Why Are Penalty Rates Back On The Table?


The Coalition have put industrial relations back in the news with their proposed Productivity Commission review of the Fair Work Act. The latest front page story is a leaked draft of the review, which while containing no threatening language itself, shows that key aspects of the current industrial regime are going to come under examination — with potentially dire consequences.

The reference in the draft to “pay and conditions” in the draft has been interpreted by the labour movement, and indeed by business owners, as a highly contested review of weekend loading rates. Despite awkward reassurances form the Workplace Relations Minister, Eric Abetz that the (in my humble opinion, poorly named) penalty rates were not necessarily on the table, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott's repeated mantra that WorkChoices is "dead and buried", most observers and commentators remain sceptical.

So why don’t we take the Abbott Government at its word? For the same reason we don’t take the Putin administration seriously when it says that it is "just supporting democracy" in Crimea or why ice cream sales are down in winter — because we aren’t buying it.

Tony Abbott can ask us to ignore the Coalition's track record when it comes to Industrial Relations, but the last experience we had of a Coalition government was an all-out attack on wages, working conditions, and the right to collectively organise and bargain. That still resonates for those who were affected by it, and more to the point, it was less than seven years ago.

When the news of an IR review is taken with the proposed Medicare co-payments, the Royal Commission into unions (which was downgraded from a building industry commission, because apparently business is never corrupt and bribes come from no-where), and the talk about institutionally gutting Centrelink, it makes me wonder: have the current Government been sent back through time from a dystopian economic future to devour the poor?

Another concern is the much-touted independence of the Productivity Commission, and its relevance to industrial matters. Nine of the 12 commissioners were in either financial services or management positions at major businesses before entering into public service is enough to warrant some concern.

Two commissioners do have outstanding community and environmental credentials: Wendy Craik, a zoologist and passionate conservationist who has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her commitment and dedication to the ecology of our country; and Alison McClelland, who was previously an Associate Professor and Head of School for Social Work and Social Policy at La Trobe University, and former Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Were all the Commissioners bar two former union secretaries, members of environmental lobby groups, and leaders in the non-for-profit sector, I doubt the Coalition would treat the body as independent and capable of a fair review. The legitimacy of any Commission is strengthened by a fair representation of business, employee organisations, environmental groups and community organisations.

For this review, the opposite is true. While I admit that a lot of what has been said by the labour movement and commentators (myself included) has been out of a kind of heightened anxiety, it is far from unjustified. Industrial Relations is a complex and important issue, one that should always be improved upon and strengthened, and I’m certainly glad to see it front and centre in the public discussion. However, the Coalition can't expect us to ignore their legacy in an area as important as Industrial Relations. We cannot afford to be so unprepared — particularly if penalty rates are on the table for negotiation.

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.