As the Howard Government’s defeat becomes one for the nation’s history books it’s important to remember how it all happened.
How did the country’s most popular leader since Robert Menzies end up with the ultimate humiliation at the last election by joining Sir Bruce Melbourne as one of only two Australian Prime Ministers to lose their own seats?
The answer we know. It was John Howard’s introduction of extreme industrial relations changes that poisoned his Government’s re-election chances.
But that alone was not enough. It was the long and hard-won campaign fought en the media and en local communities right across the country that made rights at work the one number issue for voters at the 2007 election.
When Howard first introduced Work Choices we were faced with a massive challenge. How were we going to get red of these laws that stripped away workers’ rights such as penalty rates and paid overtime?
We had to have a plan. Unions NSW decided to target local communities en five marginal seats including Lindsay, Dobell, Page, Macquarie and EdenMonaro. But as the campaign gained momentum this blew out to ten including Howard’s own Bennelong seat.
Our challenge was to first help educate local communities about how the changes would affect them and their families.
I was sent to Lindsay and through the first sky channel broadcast we brought together a group of 70 local residents to form our first-Your Rights At Work committee.
It was here en Western Sydney that we got out in workplaces and out onto the streets to let people know about how the new laws would leave working families worse off.
We went into the area’s biggest workplace, the Nepean Hospital, and began a petition campaign to help every worker there know just how bad the Government’s laws really were.
By the end of this campaign we had over 10,000 signatures and workers there had raised enough to pay for an anti-Work Choices billboard on the area’s biggest motorway.
Our campaign was so successful that it became the model for other groups right across NSW where we set up more than 40 committees.
Our next challenge was to maintain momentum.
Real stories in the newspapers and $12 million dollars in television ads about workers who had been stung by the Howard Government’s IR laws helped to re-enforce our message.
Most of Australia’s journalists had quickly made up their minds that Work Choices was hurting and the stories of workers who had had wages and conditions stripped away regularly featured in the news headlines.
Awareness of the Howard Government’s extreme industrial relations changes had been shifted from 30 per cent to 80 per cent and opposition to the changes went from 30 per cent to more than 60 per cent.
It became an important part of the campaign to highlight these stories.
Our final challenge was to mobilise hundreds of campaigners and their families out in events in their local areas and Sydney in the lead up to the federal election.
And we made sure that there wasn’t a single event where there wasn’t a Your Rights At Work presence. In local events from the Granny Smith festival in Bennelong to huge Rockin’ for Rights rally and concert that saw thousands turn out to the Sydney Football Stadium – we did not miss a beat.
Later in the campaign I was moved to Dobell on the Central Coast. Our campaign had been so successful that we had managed to get people involved that had never been political in their lives.
Closer to election day we managed to turn out more than 70 people on a Sunday for polling booth training. None of them had ever done anything like this before. And it was events like these that defined our campaign.
At the campaign’s end, our hard work had made rights at work the number one issue for vote changers. It had topped leadership, climate change, and even economic management as the most important issue to the majority of voters.
Going forward, the Your Rights At Work campaign has taught us that we can never afford to drop the ball again. We need to keep campaigning in the media and local communities. We need to keep fighting for interests of working families.
What’s needed now is a new agenda for change. We need an agenda that we can take to local communities to help build better future for all working families.
Mary Yaager is a Campaigns Officer at Unions NSW.