Scrutinise This

Labor candidate and former Secretary of the ACTU, Greg Combet.

‘Scrutiny’ is the buzzword of the last week of the campaign, it would seem, with both the Coalition and Barrie Cassidy demanding more of it. Scrutiny of Kevin Rudd, that is. The Liberals don’t seem to welcome scrutiny of plans to extend WorkChoices.

After simultaneously trying to argue that WorkChoices raises wages and that it restrains wages and thus counters inflationary pressures, you’d think that the Liberals would have dropped the whole topic with a sigh of relief as we enter the home stretch of the campaign.

But that’s not the case, as John Howard has rather puzzlingly been warning that only a Coalition victory will entrench IR reform. Presumably, he already has the votes of mining company execs and managers sewn up, and it’s pretty clear that WorkChoices is front and centre among factors which have led him and the Libs to their current very sorry electoral pass.

Aside from FOI stonewalling, it is, of course, very difficult to evaluate the effects of WorkChoices due to the Coalition’s constant suppression of research, distortion of statistics and their habit of directing ad hominem cannons at any academic who dares to crunch the numbers. But, interestingly, the Liberals haven’t been calling for more ‘scrutiny’ of Labor’s competing plan Forward with Fairness. Perhaps that’s because a fair reading of the document might explode the whole basis of the ‘evil unions’ scare campaign.

Nor have the ALP been talking very much about the detail of their own IR policy. That may be because they’re not keen to trumpet the degree to which large elements of WorkChoices have been retained, a fact that certainly hasn’t been lost on Senator Barnaby Joyce. It may also be because any discussion of the detail risks distortion, and the creation of a line of attack, and it’s easier to go down the sloganeering route and mop up the very widespread dissatisfaction with WorkChoices.

Like the effect on inflation and interest rates of the crazed spendathon which characterised the first four and a half weeks of the campaign before Rudd cleverly called a halt to it, there’s something of an unspoken agreement between the two Parties not to say too much about what’s actually on offer in terms of workplace relations policy.

Labor might have chosen to sell it in more detail to rebut the eminently rebuttable (because completely false) claims about the ‘back to the future’ nature of the policy, but it would seem that they’ve decided to let the scare campaign speak yell for itself in all its over-the-top shrillness, which isn’t at all a silly political tactic. From the point of view of democratic debate, though, this is something of a pity.

While Labor have been reinforcing the argument that collective bargaining promotes productivity more than individual contracts, and that enterprise bargaining is inimical to wages breakouts, there are two other key aspects of Forward with Fairness that do deserve scrutiny.

The first, to which I’ve already alluded, is the degree to which large parts of WorkChoices have been retained. In a way, this is not surprising as the history of industrial relations reform in Australia has been one of incremental change, and even WorkChoices hasn’t departed from what one might call the overall shape and structure of the workplace regulation architecture that’s characterised the Australian system. That’s why it’s 600 odd pages long. We’ve had nothing similar to the big bang deregulation approach on display in both Kennett’s Victoria and in New Zealand with the Employment Contracts Act 1991.

Shaun Carney gets it (mostly) right in an interesting piece in The Age today on what a Rudd Government would look like:

While statutory individual employment agreements would die, so too would the award system; collective enterprise agreements, most of them non-union, and individual common law agreements would dominate the industrial landscape.

Confirmation of this comes from Greg Combet in an interview with the Financial Review today. That brings me to my second theme the degree to which the policy privileges individual rights over union rights. Combet rightly points out that this is an aspect ‘little understood.’

Combet played a large role in the formulation of the general approach which Labor has taken up, and courageously stared down union opposition both to an acceptance of the effective obsolescence of State IR systems and from the ‘back to the future’ crew. Much of the document is based on British New Labour experience which, while protecting collective bargaining but as the aggregation of individual rights, basically leaves unions the task of attracting and representing workers rather than affording them a guaranteed seat at the bargaining table.

There’s a large influence from EU jurisprudence here as well, something which has also influenced the work on individual workplace rights done recently by the Australian Institute of Employment Rights.  

Combet and other likeminded thinkers have drawn lessons from the Accord experience and the decline of union coverage in Australia. Basically, there’s a realisation that a too close relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement has dangers for both Parties, and a concomitant realisation that many unions had fallen asleep at the wheel under a legal regime which disconnected them from their members and in which pay and conditions were set centrally. Combet recognises, in the ‘organising unions’ strategy which he’s championed, that a workplace and grassroots presence is the only future unions have.

There’s also a recognition of the decline of collective identities generally within our society, and the slow death of traditional working class culture and solidarities.

Personally, I’d have drawn the line between collective and individual rights somewhat differently, but I think it’s vitally important that it be understood that this is the approach Labor is taking.

It really is aptly named it does seek to take Australian workplaces forward and recognises the value of flexibility while it seeks to ensure fairness, but for the individual employee, rather than for unions as their collective representatives. Or, not to anywhere near the same degree, as obviously unions will be much happier with this regime than WorkChoices. But the degree to which many ‘union bosses’ have really not got what they would have wanted has been totally missed and if Combet is correct, this self-denial of sorts is a necessary discipline for the union movement to actually have a future.

If, as I expect, Labor is elected on Saturday, all this will become clearer as employment lawyers, academics, HR specialists and unions all turn their minds to forecasting the nuts and bolts of the new regulatory environment. But it really would h
ave been preferable, I’d have thought, if it had been much better understood as we citizens make our voting choices.

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