Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

“Better to break the law than break the poor”

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A debate about the so-called ‘rule of law’ erupted last month after the newly appointed Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary, Sally McManus, told the 7.30 program that she only believed in the rule of law “where the law’s fair, where the law’s right but when it’s unjust I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it”.

McManus was responding to a question about whether the ACTU should distance itself from the construction union which has been fined for taking what is deemed to be ‘illegal’ industrial action.

Predictably, politicians from both the major parties responded with astonishment, as did representatives of the bosses’ organisations. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash commented that “All reasonable Australians fundamentally understand that a key pillar of our peaceful, democratic society is adherence to the rule of law.”

While Labor leader Bill Shorten said “If you don’t like a law, if you think a law is unjust, use the democratic process to get it changed.” Business Council of Australia boss Jennifer Westacott said “What kind of society will we have if everyone can simply choose to ignore any laws they don’t like?”

While these people feign outrage at the at the mere suggestion of working people breaking unjust laws, they are completely comfortable when big business and governments choose to act illegally.

For example, no such outrage was expressed when it was revealed that the convenience store giant 7-Eleven had defrauded workers of tens of millions of dollars, or when the construction firm Grocon was convicted of breaching laws that led to the deaths of three innocent pedestrians.

Clearly these people also weren’t talking about the federal government and its refusal to adhere to international laws in relation to asylum seekers, or the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. It seems when governments and corporations don’t like laws they either just ignore them, or arbitrarily change them. Their hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Politicians from the major parties and the captains of industry pretend as if laws are just part of nature, rather than tools that are used by the capitalist class to maintain their rule. We live in a class society where the capitalist class represents a tiny minority. It makes profits by exploiting the majority working class, and needs an apparatus in place to ensure that the majority accept this situation.

It does this in a number of ways, but crucial is the preservation of the courts, the laws, the parliaments, the police etc. The entire state is designed to protect profits and maintain the capitalist class’s rule.

Ever since Australia was first colonised laws were introduced on this basis, and from then till now a struggle over profits, and for our rights, has ensued. Working people have attempted to win a bigger share of the wealth and to push back at this rigged set up. As the old saying goes, it’s “better to break the law than break the poor”.

Originally it was not even possible to use the so-called “democratic process” to change the laws because voting was only for rich men. This changed after the illegal Eureka rebellion after which most men were afforded the right to vote. It took much longer for women and aboriginal people to win the same rights, and laws were broken to do so.

The only way that rights have been won, and laws have been changed in the past, is by people standing up to this rigged system. This has inevitably meant routinely breaking unjust laws. The history of Australia is in fact a history of dissent.

Socialists would agree with McManus’s sentiments but we would explain that under a system where the minority capitalist class controls the economy, the state, and even the media, there can be no real democracy. In that sense, no capitalist laws are really “fair”.

That does not mean that socialists stand for chaos and an unruly society. We are in favour of order, but that will be best achieved under a system where the majority of working class people have a real say in the running of society. In the struggle for real worker’s democracy, it will be necessary to continue to break anti-working class laws.

This type of an outlook used to be well understood within the trade union movement but in recent decades the domination of pro-capitalist, Labor Party politics has seen it diminished. A consequence of class struggle politics being pushed back is increased wealth inequality and the winding back of our rights. It will only be the re-introduction of socialist ideas into the trade union movement that will turn this situation around.

Editorial comment from the April 2017 issue of The Socialist


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