Whitewashing WorkChoices


Picture this: You’re a government and you’ve done something stupid, like bringing in draconian Industrial Relations (IR) laws that everyone hates. How do you pretend to make some changes, while actually changing nothing, and at the same time try to convince everyone that nothing really needed changing in the first place?

Sound tough? Well, it is. Which is why the Howard Government’s latest multi-million dollar campaign to persuade us that they’re creating ‘a stronger safety net for working Australians’ is so confusing. ‘Cos it’s not sure what it’s trying to do.

What’s made it even harder is that the Coalition has already spent $55 million of taxpayers’ money on a campaign to tell us basic workplace rights were ‘protected by law.’ When clearly they haven’t been.

We saw this a few weeks ago when secret statistics were leaked from the Government’s own IR bovver boys, the Office of the Employment Advocate, showing that the basic rights workers fought 100 years to achieve like overtime, public holiday pay and penalty rates had been lost in the majority of Howard’s new Australian Workplace Agreements. For example, 76 per cent of AWAs abolished shift-work loadings, 68 per cent scrapped penalty rates, 53 per cent punted public holiday pay, and 52 per cent erased overtime.

But let’s get back to the Government’s ads. The first thing you’ll notice is that they’re as long and convoluted as the legislation they seek to prop up.

Would you stop to read a stodgy 1000-word Government press release in your Sunday paper? Probably not. But maybe you’re not meant to. Maybe, you’re just supposed to read the headline and look at the reassuring pictures of seven children, six women, one dog and three men. (Hardly representative of the Howard Cabinet, though it’s true a couple of them are mongrels.)

But it’s in the text of the ads that things start to get really interesting. Apparently everything is going to be made better magically by ‘a simple fairness test.’

Thanks to Sean Leahy

According to the advertisement, all of the rights the majority of workers have been losing under AWAs will be protected by this ‘fairness test,’ which will be administered by a new body called the Workplace Authority. And if they mess up, there’ll be another body you can speak to the Workplace Ombudsman that has some serious power. I mean, cop this: ‘Where an employer breaches the law, the Workplace Ombudsman will seek voluntary compliance.’ Gee, that’s a relief.

But hang on a second. Isn’t this ‘fairness test’ very similar to the old system? Didn’t the now neutered Industrial Relations Commissions used to make sure agreements were fair? Wasn’t that the industrial framework we used to have before John Howard and his 1970s agenda arrived on the scene? Before a Senate majority allowed him to ram home his ultimate, anti-worker wet dream? The answer is yes.

The old system wasn’t perfect. But at least lodging documents and the like was relatively cheap unlike the mainstream courts workers have now been pushed into, where employers can use legal tricks to drown them in legal bills.

And even that wasn’t a level playing field. I still remember working for a judge at the State IRC and seeing employers walk into court with three or four barristers wearing $3000 suits to face at the other end of the bar table a wronged worker sitting with an overworked union official or suburban solicitor. You don’t need to have a first class honours degree in Law to work out who was going to win.

But, of course, this ‘fairness test’ plan is not a return to fairer system it’s another lie. Unlike the old system, there’s a clause in the fine print that says you can lose your entitlements if ‘in appropriate circumstances’ the Workplace Authority looks at ‘the industry, location and economic circumstances or the business and specific employment circumstances or opportunities of the employee’ and decides fairness is a luxury. So basically, if your employer bungs on a whinge about how much they’re struggling or if it’s decided just offering you a job (shorn of past rights) is sufficient compensation you can lose the lot.

But don’t be shocked. It’s pretty consistent with a Government that has opposed every minimum wage rise since 1996.

Not that the alternative Government’s doing a much better job. Kim Beazley’s simple and unequivocal ‘I’ll tear up these laws’ has become a dog’s breakfast, as Kevin Rudd lets struggling companies like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton twist his arm.

But big business isn’t all bad. At least they refused to take up John Howard’s demands that they fund a massive ad campaign to spruik WorkChoices. Doesn’t matter though, funding was found from your pocket and mine. Sounds like the spirit of the laws in action to me.

After a bit of decoding, the message from John Howard’s latest round of taxpayer-funded ads on IR is pretty simple. And I won’t feel the least bit embarrassed if John Howard steals my new slogan, because it might make things a lot more transparent. ‘WorkChoices: It’s great, that’s why we’re only pretending to change it.’

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.