Meet the candidates: Geoff Lawler
Problems of the countryside
This week The Guardian interviews Geoffrey Lawler, who is standing in the No.2 spot on the Communist Party of Australia's Senate ticket in NSW. Geoff lives in the south-western NSW regional centre of Wagga Wagga, where he has held the position of Secretary of the Wagga Wagga District Trades and Labour Council for the past ten years. Geoff was born at Scone in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales on the June 19, 1950. He describes it as "the day after the start of the capitalist war against the People's Republic of North Korea". He has spent his whole life in regional Australia, commencing primary school in Scone, and then moving with his family to Tamworth in the New England region of NSW where he finished school and began his working life. He has been an active member of the Wagga community, volunteering as manager and assistant coach for the junior rugby league team, and is presently the amateur boxing coach at the Wagga Police Community Youth Club. Guardian: Geoff, can you tell us about your history in the labour movement, and how that influenced your political beliefs. Geoff Lawler: I joined my first union in 1965 and have been a member of one union or another ever since. Communists I met when working on heavy construction sites during the 70s and 80s, a period highlighted by the Vietnam War, radicalised my political views. I became a delegate and a Country Councilor for the Building Workers' Industrial Union where my industrial and political education continued. I played an active role in several campaigns run by the BWIU including the winning of the 38-hour week for building workers. The Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union offered me a position as their Riverina organiser, which I took up in March '85. I have continued in that position in the amalgamated Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union. G: What are the issues confronting the Trade Union movement today, and what benefits would CPA policies bring for union members? GL: The trade union movement has had a more profound effect on Australian society than any other movement either political or social. Every Australian's day-to-day life has been and still is touched by the great social and industrial conditions fought for and won by trade unions. The trade union movement has fought tirelessly — one seemingly endless battle after another — against the employers and capitalist class who had all the political and legal resources of the State to call on to defeat the unions. Despite some horrible defeats, lock outs, jailings and police murders (Rothbury) and the use of the Australian Army against workers (in the '49 coal strike and the more recent air pilot's strike) the union movement has prevailed. As a result, Australian workers enjoy some of the best working conditions in the world. But much of this has changed over the last 20 years. Unions no longer have the high rates of membership or the active involvement of rank and file members as they had in the past. One of the reasons for the disenchantment of workers is the continued and unquestioning support of unions for the Australian Labor Party. This means that they have been tied to the economic rationalist and pro-big business policies implemented by the ALP Right. Then there has been the active campaign waged against the unions by the current Federal government for the last six years. Reith may be scampering away into a lucrative corporate retirement, but we must remember that Peter Reith's "second wave" of industrial "reforms" is still firmly on the Liberal Party's agenda. Industrial relations have not emerged as a major issue in this election campaign, but every worker and trade union should remember that our fundamental rights as workers — the right to strike and collectively bargain — are still firmly in the sights of John Howard and his team. Superannuation, long service leave and other workers' entitlements would be stripped from awards; pre-strike secret ballots made compulsory; and individual contracts would override enterprise agreements. At this election, the CPA is putting forward a number of policies to protect the rights of workers and unions. Among them are: * The repeal of the Workplace Relations Act, Trade Practices Act, and all other similar anti-trade union legislation. * The introduction of legislation which guarantees the right of workers to strike and act in solidarity with other workers. * The introduction of legislation to establish a government controlled scheme whereby workers are guaranteed 100 per cent of their entitlements — redundancy pay, holiday and long service leave, superannuation and all other benefits — in the event of corporate bankruptcy. * The introduction of a 35-hour week without loss of pay, thereby returning to workers the increases in productivity which have already been achieved. The Communist Party of Australia has always fought alongside the workers and trade unions to protect their rights, and we proved our firm commitment to the workers during the MUA dispute and the successful campaign against the "second wave" industrial legislation. G: Having spent your life living and working in regional Australia, can you tell us what effect John Howard's policies have had in the countryside? GL: The past 6 years of Coalition Government have been devastating for rural areas. There has been a reduction in Government services to the countryside. Offices have been closed and services cut. "Competition policy" has forced hundreds of farmers off the land. The moves offshore and corporate failures have seen thousands of jobs disappear. Urgently needed land and water conservation projects have only received a fraction of the funding they need. The Coalition's policy on Telstra is clear — they are determined to sell off the rest of Telstra as soon as politically expedient and this would immediately worsen the chances of the countryside getting the communications services it needs. The Labor Party has given a commitment not to sell any more of Telstra "during the next term", but we must remember that it was Labor which began the process of privatisation in the first place when it privatised the Commonwealth Bank. The CPA believes that Telstra should be taken back into FULL PUBLIC OWNERSHIP. It is the only way that services to people in rural Australia will be provided on the basis of need and not profitability and that the jobs of Telstra workers in regional areas will be secured. Health care is another area of concern — and rural Australia has been hit very hard. There have been closures and amalgamations of hospitals. People often have to travel hundreds of kilometres for essential services like a visit to a GP or a simple x-ray, when it all used to be available in the local town. But there is a huge pot of gold — $2.5 billion a year — that is being redirected from our public health system and used to subsidise private health care for the more well off. Much of this money ends up as profits for the private insurance companies. This money is desperately needed to provide GPs, hospitals fully staffed with nurses and other health professionals, diagnostic clinics, and quality aged care facilities for rural Australia. An example of how the Coalition is killing rural Australia is to be seen in the application of "competition policy" to the dairy industry just over one year ago. This was done with the co-operation of State Labor Governments. The devastating effects predicted have now been confirmed: 16 per cent of dairy farms in NSW have disappeared; milk production in NSW has dropped by 5 per cent; and the price paid to farmers for their product has dropped from 53 to 28 cents per litre. However, the price paid by people in Sydney for a litre of milk has risen 33 per cent in the last two years. So who benefits from this so-called competition? We have gone from a system where farmers worked more co-operatively, receiving an equal and guaranteed income for their product; to one where the big supermarket retailers and agribusiness corporations — who are not interested in competition at all — are able to monopolise the market and dictate prices. The CPA has consistently opposed privatisation and deregulation. In addition we encourage the cooperative movement to cover production, marketing, processing and the procurement of farm equipment. A restructuring of the home market for agricultural products would encourage grower co-operatives and grower-consumer markets, cutting out unnecessaary middlemen. The Federal Government must protect farmers against exploitation by agribusinesses and the monopolies. It should guarantee stable farm prices which ensure that the costs of production are covered. The prices of farm equipment and fertilisers and chemicals should be controlled. We have a number of other policies the aim of which is to ensure a viable economy for farmers with a standard of living not less than that available to those in cities. G: Rural and regional areas — especially in NSW — have traditionally been the stronghold of the National Party. What chance does the CPA stand of attracting votes in these areas? GL: Everything John Howard has done to rural Australia has been achieved with the full support of the National Party MPs, which proves that they no longer represent rural Australia, but rather the agribusiness corporations, often foreign owned. And we see the Nationals being punished for that, with massive swings against them in the last NSW and the QLD State elections. Most of those votes went to independents and minor parties including One Nation. Many oppose privatisation and deregulation and we need to get the message out that that is the stand of the CPA too. Furthermore, our other policies would go a long way to transforming the situation for the struggling farmers and their families. They would really lift the prospects for country towns as well. This is why it is so important for the CPA to stand a Senate ticket. It gives everyone in NSW an opportunity to vote for progressive candidates with policies that benefit the vast majority of people wherever they are — the working people on the land, in country towns and in the cities.