By voting for the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), Nick Xenophon and the other cross bench detritus showed us just what they are made of.
The Senate voted by 36 votes to 33 to pass the bill. The ABC described the deal that allowed the government to reintroduce the ABCC as “a stunning capitulation to Nick Xenophon”.
In fact, Xenophon has sold himself for what he is worth: nothing.
Far from a capitulation, all the government had to do to get his vote was to provide him with an excuse, and an opportunity for posturing about how well he can play the parliamentary game. Like generations of independents before him, he was left to play happily in that particular sandbox with a bunch of imaginary toys.
What did he win in exchange for selling out building workers? The government now has to examine the 6 percent of contracts currently sourced from overseas. Finance minister Matthias Cormann indicates the vast change this will make: “The updates to the procurement rules … ensure that contract decisions are informed by more complete information”.
Xenophon also secured a commitment that future discussions of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will take place at a higher level of government, and all involved will be grilled by Senate estimates committees twice a year.
The government also “promised NXT to establish a task force to look at” a uniform system to protect subcontractors.
How many more construction workers have to die for this useless posturing?
As CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan said, “the rights of one million construction workers have been sold down the river by cross bench senators to horse trade with the government”.
Profits are made at the cost of workers’ lives. All industries are dangerous because, for the bosses, it’s generally cheaper to cut corners. Construction is the fourth worst industry for workplace fatalities, behind agriculture, transport and mining. In 2015, 33 construction workers were killed at work.
That’s appalling enough. But before the ABCC was established by the Howard government, the death rate in the industry was going down. While the ABCC operated, fatalities began to increase again. After the original ABCC was removed, fatalities went down again. If construction sector deaths return to the average level of the ABCC years, it will mean an extra 10 deaths a year.
When the government and the building industry bosses talk about outlawing so-called union-friendly clauses in building site enterprise agreements, these are the consequences.
But none of this worries Xenophon and Co. They’ve made a deal.
At least they’ve made the bosses happy. Master Builders Association chief executive officer Wilhelm Harnisch said that, overall, the deal was worthwhile. He made much of “the hundreds of thousands of workers on construction sites who no longer have to fear coming to work, fear being bullied and intimidated”. Now they just need to fear deteriorating occupational health and safety standards.
Before the federal election, I wrote in Red Flag that there would be “nothing progressive about replacing a non-choice between the right wing politics of both Labor and Liberal with a hung parliament reliant on a small number of mostly right wing independents … They are opportunists out to keep their bums on the parliamentary seats first and foremost. Hence proclamations of their willingness to do deals with either Labor or Liberal if it will give them a seat at the table”. The despicable horse trading over the ABCC has borne this out.
As for there being any virtue in independence, the real question is: independent from what?
The Xenophon team are basically Liberals in disguise. The Liberal Party is where Xenophon himself cut his teeth. The lower house NXT member for Mayo, Rebekah Sharkie, used to work for the previous member for Mayo, the Liberal Jamie Briggs, who had to resign after sexually assaulting a female public servant in Hong Kong.
But it is not just the fact that so many of the independents have actually come from the ranks of the LNP – as did Bob Katter and Pauline Hanson – that gives the lie to the claim that the independents are somehow outside mainstream party politics.
Even total organisational independence from the major parties wouldn’t affect the real ties that bind, which are political. They are all concerned to continue the normal functioning of capitalism. They accept that bosses rule and workers obey, and that parliamentary deals take place within this framework.
Whether they represent the major parties or independents, the MPs are ultimately all in this together. So, in the round of horse trading that ended the 2016 parliamentary sitting, Labor moved an amendment in the ABCC debate that was carried with the support of One Nation, and the Greens did a deal with Turnbull to give a gift to farmers via the backpacker tax. This is the “realistic” outcome of working within the system.
Independent MPs who want to play the parliamentary game are a dead end. Instead, we need democracy in the places where capitalism can’t give it: most importantly at our jobs, where we have a potential power truly independent of what goes on in parliament because, without our labour, the bosses have nothing.
Rather than the parliamentary farce, we need real independence from the class politics that dominates parliamentary manoeuvring. It might be unspoken, but it is the capitalist class whose interests are served by it. We need openly pro-working class politics, people and parties that stand up for workers as a matter of principle, that have no truck with exploitation, who are not trying to manage it but to end it.