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Wren's Week: Another Angus Taylor scandal and Woolworths wage theft

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Both Angus Taylor and Woolworths have been caught up in scandals this week (Image by Dan Jensen)

This week has seen scandals from the political and retails sectors as well as mining protests, writes John Wren.

IT'S JUST GOTTEN WORSE this week for Angus Taylor. Against all expectations, he has taken over the mantle of dodgiest Coalition MP from Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal mate, Stuart Robert (he of the $30,000 internet bill and the Rolex watches).

The week before, Taylor used fraudulently concocted documents to attack Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore over her travel expenses. His fraud was called out by Labor. Taylor originally tried to claim the incorrect numbers were downloaded from the Sydney City Council website, when this lie was proven incorrect it became clear that it was either Taylor himself or one of his staff members who fabricated the numbers. It will be well known within Taylor’s office whom the culprit is.

At this stage, Taylor is stonewalling about that. Labor’s shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, in the meantime has referred the matter to the NSW Police. In these circumstances, the normal process would be for the minister (Taylor, in this case) to throw the staff member under the bus, wear some short-term pain and move on. The fact that Taylor has not taken this path indicates that it could well have been he who doctored the documents.

Taylor has been front and centre in scandal after scandal – water allocations (“Watergate”), the “Grassgate” scandal and now this – all the while he is prosecuting a pro-fossil fuel, pro-coal agenda as the country’s Energy Minister. He is a massive liability for the Government. In normal times with a responsible prime minister, Taylor would have been sacked from cabinet months ago.

But these aren’t normal times. Australia is afflicted with a do-nothing PM, who is more concerned with spin than substance. It’s no wonder Morrison hasn’t acted — to do so would require taking a moral stand, something our faux-Christian PM has proven to be repeatedly incapable.

Taylor eventually made an “unreserved” apology to Clover Moore. It was reserved, however, as he only took responsibility for not checking the figures, not for identifying who concocted them. Sorry, not sorry. That’s the story of the Coalition Government. We now await the results of the NSW Police investigation.

We also saw significant protests in Melbourne outside an international mining exhibition and trade conference. Protestors seem to be anti-mining in general, not just anti-fossil fuels, which will not likely do them many favours. Humans have been mining since they went in search of the first stones to make tools. The protestors have been vocal and persistent. They have indulged in numerous disruptive non-violent actions such as gluing themselves to roads. The police, however, appear to have responded with force that seems excessive — drawn batons, batons actually used, pepper spray and the use of horses to drive protestors away (in at least one case, trampling one of them).

With the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade fast approaching, it is interesting to note how times have changed. In 1854 at Eureka, the miners protested against the cash-strapped unrepresentative colonial Government attempting to tax them to extinction with onerous and excessive mining license fees. The red-coated military eventually attacked the miners while the police looked on, killing around 60 miners and their families.

In 2018, we saw the police violently protecting the miners, who are largely not paying their fair share of taxes, again leading to a cash-strapped government.

In 1854, the police were on the wrong side of history. They still are in 2019.

Woolworths has come out and announced that they have been underpaying their workers for over ten years to the tune of over $300 million. Clearly, systemic wage theft is an issue within this company and, no doubt, many others. Woolworths's share price took a hit with the news of the unfunded liability suddenly hitting the company’s balance sheet.

It’s also become clear that the SDA union (The “Shoppies”) were about to disclose the wage theft as part of Woolworths's EBA negotiations, forcing Woolworths's hand to make the disclosure. Now personally, I’m no fan of the Shoppies union, although they are Australia’s largest union in membership and play an active role in broader industrial relations actions, they have historically taken a socially conservative stance on many issues including same-sex marriage and abortion. They have historical ties to the Catholic Church that go back to the days of the DLP/ALP split. The Shoppies fell on the DLP side. Enough said.

Regardless, the actions of the SDA, in this case, demonstrate that unions still have their relevance. It’s a sad fact that often, particularly young people, only join their union when it’s too late. Strangely enough, unions won’t usually go into bat for non-members. Think of them as an insurance policy against corporate greed and workplace abuse. Unions remain the best insurance against these issues. It doesn’t matter where you work, there will be a union (or professional association) that will suit your occupation and/or workplace. Join it. The best time to join your union is now and the bigger the union the more powerful it becomes. Do it for yourself, do it for your colleagues. As Billy Bragg famously sang, there is power in a union.

1 November is the anniversary of the first Monster Meeting held by the Ballarat Reform League in 1854. The meeting is considered the birthplace of representative democracy in Australia. The meeting was held to discuss and protest excessive mining license fees and their brutal enforcement by the local colonial constabulary.

Thousands attended the meeting. The League presented its Colonial Charter drafted the week prior. It laid out its grievances regarding the license fees but also called for a properly democratic constitution. Delivered as a remonstrance in the great British parliamentary tradition, it stressed the denial of civil rights and called for manhood suffrage, vote by ballot and payment of members of Parliament — the cutting edge of democracy. Within the year, they achieved all their goals despite the carnage at the Stockade.

As the Morrison Government and its Murdoch media co-conspirators continually degrade our democracy, remember democracy is worth fighting for. The diggers at Eureka died for the system we now have. To sit idly and allow the Government to degrade democracy is an insult to their sacrifice and memory.

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