Sally McManus: On Fairness

Book Review by Janet McCalman

Sally McManus, On Fairness (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2019). 9780522874853 (pbk) 9780522874860 (ebook) 100 pp.

This is a little book not only of big ideas but of immense passion and relevance. It could not be more timely, as the world staggers under the burden of ever-increasing unfairness and inequality, a burden that is driving people everywhere to seek solutions in hate and intolerance, in violence and crime, in drugs and disengagement.

What we need is both clear thinking about what Fairness means and how we can enshrine and protect it, but also fearless leaders. Sally McManus has delivered both.

‘Fairness’ is at the heart of union and Labor politics. Unions fight for fairness but the political arm of the ranks of labour has the duty to institutionalise fairness: in the law, in the processes of government administration, in work, health and education, in personal human rights, in the protection of the interests of the individual amidst protecting the interests of wider society.

This is a very personal essay. McManus starts with the memorable roasting by Leigh Sales (McManus likens it to facing a bouncer), just three hours after being elected as the first female secretary of the ACTU. The question Sales posed threads through the whole work: should unjust laws be obeyed just for the sake of obedience.

The conclusion hits home hard, especially in the wake of the Royal Commission into the Banking Industry: that laws are being broken every day by the financially powerful, by employers and by private institutions. Why is a strike so much more socially outrageous than the systematic wage theft that pervades our fragmenting economy?

She has a fine sense of labour history and the past is ever present: we are taken back to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the long struggle to make ‘combination’ legal. Of course unions are still not accepted as an integral part of society: the conservative forces still suppress industrial action and never miss the opportunity to depict unions as, by definition, illegal and dangerous.

There is also much of her personal union history from the great teachers’ strike when she was at school, to the Maritime Union’s battle with Patrick Stevedores, to the struggle now to Change the Rules. McManus’s passion is driven by her close connection with the people she represents, her sense that she is beholden to 1.8 million Australians who depend on her to win them a ‘fair go’.

She argues that the ‘fair go’ is quintessentially Australian. Nothing enrages Australians more than ‘crook umpires’ in sport. Yet it is dangerous to take this national ideal too far. White Australia has never given Aboriginal people a ‘fair go’; the Australian Settlement enshrined in the Harvester Judgement and the subsequent Arbitration and Conciliation Commission, did little for the workers trapped in seasonal and insecure work; and how did the once Workingman’s Paradise end up with the most unfair education system in the OECD?

If Scott Morrison can cannibalise the ‘fair go as having a fair crack’ at getting rich, then it has a problem. We need to think about fairness: first in the direct, bread-and-butter struggle that McManus is now so ably leading against wage theft, insecure work, excessive hours, and stagnating living standards. But the labour movement needs also to expand the case for the institutionalisation of fairness through a democratic free education system—a National Education Service for life-long learning; a National Health Service; the NDIS; affordable housing; and dignity and comfort for those who cannot provide for themselves.

These are matters for other books and debates. Meanwhile McManus’s 10,000 words On Fairness will excite discussion and passion and should become the ‘Little Red Book’ of Labor. If only its publisher had bothered to break the text with a few snappy headings, then it would reach an even wider audience.

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