Keith Windschuttle

Most political commentators, even the better ones, underestimate Julia Gillard. For instance, Dennis Shanahan says her government “appears to lack a long-term political strategy and clear sense of what it stands for”. Similarly, Nikki Savva says people are uncertain about who she is or what she believes in. “People are hard pressed to identify her with a single major issue, except now for climate change.”

Yet since Labor returned to power in 2007, Gillard has been engaged in one of the most ambitious pieces of social engineering Australia has ever seen. If successful, it will transform this country for the worse. Her aim is to re-unionise the working population by dramatically reducing the number of small business people. She wants to force all those self-employed contractors who emerged as a social and political phenomenon in recent decades to become employees subject to labour laws and regulation.

Gillard’s underlying aim is to preserve the trade union movement as the Labor Party’s base. It has been apparent for a long time that people in the modern economy don’t need trade unions who serve only their leaders and act against the interests of both employers and employees. In the 1990s, some of the more observant political writers, in particular John Roskam, Katharine Betts and Bob Catley, discussed the emergence of an entrepreneurial class of independent self-employed contractors. By 1998, the number of trade union members in the private sector had fallen below the total of self-employed. Today, the Australian economy has more than 2 million self-employed people. In 2010, trade union membership in private and public sectors fell by 47,000 to 1.8 million.

Gillard’s big project is to reverse this trend. In the short term, she wants to shore up union power by extending the role of Fair Work Australia. She also wants to use the Australian Taxation Office to remove tax incentives for very small businesses and to tie up the rest with so many compliance requirements they will abandon the field.

The best current observer of the phenomenon is Ken Phillips of Independent Contractors Australia. In Quadrant’s May edition, Phillips detailed the tactics Labor and the unions have adopted. They claim that “sham contracting” is rife in the construction, manufacturing and mining industries and that this leads to the exploitation of workers and a massive loss of taxation revenue to the government. They want the ATO to deny recognition to large numbers of contractors, forcing companies to treat them as wage-earning employees.

Phillips argues there is one principle that galvanises all Labor Party players: the firm belief that strict labour law must regulate and control the way all people in Australia work. However, labour regulation only applies to relationships between employers and employees. “If someone is not an employer or an employee, they do not come within the labour regulation net. Instead, they come under commercial law.” The ability of the self-employed to avoid labour regulation, he argues, is a source of great tension on the Left. It generates fears for the very future of the ALP.

Gillard has given ministerial responsibility for the campaign to Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten, the former AWU and ACTU official. Hence, even if Gillard were to be deposed as Labor leader, the unions would still have a man at the top to push their cause. Ken Phillips predicts that after the Greens gain the balance of power in the Senate in July, the government will propose legislation on sham contracting to change the common-law definitions. The three lower house independents will vote with the government and the legislation will pass in the Senate. “It will be checkmate for Australia’s 2 million self-employed people.”

The wonders of cyberspace! In February 2010, to coincide with the publication of my book on the Stolen Generations in the series The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, I created a new website on the subject, I posted news and reviews, debates with opponents and, most importantly, the entire text of the 656-page book. I wrote the book partly with this use in mind, dividing each chapter into a number of sections of around 2000 words in length, each self-contained. The aim of the exercise was to make a long and imposing tome more readable for students at high schools who were being given compulsory essays and projects on the subject, but who were labouring without any critical literature.

I am pleased to report that the strategy worked beyond my wildest dreams. In the twelve months to April 30, 2011, the site’s Webstat meter recorded just over 1 million hits—no, I am not exaggerating, 1 million. The hits came from 65,000 site visits that toted up 292,000 page views. Peak visits to the site coincided with the period of most intense essay research and writing—August to November. Several of the state and university libraries have been disgracefully slow to put my book on their shelves, even though they have long had copies, but I am thankful they cannot stop readers accessing it on the internet.

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