folding when the forces you are up against laugh at you and then demonise you. It is not the easy thing or the quick fix. It is about the long struggle for progressive social change.
And contrary to the myth that history is made by a few "great men" (for this myth is as heavily gendered as it is racist, classist, ableist and heteronormative), history is made by the many, collectively. It is made by those who do not give up on the cause and do not give up on the collective they are part of, even after a series of defeats. It is made by those who know that they are not alone and who are unwilling to allow their comrades to face their fights alone. It is made by those who do not shirk the everyday tasks, no matter how small, that make the side strong. This is what the union movement, in all its diversity, knows how to do exceedingly well. This is the hard work of hope. As poet Audre Lord adjures us:
"Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don't mean me) or by despair (there's nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it ... It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming. It means doing the unromantic and tedious work necessary to forge meaningful coalitions, and it means recognising which coalitions are possible and which coalitions are not ... It means fighting despair."
- Dr John Falzon (@JohnFalzon) is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.