The strategy that built Australia’s safety net

 "I’ve listened to the podcast of the Accord twice now. It’s riveting. – Dr Adrian Graves  

Today Australia’s social safety net is the envy of the world: Australia has the highest minimum wage rate in the world, the most efficient healthcare system in the world that delivers standards of care few nations can match, and the only compulsory employer-funded universal superannuation system in the world.  

In 1983, after 34 years of conservative rule punctuated by the mere 2 years and 11 months of the Whitlam Government, the Left and the Australian union movement set out to forge a social safety net that would change the country forever.  

At the time Australia and the world was gripped by an unprecedented global economic crisis and the very idea of the welfare state was under attack globally with the emergence of the sinister new ideology of neoliberalism. But against the tide and despite the odds, Australian unions forged once-in-a-lifetime reforms to capitalism.  

How was this possible and how was it done? The towering pillars of our safety net were truly transformative reforms that were won through an Accord between the ACTU and the ALP; the most comprehensive agreement ever negotiated anywhere in the world between trade unions and a political party.  

In a new compelling episode of the MasterClass for Activists podcast series, labour movement legends Bill Kelty, Anna Booth and Tom McDonald join Emeritus Professor Ed Davis to tell this remarkable story. 

According to Bill Kelty, there would have been no Accord without the trade union Left and the Communist Party. In 1982 Laurie Carmichael declared that the labour movement needed to “pursue radical reforms…. which extended working class power in capitalist society by intervening in wider social and political processes.”  The CPA Congress that year said of the Accord “if full participation, democracy and mobilisation is developed, then a challenge to the ruling class in Australia can develop with a socialist direction.” 

In the Accord years, Australia was the only country on earth that built and expanded the safety net; a set of reforms that enriched the quality of life for working people.  

Neoliberals condemned the Accord for handing over the power of the state to unions while some critics on the far left condemned the Accord as a capitulation to neoliberalism. In this Masterclass, the discussants take up the ideological debate about the Accord's achievements, disappointments, and the lessons for today's generation of union activists.  

This is a truly compelling episode about a truly remarkable period of labour history – a story that is rich in lessons for activists today as they continue the fight to win the future for working people. 


*Daren McDonald is a Search member and the producer of the Masterclass for Activists podcast series. 

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