Sally McManus knows breaking unjust laws is just part of the process for winning rights

 It seems nothing sends some sections of the Australian community into a spin like a leader who is prepared to respond to a question with an honest and straightforward answer.

Whether you agree with the tactics of the CFMEU or not, and that was the context in which interviewer Leigh Sales asked her question, the new (and first female) secretary of the ACTU, Sally McManus, did not take a backward step. First, she refused to distance herself from the union and its behaviour, then she clearly articulated her reason.

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Current laws are wrong: ACTU boss

New Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus has told the ABC’s 7.30 that she does not see a problem with workers breaking “unjust laws”. Vision courtesy ABC.

“I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair and the law is right but when it is unjust I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.”

This statement has created a furore. And there are legitimate criticisms that can be made. Does McManus cast herself as judge and jury as to what laws are right and should be obeyed and what laws are wrong and can be flouted? As the leader of a powerful institution is it appropriate for her to condone law-breaking of any kind? And, strategically, has her statement played right into the hands of a conservative government keen to portray unions and particularly the CFMEU as lawless?

McManus has been called at best naive (do we ever hear a male leader called such a thing?) and at worst arrogant and foolish. ALP leader Bill Shorten has distanced himself from her remarks.

But I bet McManus herself is a little surprised by the heat that greeted her statement. Most of it is opportunistic, of course. Her political opponents will gleefully pounce on this sort of thing as a weapon to beat her with. Her actual meaning is not as important as what they can make it sound like she meant.

What I think many of our leaders, most of whom remain more or less privileged blokes, entirely miss is that this is a much less exceptional attitude for women than it is for men.

Women, frankly, are forced to contemplate breaking unjust laws all the time and they always have been.

The most obvious current instance where tens of thousands of women potentially break the law every year is in NSW and Queensland when they seek abortion. Abortion remains a criminal offence in both states. Even if they are fortunate enough never to have to seek a termination, it would be a rare woman who has not waited, white-knuckled, on a late period while contemplating breaking an unjust law. As recently as 2010, in fact, Queenslander Tegan Leach was charged with procuring her own abortion.

It is only a few decades ago that women occasionally broke an unjust law by lying about their marital status so they could keep their job. Some may have forged loan documents when forced to find a male guarantor by banks. Women’s liberationists were arrested (so I am assuming broke the law) when they demonstrated against gender segregation in pubs and clubs, or against all sorts of discriminatory unjust laws like the ones above.

A few decades prior to that, suffragettes pugnaciously broke all sorts of laws to draw attention to their struggle for the vote. They smashed windows, blew up post boxes, set fire to empty buildings and daubed walls with graffiti demanding their rights. They saw all laws as unjust, particularly as they were expected to obey them while being given no say in creating them.

At around the same time, women were forced to break more unjust laws banning both contraception and the right of women to even access information about ways to limit their child-bearing. They were forced to do this to save their own lives in many cases.

I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair and the law is right but when it is unjust I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.

Sally McManus, ACTU Secretary

How quickly we forget that no one has ever given women their rights – we have had to fight for them, every step of the way. We still have to, and, as a result, we sometimes have to break unjust laws.

Even in a democracy, laws tend to be made by the powerful and the privileged. It is therefore inevitable that those with less power and privilege, including women, may have to break some of those laws to find justice.

People of colour, LGBTQI people, the poor and the working class are placed in this position far too often. Even the sick and the elderly sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of unjust laws.

Like women seeking abortion, the terminally ill and their grieving relatives are regularly forced to try and persuade their medical practitioners to break the law to help them end their suffering.

It is simply part of McManus’ experience of the world that led her to make her honest and unequivocal statement. If we want to change the world, we may have to break unjust laws. That is what challenging the powerful really means.

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