Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Accord 2.0
The PM’s JobMaker program deserves a chance to work

On face value, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a terrific speech at the National Press Club. He called for a laying down of arms on all sides of the debate about skills and industrial relations reform, and he backed up his rhetoric with a substantial goodwill gesture: shelving indefinitely the union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill, which had reasonable prospects of clearing the Senate with the support of Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie. Morrison also sketched out an Accord-like process for talks between the government, employer groups and unions – working with the national cabinet towards consensus reforms on award simplification, enterprise bargaining, casuals and contractors, and wage theft. “We’ve booked the room, we’ve hired the hall, we’ve got the table ready,” said Morrison, who also announced his JobMaker plan to restart the economy. If this Accord 2.0 succeeds, it could prove as historic as the era of wage and industrial stability under Hawke and Keating. Morrison sounded genuine, and declined opportunities to front-run policy on such thorny issues as whether the better-off-overall test is a constraint on business, saying, “I want to see employers and employees sit down around a table talk about those very issues and find a way forward … I’m not going to prescribe it for them. Whatever they agree is more likely to be sustained and maintained into the future.”

Morrison’s speech shows he is trying to turn the national goodwill generated during the coronavirus response towards an effective national purpose during what is likely to be a slow and painful economic recovery from the pandemic. There is no doubting the desperate need for reform to the funding and delivery of vocational education, which have been set back by nearly a decade of underfunding TAFEs, as well as rampant abuse by rogue private colleges that failed employers and students alike. And the consensus process sketched out by the PM, which was broadly welcomed by ACTU secretary Sally McManus this afternoon, does not look like the kind of scorched-earth deregulation that the IR hawks on his party’s ideological right might have hoped for. When he was asked about that, Morrison was frankly dovish: “I think everybody’s got to put their weapons down on this. Everyone does. And that’s what I’m hoping for … And I think that’s what Australians demand.” 

Morrison said the talks would be “time-bound”, running through to September, ahead of October’s budget. “We must make the most of this time we have, and we must move quickly. It will become apparent very quickly if progress is to be made. The working groups will either reach something approaching a consensus on issues, or they won’t. But we’ve got to give it a go.” The PM clearly wants the level of urgency that has allowed political barriers to fall during the pandemic to be maintained into the recovery period. He captured this when he spoke about the continuing role he envisaged for the national cabinet, saying it “works best if it’s got a mission, it has a purpose. It’s just not a broad agenda of whatever happens to be thrown up by the various state bureaucracies or federal bureaucracies.” Morrison wants the same energy that went into managing the COVID-19 crisis to be applied to generating investment and creating jobs. Who could argue against that?

Responding to the pandemic was urgent. Addressing barriers to economic recovery – through reforms on skills, industrial relations and taxation – is equally urgent, and if the federal government can fashion some kind of consensus with other jurisdictions and stakeholders, fantastic. If Morrison truly is a pragmatic politician, and if he means what he said about caring for country, he will use the bushfires royal commission and the rise of “build back green” sentiment across party lines – with, for example, broad consensus around the prescription to generate jobs and growth, as outlined by Ross Garnaut in Superpower – to bridge another decade-long political divide and end the climate wars. That would really “make the boat go faster”, as the PM phrased it in his speech today.

There are many reservations. Firstly, Morrison continues to prefer to try to govern outside the scrutiny of parliament, through opaque mechanisms such as the national cabinet and the COVID-19 Coordination Commission, and he rejects scrutiny of his ministers, as with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s refusal to appear before the Senate select committee. Secondly, there are real questions about the ability of his government to negotiate and implement a reform process, especially following the $60 billion JobKeeper bungle (which is somehow being celebrated as a relief to taxpayers rather than an indictment of incompetence), and with downloads of the COVIDSafe app languishing at six million and apparently beset by bugs. 

The third and most fundamental problem is whether the prime minister means what he says. The moment of doubt came when Triple J’s Shalailah Medhora asked whether it is time for older Australians to give up lavish perks such as negative tax rates due to cash-refundable franking credits, which penalises the young who are bearing the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic. In a word, no, said Morrison. “The answer to coming out of this crisis is not setting one group of Australians against another,” he said. “All Australians are in this together.” Morrison has not kept faith with that fine sentiment. As I wrote yesterday, the JobKeeper program deliberately excludes millions of Australians, from short-term casuals to migrant workers, as well as anyone employed by public universities or in the arts or entertainment industries. If he can’t be trusted on that, what can he be trusted on?

“Last year was the first time that our Indigenous affairs minister was Indigenous. It took us that long to get there. I am tired of non-Indigenous people speaking for me. I want someone that relates to me, knows what I went through as an Indigenous person, to speak for me.”

Indigenous teenager Jasmine Connelly, who is vice captain at Spinifex Senior College in Mount Isa, says there should be more representation of her people in state and federal parliaments.

“If the NBN was still being rolled out in line with Labor’s original plan, some 3.5 million fewer households would have been able to connect to the NBN when Australia was hit by COVID-19 earlier this year.”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, announcing the release of fresh research, presents one side of the NBN history wars between the Coalition and Labor.

The crisis universities should have seen coming
Almost overnight, Australian universities have lost the international student fees on which they depend. Some in the sector say universities were reckless to rely so heavily on this source of funds. Margaret Simons on what the future looks like for higher education.

The proportion of respondents to the latest Essential poll who believe Australia should impose tariffs on imports from China in retaliation for last week’s barley export tariffs.

“Universal access to at least 600 hours per year of preschool in the [year before school] would be significantly compromised, with any reduction in, or discontinuation of, preschool funding leading to inconsistent and inequitable outcomes across Australia.”

A confidential review of the successful Universal Access National Partnership agreement on preschool funding warns against any reduction of the Commonwealth contribution.

The list

“In the year after Gabori began painting, Brett Evans estimates, the art centre’s income went from $12,000 to $300,000. ‘It was like a drug to people,’ he told me, referring to the market that quickly flared up. ‘At the start you think it’s a bit crazy and you’ve got a licence to print money.’ In 2010, sales revenue alone was more than $900,000.”

“Scott Morrison, in his own telling, is so often a mere observer. When reckless and false accusations have been made, it turns out Morrison has only presented the facts as presented to him; when offensive comments have been made, he has been only the dutiful messenger of the sentiments of others; in the rare cases he has made mistakes, they have been minor errors of timing. Events occur, but Morrison’s involvement is passive, tangential, almost accidental … If you are Scott Morrison, it is even possible to become prime minister without any agency on your part.”

As part of The Monthly’s 15th birthday celebrations, throughout May we present a dedicated selection of great essays from the archives for your reading pleasure.

“The defining feature of Covid-19 is its transmissibility, which means that, without a vaccine, the risk that one case may turn into thousands within weeks remains. This will force a rethink of how offices should function. As long as social distancing regulations require four square metres for each person, open-plan offices will be expensive to run. Hot-desking – a practice pioneered in the tech industry where no employee has a permanent desk – will be too risky.”

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 Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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