Workplace Relations – policy versus politics

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.

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  1. Of course, nobody is promoting the idea that free people are left alone to voluntarily enter into mutually beneficial contracts.

    I understand that IR is an important market… but that is all the more reason to let the market work properly.

    Thankfully, the government doesn’t consider the grocery food market to be important or we’d have so many grocery store regulations that we’d be lining up for a week to fill in a form to apply for the right to sit on a committee to buy an over-priced stale slice of bread from a grumpy “grocery store bureaucrat”.

    I understand the nature of politics is to be conservative and to be scared of change. 10 years ago privatising Qantas or the Commonwealth Bank was controversial… now it’s obvious. The built-in political fear that all things must be controlled & managed or a free system will turn to anarchy can be disproven a thousands times. People will still be scared. Alas.

  2. It seems such a long time ago now when my father sitting down watching TV with glass of beer in hand watching Bob Hawke walk through a phalanx of men cheering him on as a grand hero ,as he achieved a break through in wages ,that, actually worked out to be, as the journalists at the time pointed out as beer money.My father offended me that night by telling me I wouldnt understand.I did ,the hero had delivered beer money.I think my father once handed over to me a two shilling coin in a merry christmas event. I recently read in the Coffs Coast Advocate a couple who were employing apprentices had a real problem in that,because of sending them down the Pacific Highway to Trade classes at another city besides Coffs Harbour.The problem with Industrial Relations Laws is they are a burden on employers and employees that are artificial and have been composed for other reasons besides relationships generally.I think the value of the worker is really downgraded by whatever price or cost the employer pays and all the additions as penalties and awards from whatever side in this artificiality dictating peoples lives.All the good will in developing these IR laws disappears at the moment of work value assessment,because the perfect world doesnt exist in any form of agreement.The history of IR till today is perfecting Ad Hockery as a normalising process in the attempts of relationships in work places.Work may have changed and attitudes on all sides relevant to understandings..but, if laws protect people from say verbal abuse,on both sides is it superior to allowing it as a right on both sides,where things have to be sorted out quickly? The free market people talk nonsense about letting it work out for itself,the human psyche is incapable of always meeting the expectations of others and prevailing law,that is why, depressed people are often at law tolerated where other legal matters besides mental health Acts exist.Being relevant in the market place mustnt hurt the humanity.

  3. The problem is, John Humphreys, that this Lockean humbug concerning about “free people left alone to enter
    into mutually beneficial contracts” ignores the coercion that employers are able to assert against workers in many sectors of the work place, in a tight labour market.
    But you already know this your self.
    What happens in the workplace is any thing but “free”. It is more like a woman in a dark street “consenting” to intercourse at the point of a knife.

  4. 21/05/2007 1:24 PM dr victor kacala: ethics, economics
    & social exchange systemsdear p.a., i often listen to
    u & your buddies such as shapiro [who seems a very
    balanced vegeMITE]. i very much enjoyed u talk with
    TIGA – his life history seems to have some common
    elements with my own [even age & bald & ‘ugly’].

    i heard your interview on ‘religion’ & last night
    watched “the root of all evil” on the abc with
    dawkins. i must admit, i did not think either were/are
    up to the task.

    for a start, never do what u do not have to do e.g.,
    deny the existence of god [this cannot be tested]. it
    would be a vastly superior to accept the existence of
    god[s] & then argue about each version of god by the
    various religous sects, cults ETc…

    i side with your views wrt the results of THE church
    of any breed.

    further, the science & religion are based on
    ‘evidence’ & ‘faith’ respectively – there can be no
    debate as such. the scientific method has significant
    holes in the logic i.e., maths & physics are NOT
    testable, since it always starts with a set of axioms.
    theories in physics are NOT statements of fact but
    rather a summary of the facts [with some sort of
    empirical evidence].

    the social ‘sciences’ such as psychology, sociology,
    economics etc are in total dis-array with respect to
    evidence. thus, these areas have a status marginally
    above religions [& in many cases suffers exactly the
    same fate & foibles].

    as an example, i attach a comment i sent to your
    cohort, alan saunders.

    dear AS, i often listen to u on ‘by*design’ & “PZ”. j.
    wright did not define “rationality” nor “ethics”. in
    fact, eco rat’ is a general term used to deride the
    neo-cons in eco faculties around the world [dominant]
    by well-intended socialists & ‘other’ left thinkers.

    i note he talks of ‘the’ commons. in fact, the light
    house example was not very good – the level of the
    debate [his, not yours] was about 5th or 6th form
    standard. jw’s ignorance was evident; if he wants to
    be a critic he must know his stuff & offer an OPTION
    that he thinks is better.

    perhaps he offers more in his book, but it would
    appear that this is unlikely.

    he seems to go back to ‘adam smith’ et al in his
    analysis [no synthesis based on what i heard]. the
    idea of a ‘market’ & the physical reality of that idea
    can be said to be ‘ideal or perfect etc’ if there are
    a number of conditions meet [necessary & sufficient] –
    see john k. galbraith for a clear discussion.

