When did the rule of law in Australia become so fragile that a union leader defending the right to strike is considered a threat to social order?
Newly elected secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, has found herself in hot water after defending the right of unions to take unlawful industrial action.
What should have been an entirely predictable response to a base “gotcha” question from ABC 7.30 host Leigh Sales has given rise to a tide of overwrought criticism and confected outrage.
Having established that Ms McManus believes in the rule of law, Ms Sales asked if the ACTU under her leadership would distance itself from the CFMEU which has faced 118 separate legal proceedings in which it was found to have broken the law or acted in contempt of court.
Ms McManus coolly explained that taking illegal industrial action, as the CFMEU has done, was not contrary to the tenet of the rule of law because “our current [strike] laws are wrong”.
“It shouldn’t be so hard for workers in our country to be able to take industrial action when they need to,” she said.
“I believe in the rule of law where the law’s fair and when the law is right, but when it’s unjust I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.”
There was nothing improper about the line of questioning, although the opener, “Do you believe in the rule of law?”, was obviously loaded.
Ms Sales, a seasoned journalist, followed the thread she cast to its obvious conclusion and Ms McManus responded as one would expect a forthright union leader to.
Nevertheless, the comments set social media aflame, and the government lost no time in condemning them.
Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, Senator James McGrath, said the rule of law “is not a smorgasbord to be picked at will”.
“It’s the entire underpinning of our legal system, indeed of our society,” he warned. “Taken to the extreme, what she is saying is that the union movement and the unions are not going to obey the rule of law in this country and that is a disgrace.”
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash was likewise alarmed, declaring: “This is an extraordinary admission … that [Ms McManus] believes she is above the law and that unions can pick and choose when they obey the law and when they do not.”
— Michaelia Cash (@SenatorCash) March 15, 2017
It was all rank opportunism and fear mongering. Ms McManus said nothing to warrant such dire warnings.
Although asserting the right of unionists to strike, even where strike action is deemed illegal, Ms McManus made no threat to place the union movement outside the rule of law. There were no threats to refuse whatever penalties might arise from illegal strike action. There was no attack upon the judiciary or law enforcement.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the over-reaction was that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – both a lawyer and a former secretary of the Australian Workers Union – was among her critics. Labor believes in changing bad laws not breaking them, he said.
“That’s what democracy is about,” he told Fairfax Media. “If you don’t like a law, if you think a law is unjust, use the democratic process to get it changed.”
Mr Shorten would know better than most that striking is often the only leverage available to unions and is usually taken as a last resort.
In a staid and insipid political environment, Ms McManus’ performance on 7.30 suggests she is someone to watch – for all the right reasons.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine.