Discussion paper

Secondary boycotts in Australia: history and context

Activism Industrial relations Political campaigns Protest movements Australia

Secondary boycotts are primarily and originally associated with the labour movement, in which context they are also called “solidarity action” or “sympathy strikes”. They overlap with the “bans” unions placed on companies for industrial purposes (“black bans”) or to encourage the public interest and community expectations to be met (“green bans”). Secondary boycotts allow trade unions to magnify their power and to reach corporations that they did not have direct access to.

In November 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison identified secondary boycotts as a threat to the resources sector, and said he and Attorney-General Christian Porter were investigating how to “outlaw” their use by environmental groups. Porter has since provided more details, including that the government is planning different “tranches” of changes, and suggested that both new offences or changes to the existing secondary boycott laws are being considered.

Secondary boycotts are mostly associated with trade unions, where they are used by workers for various purposes including to win better wages and conditions for their fellow workers or to compel companies to meet community expectations. However, Australia’s secondary boycott laws are so broad that they capture conduct that does not involve any boycott or any industrial action.

Customers exercising their rights to favour one good or service over another, for reasons other than base and immediate self-interest, is a basic expectation in Australia. An example is Victorian and NSW Governments’ steel procurement policies that favour Australian steel.4 Similarly, “Made in Australia” labels help customers who wish to boycott, or at least consume less of, imported goods.

Existing secondary boycott laws mostly protect consumer boycotts and other boycotts for environmental or consumer protection reasons. They also require that one party does more than merely encourage or advise the other. For this reason, significant changes to the law would be needed to “outlaw” the behaviour by environmental groups that Morrison has identified as an economic threat.

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