Hundreds of thousands rally in Australia against IR legislation

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

An estimated 150,000 protesters in Melbourne fill Federation Square blocking roads in all directions.

People rallied in 300 locations across Australia today to protest the Federal Government's proposed changes to industrial relations laws, WorkChoices. According to police, around 150,000 people congregated in Melbourne, from where speeches were broadcast throughout the country. In Sydney, thirty thousand gathered in Belmore Park and Martin Place to watch the broadcast before marching to Chifley Square.

Sharan Burrow, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), said that under the changes many working conditions would be under threat, including "penalty rates, public holidays, overtime pay, control over rostered hours, shift penalties, even 4 weeks annual leave." The government has claimed, despite various expert assesment to the contrary, and opposition from major Australian religious and charity organisations and some concern from its own backbench, that the IR changes will improve the economy and ultimately benefit workers, and dismissed the protests as having "little effect".


Ms Burrow said that the union movement was "standing up for the values that shape the way we care for each other," and criticised the proposed legislation, calling it "an attack on living standards, community, family life and wages."

The IR changes were also criticised by a number of church leaders. George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, said "I'm not a supporter of the radical weakening of the unions," and Anglican Bishop Phillip Higgins called them "disturbing and unwise."

Ms Burrow also criticised the Government's public relations campaign, calling it a waste of money. "They spent $55 million of our money trying to convince us that everything was okay," she said.

Greg Combet, Secretary of the ACTU, linked the struggle to past wars in which Australia has fought. "They fought and died in wars for this country. They do not deserve to have their rights taken away." He said that, for many, workplace changes would come quickly, especially for the most vulnerable. He also argued that some employers would be forced by competition to reduce wages and working conditions. "Even the best employers can be driven by competition to lower their labour costs. We will end up with an army of working poor, like the US," he said.

"We will hold the government to account for the human cost of these laws," Mr Combet said.

Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke said that the struggle was about what he called "the essence of Australian character - the fair go." Opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley declared that if returned to government at the next election, Labor would repeal the legislation. "This legislation is gone with the election of a Labor government," he said.

Government response

Prime Minister John Howard predicted that the protests would have little effect. "It is my view that after they (the laws) have been implemented for a period of time, most Australians will look back on the criticisms and objections ... with a sense of bewilderment," Howard said.

"The sky will not fall in, weekend barbecues will not be abolished, parents will still be able to spend Christmas Day with their children."

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, echoed the Prime Ministers sentiments. "Well the Government’s not going to be distracted by rallies and hysterical overreaction," he said. Mr Andrews defended the Government's record, arguing that it has been responsible for an increase in wages over the past ten years.

"Well what I would say to Australians, whether they were the people on the streets today or the probably 95% of Australians who were in their workplaces today working, is that firstly, look at the record of this Government over the last 10 years. That record speaks for itself. We’ve seen a 15% increase in real wages and we’ve seen a 1.7 million increase in jobs in Australia," he said. Mr Andrews also said that the industrial relations changes were about creating the conditions for a strong economy.

"So what we’ve been on about is bringing about the economic conditions that we can have a strong economy which ultimately is the only guarantee of jobs and wages in Australia."

Debate over proposed legislation

The claims of the Government are highly debated and not supported by some independent expert assesment. Professor Mark Wooden from the Melbourne Institute said, "There is no economic sense in it." A report issued by 17 independent experts in industrial relations from Australian tertiary institutions stated that there "is no convincing evidence that the proposals will generate jobs," and that the "claim that individual contracts deliver a higher productivity is highly questionable."

The IMF said in its 2005 review of the Australian economy that "the implementation of this package of reforms to widen employment opportunities and raise productivity by enhancing flexibility in work arrangements" was important for Australia's economic future, contradicting Prof. Wooden's claims.

The OECD also supports reform to the Industrial relations system, claiming in its 2004 Review of the Australian Economy "To further encourage participation and favour employment, the industrial relations system also needs to be reformed so as to increase the flexibility of the labour market, reduce employment transaction costs and achieve a closer link between wages and productivity."

Melbourne protest

Melbourne, Australia 150,000 turnout for Protest

Before marching to the Carlton gardens, a live video hook-up was established between the major state capitals of Australia, plus smaller regional centres.

