Hidden away beneath this week’s headlines of Royal Commissions and ICAC inquiries was a quiet win for the state’s retail workers and their families. It was a victory achieved when the NSW Government gave up its push for new laws that would have seen more Sydneysiders having to work on the Boxing Day public holiday.
This result was despite earlier Government assurances to business that there would be trading on Boxing Day in 2012 and the enabling legislation having already passed the Legislative Assembly.
So what changed the dynamic? It was ‘community organising’.
The strategy and people power marshalled by the Sydney Alliance and the Take the Time coalition was the decisive factor in getting the O’Farrell Government to back off.
Who and what are the Sydney Alliance? We are a broad and diverse coalition of more than 50 of the city’s largest religious organisations, unions, and community groups who started coming together in 2007 and launched in 2011. Our agenda is not driven by political interest. The Sydney Alliance is a non-party political organisation. Rather our agenda is discerned by consultation among partner organisations who acknowledge that our self-interest lies in our shared interest for the common good of Sydney.
The Take the Time Coalition – an initiative of the retailer workers’ union, the SDA, approached us earlier in the year to see if the issue of public holidays was one that was of interest to our members. It most definitely was. Last year when the Sydney Alliance listened to over 6500 of our members, work/family balance came up as a high priority.
Like many civil society organisations members of the Take the Time coalition were concerned that on their own, it would be hard to get a hearing from Government, let alone a positive result about the changes to the Boxing Day public holiday. We in the Alliance knew that many of our religious and community partners would be interested in the issue of public holidays too – and we thought that by working together, we could make a difference.
One key point of influence was the cross benchers in the NSW Legislative Council, particularly the Christian Democrat leader the Rev. Fred Nile. Rev. Nile had previously expressed concern about encroachments on family time. We also knew that Rev. Nile was once a shop assistant himself. Another shift in how we could influence the outcome came when responsibility for the public holiday legislation had passed to the Treasurer (and new Minister for Industrial Relations) Mike Baird. Mr Baird had a strong connection to issues around family time, and was very open to talking with religious organisations – as he had previously trained to be an Anglican Minister.
So, the Sydney Alliance helped the Take the Time coalition to organise a delegation of top religious and community leaders to meet with the Treasurer. It was a very interesting meeting. As community organisers, the Sydney Alliance tells stories and asks lots of questions. At that meeting the Treasurer shared his own stories of working in retail when he was young, and how hard it was for him to negotiate time off. In the meeting he expressed genuine concern for this issue.
Nevertheless, at the Sydney Alliance we know it is power that changes decisions, not just concern or sympathy. So, with one more sitting session of the NSW Parliament to go in 2012, we organised to have a Work/Life Balance Forum on the first day of the last session on Tuesday 13 November.
Our plan was to showcase the broad community support for keeping public holidays as they are, and to show our own power to influence key decision-makers. So we invited Rev. Nile along and asked him to publicly declare not only that he would vote against the Retail Trading Amendment, but also to champion our cause.
That Rev. Nile agreed to attend was powerful enough. We informed the Treasurer of this, and invited him to attend as well.
Having marshalled our forces on the result we wanted, the breakthrough came. At 10:40am, 20 minutes before our Work/Life Balance forum with Rev. Nile was due to start, the Treasurer called the Sydney Alliance and told us that he was going to pull the legislation from the Parliament.
Rev. Nile received a standing ovation when he addressed the 150-plus members of the Work/Life Balance forum. It’s fair to say there were a number of people in that room who would not have expected to find themselves in that situation.
In that room were Catholics, Anglicans, Uniting church members, and I might add a few atheists, Christian youth reps, retail workers, migrant resource centres – just to name a few. We were a motley diverse mob.
But this was no coincidence. We built powerful relationships based on clear thinking about what it would take to stop the passage of this legislation, and we won. Boxing Day was saved as a public holiday for local families.
But it doesn’t end there. Civil society is only flexing its newly-found muscles. At the Work/Balance Forum we saw over 100 people commit to getting more involved in working for family time. I’m sure we will need all those people and more because the strong lobby group – the Retailers Association – has already come out to push for 24 hour trading!
But with wins like this week’s, the lobbyists at the big end of town are now on notice. Civil society is coming back.
Dr Amanda Tattersall is the founding coalition director the Sydney Alliance. She will be speaking on a Sydney Ideas panel on Friday 16 November to launch the Social Justice Network at the University of Sydney. http://sydney.edu.au/sydney_ideas/lectures/2012/why_social_justice_matters.shtml