Wood for the trees


In the book that may never become a film, Eucalyptus, a father will not give his daughter away unless her suitor can name every tree on the property.

Recalling my unsuccessful efforts to plough through the book a few years ago got me thinking about how the current debate over industrial relations is emerging and how it is getting so caught up in the detail.

For example, the Business Council of Australia put out its contribution to the debate this week, a particularly odious bit of work of ideology dressed up as economics.

There is nothing new about the BCA paper and its call for total labour market deregulation: stripping awards, gutting the industrial commission and killing the state systems.

What has changed is big business’s justification for this position. No more talk of trickle down economics, totally debunked by statistics on wage-profit shares over the past twenty years (as published in last weekend’s Australian newspaper).

No, the new justification is about re-defining ‘fairness’, to remove the concept from the workplace. The BCA wants fairness to now mean that the bottom 20 per cent (their words) remain about the same.

Having disposed with fairness, the BCA then lays out its blueprint for prosperity, which (I kid you not) is ((E+U)/POP) X (E/E + U) X (GDP/E)!

And the media coverage? ‘Business lobby pushed for further deregulation’; leads about award stripping, state-fed IR harmonisation, even some limited analysis about how this is an ambit claim by big business.

But what was missing, to my mind, was the far more substantial fact that Big Business is asking to redefine fairness and turn prosperity into an equation.

This is not a straight IR story. It is a story about a play to remake Australian society and, in the BCA, the real game had been articulated.

This is the insidious thing about the current debate. By focusing on the specifics about structure most in the public tune out and those proposing change can represent a fundamental change to our society as a technical argument.

This is more than a moot point. In terms of mobilising some response to the Howard agenda, people will not get passionate about state’s rights, or even the status of their industrial instrument.

Our challenge, as the representatives of working families, must be to paint a broader picture to an electorate who do not even realise that Howard has control of the Senate, let alone follow insider debates on IR.

We need to join the dots between labour market deregulation and the ability to plan a life outside of work. And we need to go further, we need to show how a society that does not give its workers the security to commit to mortgages, to families, to community organizations is fundamentally weaker no matter what the economic indicators say.

If you spend your time naming every tree in the forest, you will never paint a coherent picture. It is only by taking a broader perspective and understanding the lie of the land, that we will make sense of these substantial changes about to be imposed on Australians in the name of prosperity.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.