Incorporating the Shorter Hendo (TM)
In the late 70s and early 80s, Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to get awfully frustrated with a group of small l Liberal backbenchers known as the “ginger group”. They had a habit of speaking out against government policy and occasionally crossing the floor. Ironically, the Howard government may now face a hurdle in the Senate from a Queensland National backbencher, the newly elected Senator Barnaby Joyce, as Hendo suggests today.
Gerry also highlights the role of the “Coalition’s backbench tax and welfare reform group” spearheaded by Sophie Panopolous. Interestingly, productivity and industrial relations appear also to be on the “tax and welfare reform group’s” agenda. The Australian reports pressure from a number of business groups to “harmonise” the state IR systems with the Federal Workplace Relations Act. According to Panopolous:
“Reform, particularly in a dynamic economy like Australia’s, is never finished business,” she said. “The Coalition’s control of the Senate after July 1 provides an extraordinary opportunity to pursue IR, tax and welfare reform.”
All this is being harnessed to the productivity agenda. Although labour productivity is only one element of overall productivity, and as I argued during the election campaign, the evidence that deregulation of the labour market is largely responsible for productivity gains is lacking, or at best ambiguous, Australian employers appear to be continuing their long term obsession with reinforcing management prerogative. Around the time that the BCA was first pushing enterprise bargaining, a survey of line managers found that “industrial relations reform” was not seen as an impediment to efficient management, but it was the first priority of CEOs. There are some excellent arguments against centralising IR jurisdiction, not least the ability of the states to experiment with different policy outcomes. The issue is not new and the Queensland government’s response to Minister Reith’s paper remains a good statement of the arguments.
What is most disturbing in the light of the Coalition’s post-June Senate majority is this proposal by the ACCI:
It wants to end the current arrangement under competition law by which Australian workers are allowed to band together and set a price for their labour through collective bargaining.
It’s hard to know what this means, and I can’t find anything on the ACCI website. Their Blue Print for Workplace Relations Reform supports freedom of association and sees a continuing (if diminished) role for unions and the AIRC. It’s possible their agenda has changed since the scope of the government’s legislative authority became clear. If it’s accurate, and it means what it says, it presumably means that unionisation and collective bargaining would be illegal.
Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations:
We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.
I hope some Coalition Senators know their Adam Smith well.