    these conditions, such as many buyers & many sellers
    without a DOMINANT player, rarely ever arise in the
    modern world [even on a temporay basis]. the world has
    changed since adam smith & the role of capitalism has
    changed in very significant ways since AS’s times.

    there is ONE type of pure or ideal commons: this is
    the set of ideas that are pos or neg social value that
    most people can access e.g., neg idea=racism, pos
    idea=equal social value of woman & man?

    a system of FAIR markets, at a global level, would be
    a pure commons if all could access on an equal basis.
    it is for this reason i have spent so much time on
    giving an outline of ethics or “fair go & have a go ya

    i have a TECH system & alGOrythmS to do this task, at
    a global level.

    could u poST a copy on the abc for all to access?

    of course, since IP & tech are NOT generally for
    public use, i insist that this is the intent of “the
    cuplet & puclet systems of trade for any thing of

    i have left some tech holes so CORP players cannot
    steal the algorithms e.g., global finance or energy

  5. Paul, your definition of coercion is wrong.

    When a woman “concents” to sex at the point of a knife, the raper is threatening to take away something that legitimately belongs to the woman. That is coercion.

    An employer doesn’t do that. All they can threated is to not trade. Every free person should have the right not to trade. A voluntary contract is by definition free of coercion.

    As for a tight labour market — if you force employers to pay more than the marginal productivity of workers, that creates unemployment. This is not new or controversial. If demand for labour decreases one of two things MUST happen — either benefits are reduced for some, or unemployment increases. When you argue to retain all benefits, you are arguing for increased unemployment. Again, this is neither new nor conroversial.

    There is nothing dangerous about free people voluntarily entering into contracts.

  6. dear john humphreys, your comments about ‘free’ contracts does not take into power difs. wrt your rapee-raper analogy, it is clear that there is a power dif – unless, of course, the rapee is a kung fu expert [power can be a threat if ‘rapee’ cannot pay the rent, feed the kids etc…]. economic power is the most commonly abused form of power, at a global level i.e., power depends on context. for example, a somali woman gets ‘raped’ [sells herself] in order to get food for herself & kids – in this case, there is not much choice.

    for a contract to be FREE, a number of conditions must be meet [thus, the rise of unions in oz & globally in the early 20th century].

    this is similar to the competitive markets argument i.e., free markets.

    so, i agree with u IFF the conditions are meet for a free market – basically, u use the word free [no such thing] instead of FAIR market.

    can u define a FAIR market? often players use ignorance of the facts or meaning as a tool to gain advantage.

    so, i suggest u have a quick look at “fair games” & fair markets on the internet to get a better basis for your views.

    local monopolies can arise in isolated communities in any eco system. further, u assume that the rapee can ‘go else where’ – this may not be possible.

    i am a little surprised that u use the john coward slogan as a basis for your analogy & views.

    if the “marginal productivity” is not worth it, the employer should not hire the worker. of course, the employer must know this statistic in oder to do any hiring & firing for all the workforce.

    work contracts are a special case of a general social contract that governs all exchange systems – FAIR rules for all games [such as ‘human rights’] are the basis for a fair, or just, system of social trade, at a global level. do we have fair shares of resources?

  7. this is my will & testament – why on senator barlet’s web-site? well, as far as i know, it is ‘secure’ & he seems to allow any fair ‘reasonABLE’ comments from ‘evil’ people.

    i have given phillip adams of L&L [abc] distribution rights [& any of designated cohorts who ‘follow’ constraints i have imposed in public forums, such as abc, this web-site and so on i.e., ny inTENT is clear in a social sense of the word.

    i appoint VLAD’ PUTIN [russia pres’] my sole owner of my ‘soul’ as given by my papers, ideas & other stuff related to my person – he is to appoint TWELVE trust-worthy RUSSIAN citizens of integrity, including at least ONE electrical engineer, one finite operator math tech head, one code guru.

    this is subject to change, on an as required basis. our ‘security’ laws are drivel wrt IP & subject to usa codes of unfair practice.

    it is clear to me that the usa has become our worst night-mare, wrapped in a cloke of eco-TERRORiSM. look at the the distribution of gain & gain by country, sect/cult/religion etc across the globe e.g., finance & energy greed merchants. with current IP & patent laws in the west [esp’ wrt bio & software] the human species is on the road to TOTAL tyranny.

    i challenge ANY person or groups to a PUBLIC debate on any matters i have raised in the public domain.

    even the abc/rn has been under-mined by the string-pullers who edit/cut/adapt via the ‘moderators’ on comments. who are these hidden fascists lurking in the background, as moral guards of our collective soul?

    get out from your holes and debate matters in a public way, where your facts & reason is open to public analysis & synthesis.

    i think media ‘editors’ are the real cowards of the modern world.

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