Given that workplace relations is such a significant issue at the moment, both politically and – far more importantly – in terms of its impact on people’s lives, it’s amazing how little of the media commentary is on the actual substance and content of the workplace laws and the various policy proposals being put around to modify them.
Most of the media coverage has been dominated by the politics of the issue, rather than the issue itself. It’s hard not to reach the assumption, that while everyone has an opinion on the workplace relations issue, hardly anyone actually understands how it works, how it used to work or what alternatives are actually being put forward. On one level, this is understandable, as this is a reasonably complex area of law. But on the other hand, the basic principles being argued over are not that complex, and the facts and history of the issues being argued over are all on the public record.
Even when straightforward policy positions are put forward, they are assessed through the perceived politics of the issue, rather than the substance of the policy. Thus everything Labor does is immediately assessed as to whether it is ‘caving in to’ or ‘standing up to’ the Unions. There seems to be no memory of what the workplace laws were like in 2004, prior to the Coalition gaining control of the Senate, nor the fact that in some key areas Labor’s policy does not even go back to where the law was then.
John Howard’s proposed ‘strengthening’ of the safety net is being assessed primarily in terms of the political impact of being seen to back down, which is understandable, particularly when Minister Joe Hockey admits they previously got it wrong (before he was the Minister responsible of course). However, there is little examination of how this new law is likely to work, and in what ways it may be an improvement or a decline from how things work now.
There is the understandable furore about the misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars promoting the government’s policies – something I have also commented on – although we can’t yet comment on the actual law the adverts are about because it isn’t public yet.
Last week the Democrats made some statements reasserting some of the long standing positions the party has held for over ten years. Anyone who had been paying even a small amount of attention to this issue over the years would have known there was certainly nothing new in it, beyond a reminder that in the event of a Labor win, they won’t have a majority in the Senate after the election, so the views of other parties in the Senate are relevant to what the final laws may be.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported this act of restating long-standing policy as
“The Australian Democrats, in a belated effort to gain mainstream relevance, sought to reprise the party’s GST role by offering to broker the middle ground in the industrial relations debate after the federal election.”
The Democrats have been taking the middle ground role in the industrial relations area for over twenty years, and the laws up to the 2004 were largely a result of this. Indeed the Howard government used to laud the pre-Workchoices IR law as a foundation stone of our economic success until their Senate majority gave them the chance to rip them up and implement their ideological obsessions instead. I can’t really see how restating the well documented facts about the Democrats’ policy position can somehow be seen as just a belated tactic aimed at gaining mainstream relevance, but I guess that’s why I’m not a journalist.
Of course, the party also played this role of negotiating and improving laws in a multitude of other areas, such as the significantly stronger national environment laws which are now in place. Nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to do with the GST, which stands out not because there was agreement brokering, which happened regularly under a range of Democrat leaders, but because unlike every other agreement that was brokered over the years, it was a hugely controversial position which split the party and involved major shifts in the space of 3 weeks to some of the policy statements and promises made by the party both before and after the 1998 election. A politically significant, and obviously damaging event, but absolutely nothing to do with workplace relations, either in terms of policy or political approach.
The Democrats have just released a more detailed position on some of the key issues involved in our workplace relations laws. It’s a fairly straightforward outline of the principles that need to be addressed to have a fair and effective national IR system, including an independent industrial relations tribunal, an independent workplace regulator, an effective safety net and a flexible bargaining system.
I’m sure the rhetorical stoushes and cartoonish caricatures will continue unabated, but beneath all the straw men and misrepresentations, there will have to be a genuine, intellectually robust discussion about how best to modify our workplace laws if we are to avoid having laws shaped by political posturing rather practical outcomes.