The Politics    Monday, October 5, 2015

Still faceless after all these years

By Michael Lucy

Still faceless after all these years
Penalty rates and the trouble with Bill Shorten

In August, the Productivity Commission released its draft report on workplace relations. One of its recommendations was that penalty rates for Sunday work in hospitality, entertainment and retail (normally double the usual rate) should be reduced to the Saturday rate (normally time and a half).

For the commission’s purposes, productivity is the ratio of value out to money in, and paying staff less to do the same work is certainly one way for a business to increase it. (From the workers’ point of view this would be a decrease in the productivity of their labour: they would put in the same amount of effort, but receive less money in return.) The commission’s argument, more or less, is that weekends are old hat.

Over the last couple of weeks, the government has been talking up the need to look at the commission’s proposed changes: Malcolm Turnbull kicked things off by saying the matter was “under consideration”, and in the last week Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash also joined in. (Treasurer Scott Morrison, on the other hand, said it was a not a priority, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said that any proposals to change penalty rates would be taken to the next election.)

Speaking at a press conference this morning in Sydney (which, like the ACT, Queensland and South Australia, had the day off for Labour Day), Bill Shorten announced that Labor would “accept the challenge” of an election fought on penalty rates. Workplace relations should be favourable ground for Labor – traditionally Labor is the workers’ party, though what that means becomes harder to discern every year, and no-one on either side will have forgotten how the catastrophic WorkChoices legislation helped doom the Howard government.

“Labor is not out of touch,” Shorten went on, delivering a paean to the importance of penalty rates in the lives of the common people and the importance of “making sure that we all share the benefits of inclusive growth”. It was hardly stirring stuff, but they can’t all be “We shall fight on the beaches”.

There was one line, though, that stood out: “For people on 40 and 50 and 60,000 dollars a year, penalty rates are the difference as to whether or not they can afford to send their kids to a private school”. It’s very Shorten: not exactly wrong, but you’d hardly say it’s right.

The substance is what you’d expect from Labor, but the framing is pure Liberal. There are (at least) two problems with it.

No doubt there are families who spend their double-time on private school fees, and good luck to them. There are also people who spend their penalty-rate pay on food and rent, and others who spend it on Tatts tickets, or on cigarettes and booze. The point is that it doesn’t matter what they spend it on – penalty rates aren’t a kind of charity for the deserving poor, they’re a means of supporting the social convention of the weekend.

The other problem is the assumption about private schools: in the imagined Australia that Shorten is addressing, low-income earners are simply doing the right thing by scrimping and saving to pay for a decent education for their kids. In the education system as currently constituted this may be the case, but you might hope that a Labor government would aim a little higher: rather than making it easier for everyone to buy a little slice of privilege, why not try to improve the public system so that it’s not just a fallback for people who can’t afford better?

But Bill Shorten isn’t known for his vision or conviction: from his union days on he has been an expert at working the system, not someone who tries to change it. A would-be prime minister needs to do a little bit better than that.


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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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