Melbourne's city streets are denuded of traffic to allow the protest against IR reforms

According to police, some 150,000 marched from Federation Square to Royal Exhibition building to protest the proposed IR legislation and voice opinion, vastly in excess of original union estimates of 60,000. Organisers estimated a crowd up to 245,000 while a report from Sky News from aerial observation estimated 175,000 people attending the protest. The crowd spread through the streets of Melbourne as far as the eye could see - a seemlingly endless mass from the ground. The march stretched eight city blocks; when the first marchers had reached the end at the Carlton Gardens, the tail end was just starting.

For the marchers, the consensus was that the negatives of the legislation outweigh the benefits; that it will affect the poorer working class and the middle class long into the future unless the legislation is rolled back. One issue of concern was that the Government has not accepted that the minimum wage needs to rise with inflation, rather its position appears to be to allow for the possibility that the minimum wage could fall in real terms. Another was the loss of the safety net protecting workers from contacts offering less than award conditions.

Public transport was stretched to capacity and car parking was almost impossible to find. Inclement weather ultimately became fine. See the photo gallery for more photos

Sydney protest

March proceeding through Sydney streets

At 10am the estimated 30,000 protestors moved from Belmore Park down Hay St onto George St, chanting slogans and waving union banners.

Led by a fire truck, traditional Korean drummers and the Unions NSW campaign bus, they stretched nearly six city blocks along George Street, chanting their opposition to the changes.

Meeting with the rally from Martin Place, the combined march then moved on to Chifley Square, where another stage was set up, and more speakers were heard, including Peter Garrett, Federal member for Kingsford-Smith.

Garrett spoke mostly about the dispute between Boeing and 28 aircraft engineers at its Williamtown site. The workers are on strike to obtain the right to enter into a collective agreement negotiated by their union, rather than independent agreements. The strike is now in its fifth month.

Up to 100,000 people in NSW took part in 227 separate stopwork meetings throughout the state, linked by a nationwide Sky Channel hook up. The M4 motorway was also blocked off for nearly an hour, by transport workers and police.

More photographs of the Sydney protest can be seen in the Australian Industrial Relations Protest (Sydney) Gallery.

Brisbane protest

In Brisbane, Queensland, organisers have claimed success after more than 15,000 people turned out to protest against the industrial relations laws. Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley joined the workers, including representatives from 40 unions, who rallied at South Bank before marching to the Queensland office of the National party.

Mr Beazley told the South Bank rally that one of the first things he would do as Prime Minister would be to put in place "a fair system".

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said the State Government will push ahead with its High Court challenge to the Howard Government's proposed changes to industrial laws.

Rallies were also organised for the Gold Coast, Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns.

Adelaide protest

In Adelaide, the SA Premier Mike Rann told a rally, estimated by police at 15,000 workers, that the State Government will fight the proposed new laws all the way to the High Court. "This is the most systematic attack on the values of Australian people that we've seen since the Second World War," Mr Rann said.

SA Unions secretary Janet Giles was ecstatic with the response. "40,000 people in a city of one million . . . a sensational turnout. There are people here from every union, from all industries," she said.

Adelaide images here


In Perth WA commuters experienced transport disruptions today as the city came to a halt for the Rally. Police estimates put the crowd at 10,000. UnionsWA secretary Dave Robinson told those assembled near the foreshore of the Swan River that it was a historic day. Premier Geoff Gallop, WA Employment Protection Minister John Kobelke and federal Labor industrial relations spokesman Stephen Smith also spoke at the rally.

The government earlier today revealed that Solicitor General Robert Meadows, QC, would lead WA's High Court fight, mounted in conjunction with Queensland and NSW. Mr Kobelke said the action would seek to save 100 years of cooperative Australian industrial relations based on conciliation and arbitration. Perth images here

Other Cities

According to the ABC, 4,500 people rallied in the Tasmanian city of Hobart. Unions say 3,000 workers have rallied at Thoroughbred Park in Canberra. In Darwin, nurses, teachers, public servants, construction workers and entire families have turned out to show that not only workers will be affected by the Federal Government's industrial relations reforms. Traffic blocked the roads leading the Fannie Bay Racecourse. Crowds jostled for space to see the satellite fed telecast from the Melbourne rally.

Wellington, NZ also showed solidarity as some 200 people demonstrated outside the Australian Embassy.

Photo Gallerys

Melbourne Gallery

Sydney Gallery


This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
  Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian industrial relations legislation, 2005

This original work will be also available in french.