The Politics    Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The only reason is history

By Michael Lucy

The only reason is history
Can Malcolm Turnbull use his approach to penalty rates to tackle bigger issues?

Malcolm Turnbull this morning fronted up to Neil Mitchell on Melbourne’s 3AW radio. His predecessor did the same thing last week, you might remember, and made some revealing comments.

After yesterday’s odd statement on penalty rates from the opposition leader, the prime minister chipped in with his own views. He wouldn’t be drawn on anything definite, but suggested that “over time you will see a more to a more flexible workplace” – for unspecified reasons – and noted that the Sunday rate being greater than the Saturday rate was a hangover from “the old economy”: “The only reason they’re different, I assume, is history.”

Quite. When you get down to it, history is the reason for almost everything. Presumably Turnbull meant that regulations around Sunday trading were a result of the day’s importance as the Sabbath in the days when more of us were churchgoers, which is true. And the fact that Sunday and Saturday rates are higher than rates for night work, for instance, does seem a little odd. (Though in the long view, the human preference for daylight work is also merely a product of history.)

Turnbull’s implication was that history is not a good reason for the difference between Saturday and Sunday rates, and that in some (imaginary) world without history, where conditions are determined purely by the demands of productivity, the distinction would not exist. He went on to talk about consulting with unions and employers and convincing people that any changes to penalty rates would make them better off over all. This is what the weight of history means, in practice: the existence of people who benefit from the status quo and would prefer it didn’t change. This could be people who get paid double time themselves, or it might just be people who think that a “7-day economy”, as Neil Mitchell called it, is not a great idea.

Whether the current arrangement looks to you like a reasonable state of affairs or an irrational hold-over from a bygone era may well depend on whether you benefit from it. This is a pretty simple thing to point out, but it sometimes gets forgotten: most political questions don’t have win-win solutions or a single right answer, only answers that benefit one group and answers that benefit another. There is no disinterested point of view from which to observe and judge. (Disclosure: Years ago in other jobs your correspondent received penalty rates, and liked getting double time on Sundays.)

To his credit, Turnbull is prepared to talk in public about these trade-offs between groups, even if it’s in the context of the apparently inevitable transition to a “more flexible workplace”. The real tests will come when it’s time to make changes to other irrational arrangements that exist for historical reasons, ones that affect vested interests who have a little more weight than casual shop assistants: the likes of negatively geared homeowners, and lightly taxed superannuation holders, and profit-shifting multinationals.


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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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