Thursday, April 12, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

The ACTU’s challenge for Labor
The workers’ party has some tough questions to answer on industrial relations


The prospect of a class-war election – Liberal v. Labor, bosses v. workers – might feel like a return to the traditional fare of Australian politics, but what’s fascinating about union leader Sally McManus’s “change the rules” campaign is the extent to which the ACTU is seeking to wind back reforms originally introduced by Labor. It’s not just about rewriting the Fair Work Act, brought in by Rudd and Gillard. It goes much deeper, and further back, to the shift to enterprise bargaining under Hawke and Keating. In that sense, the ACTU campaign is not partisan at all: it’s an attack on the industrial regime we’ve inherited from both major parties.

In her National Press Club speech a few weeks ago, McManus outlined 10 ways the workplace regime had failed in the last year. These were not your usual bullet points, delivered in management-speak. Number 10, for example, was “truck drivers are dying”, with 185 fatalities in 12 months, “yet the government pulled the plug on the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal that would have saved lives”. Today, newspapers are reporting [$] the ACTU’s six-point “blueprint to give Australia a pay rise”: (1) an end to wage theft (who could argue); (2) a big increase to the minimum wage (opposed by the government); (3) improving awards; (5) restoring penalty rates (supported by Labor), and; (6) a new “Pay Equity Panel” to close the 15 per cent pay gap for women. It was point (4), “free and fair bargaining” that set the hares running, particularly this sentence: “enterprise-only bargaining is failing to deliver for the new economy, working people need more options, such as sector-wide bargaining to make bargaining more efficient”. The Australian Industry Group went straight on the attack, with chief executive Innes Willox warning [$] of a return to the industry-wide strikes of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the many insights in the ABC’s excellent Class Act podcast, presented by Richard Aedy, is this reminder: it was Labor that let the inequality genie out of the bottle – in fact, it was the logical consequence of labour market deregulation opening the economy up to global market forces. This is how journalist, author and commentator George Megalogenis puts it in one interview:

Megalogenis: Once you deregulate the wages system, the market starts to set wages at quite decent levels for some workers, whilst suppressing them for other workers. Of course, Hawke and Keating – and especially Keating, because he and [then ACTU boss Bill] Kelty stitched this thing up after Hawke had finished as PM – when they went to full deregulation of the wages system, they wanted to maintain what they called a minimum wage, so the independent umpire is still there adjudicating what the poorest workers in the economy get, but pretty much everything else is up for grabs between the employee and employer. Of course, the other big difference is, at the same time as we’re deregulating the labour market, the role of trade unions, where they were once central to the system, are now at the periphery of the system … so people shouldn’t be surprised that in a world where it’s you versus the boss, the very best workers are going to get a decent set of wages and conditions, and that they would start to move a long, long way away from where other people are, and that’s possibly the biggest thing that’s happened, because we’ve gone from an organised system to a system where the market pretty much sets every wage above a minimum.

Aedy: So the real big difference in inequality in Australia is really what’s happened at the top, the top has galloped away from everybody else?

Megalogenis: And in a way that was the plan, all along, wasn’t it? When Hawke and Keating were talking about internationalising the economy, some of the prices for the work you did would be set globally. And unfortunately for Australia, that meant that in the long run the CEO would start to benchmark their price globally, highly skilled, highly mobile workers would benchmark their price globally, but the majority of the workforce is in this other situation.

Has Labor ever really owned this? After Keating was defeated in 1996, and in the wake of the bitter 1998 waterfront dispute instigated under the Howard government, Labor’s then shadow finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, wrote Open Australia, a forward-thinking contemplation of the way forward for his party in the new economy of the 21st century. A short section on “fighting inequality” worries that the industrial relations system was beginning to unravel:

Within little more than a decade we have moved from a fully centralised system of comprehensive awards prescribing most terms and conditions of employment to a world of enterprise bargaining, individual contracts and simplified awards performing a largely residual role. As union officials often point out, some of these changes occurred under a Labor government. Yet although this agenda of deregulation and decentralisation has clearly been influenced by right-wing ideological imperatives, it is largely a response to the impact of technological change and the new economy.

Hardly a full and frank confession.

since this morning

Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to clean up a public difference of opinion between himself and Peter Dutton, acknowledging that ministers did discuss the composition of Australia’s migration program.

Australian author and activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied has been refused entry to the US, where she was to speak at a conference, and deported, reportedly to Amsterdam.

in case you missed it

Fairfax Media has revealed that the chairman and several top executives of the lead contractor on the government’s Snowy 2.0 project are under federal police investigation for covering up alleged financial crime.

The Herald Sun has revealed that the prime minister has pledged $5 billion to build a long-awaited rail link to Melbourne airport.

Junkee reports that female journalists are calling for an end to online abuse after the presenter of ABC’s 7.30, Leigh Sales, called out a sexist troll on Twitter.

Writing in The Conversation, senior lecturer of international relations at La Trobe University Michael O’Keefe looks at the government’s response to reports that China could build a military base in Vanuatu, and argues that the chances of dispassionately dealing with the geo-strategic rise of China are narrowing.

by Miriam Cosic
‘Colours of Impressionism’: a fascinating showcase of the ephemeral
Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the Art Gallery of South Australia

by Anwen Crawford
Zadie Smith’s ‘Feel Free’
In this collection of essays, Smith shines when she’s addressing the personal

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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