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The New South Wales transport minister, David Elliott, started Monday on a rhetorical cliff and kept walking.

On Sydney radio station 2GB, Elliott described industrial action taken by the state’s rail workers as “terrorist-like activity”, then accused the Rail, Tram and Bus Union of acting like “cowards”, spreading “bullshit” and “hijacking the city”.

At a hastily arranged media conference a few hours later, he effectively accused union members of seeking to change the government. The industrial action taken by the rail union was designed to “bully the electorate” into voting for Labor, as well as “disrupt the recovery from Covid”, he said.

Elliott was not alone. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, weighed in, also on 2GB, to condemn the “strike”, while the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, described the action as a “coordinated attack by the Labor party and the union movement”.

Labor and the union movement, Perrottet said, were “in bed with each other to cause mass destruction in our city and our states”.

The union flatly rejected the government’s description of their industrial action as a “strike”, calling it a “low level” measure that wouldn’t have affected services. As the day went on it became clear the government had taken the extraordinary step of closing down the transport network because it had “misinterpreted” an agreement it struck with the union during negotiations over the weekend.

Workers had turned up for their shifts on Monday to find they had been locked out by the transport department. “The NSW government is spitting the dummy and trying to make a point,” the RTBU secretary, Alex Claassens, said.

While the government accused the union of taking politically motivated industrial action, Elliott’s interventions on Monday were revealing in terms of his own focus.

All NSW trains cancelled amid industrial dispute but union says it's not a strike – video
All NSW trains cancelled amid industrial dispute but union says it’s not a strike – video

Neither his 2GB interview or the snap press conference – which some media were not alerted to – were held with transport officials who could have explained, for example, what contingency measures had been implemented to assist commuters during the shutdown of the network.

Nor was the government able to explain – beyond citing the safety concerns of those same absent transport officials – why the network needed to be abruptly shut down when the union had publicised its intention to take limited industrial action as early as Wednesday last week.

Indeed Perrottet was asked on Monday on whether the shutdown was a copy of Qantas’ decision in 2011 to ground its fleet amid an industrial dispute, a step which prompted the Fair Work Commission to terminate the workers’ action because of the risk to the economy. He denied that was the case.

By Monday evening, the government had backed away, with limited services to run on Tuesday and the Coalition agreeing to “continue to negotiate with the unions and work through their list of claims”. Elliott’s handling of the matter was being questioned by senior ministers and the union had committed to continue its planned industrial action after crowing the transport minister had “backed down”.

“To deliberately shut down the rail network on such a big day for many people, seemingly so they can run a fear campaign about unions, is quite extraordinary,” Claassens said.

But despite the messy handling of the dispute, the government’s decision to lash out at the union on Monday is revealing.

It is certainly true that with a federal election looming and the next NSW election only 12 months away, the union movement is flexing its muscle. Indeed, Unions NSW boss Mark Morey was on the front page of the Daily Telegraph on Monday declaring 2022 would be the year of the strike if the government refused to scrap its 2.5% wages cap.

It was less than a week ago that the state’s nurses were holding their first state-wide strike in almost a decade outside the state’s parliament, and teachers and bus drivers have also flagged their intention to conduct further industrial action.

The NSW Public Services Association secretary, Stewart Little, said his union – which represents prison workers, some education staff and a variety of other public sector workers – would also consider taking protected action if the state government moved to repeal Covid-era workers’ compensation laws.

Little also said removing the 2.5% wages cap – which has been in place since the NSW Liberal government came into power in 2011 – had taken on a new urgency for unions amid increasing job pressures during the pandemic, as well as inflation and increased cost of living pressures.

“I think it’s inevitable that you’ll see more industrial action and strike action,” Little said on Monday.

“The pressures on working people are increasing and the unions can’t sit by while our members are seeing their conditions deteriorate.”

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It’s in that context that Elliott, Perrottet and the prime minister’s comments must be viewed. The NSW government believes that a year out from a state election it is being targeted by a concerted union campaign.

But it also sees an opportunity. By painting Monday’s action as an “unAustralian” act of “industrial bastardry”, as Elliott did, the government is seeking to paint the union movement – and with it Labor – as out of touch with the concerns of everyday people.

“This is reminding me of the way they behaved in the 1970s, and I don’t think they’ve read the room,” Elliott said on 2GB.

It’s a tactic that has worked before. After all, the majority of Australians are no longer members of a trade union, and many see industrial action as a disruptive annoyance, and conservative governments often feel on safe ground fighting a trade union movement they claim is unrepresentative of average people.

The question is whether, after two years of a pandemic in which frontline workers such as nurses, teachers and, indeed, transport workers, have kept the country going, it is the government that has “read the room” by picking this fight.

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