December 3rd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: HIGHER EDUCATION: Top university accused of elitism

EDITORIAL: Trade talks: smoke and mirrors

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Workplace changes set to change societal fabric

SCHOOLS: Vouchers for schools - giving parents choice

PRIMARY PRODUCTION: Advantages of single-desk for Australian wheat

SUGAR DEREGULATION: Beattie to abolish single selling-desk

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Working women and pensions / One hand washes another: European-style / Those were the days, my friend / The burning Bush

ABORTION PILL: Part of the disease, not part of the cure

OPINION: The difficult dilemma of Australia's Muslims

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Why North Korea got one more chance

CULTURE AND SOCIETY: Great Russian writers on the riddle of humanity

CINEMA: Three Australian films fall flat: The Proposition, Jewboy and Little Fish

BOOKS: The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge, by Nic Dunlop

BOOKS: Victoria Cross: Australia's Finest and the Battles They Fought, by Anthony Staunton

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Workplace changes set to change societal fabric

News Weekly, December 3, 2005
The fundamental ideology behind the Coalition's workplace relations legislation is an attempt to break up (over time) the checks and balances which protect workers at the bottom end of the scale and those who are powerless against the might of large companies.

It should come as no surprise to the Government that its industrial relations "reforms" are being met with strong voter resistance, even after $55 million worth of government advertising.

Senior Coalition figures, including the Prime Minister John Howard, have been consistently saying - perhaps hoping - that voter angst will disappear once the legislation is through the Parliament.

They also maintain that the Government's previously positive approval ratings will return to normal when people realise the ACTU/Labor scare campaign is proven false.

The most often-quoted phrase used by the Government is that the "sky will not fall in", and Mr Howard's favourite that "family barbecues will not disappear".

But the ACTU's campaign, which is still in its early stages and which has never argued either absurd proposition, is nevertheless finding fertile ground.

Social fabric

The main reason for this is that the voting public understand the workplace changes are altering something fundamental to the Australian societal fabric.

The critical point for those on both sides of this political debate is that the changes will occur over time.

Which may explain the urgency of the Government ramming through the legislation before Christmas and its disgraceful five-day Senate committee hearing.

The Coalition-dominated committee, headed by Victorian Liberal Senator Judith Troeth, endorsed the legislation and made no recommendations for changes.

It made a few peripheral "suggestions" for improvement, but it was left to Labor and the minor parties to point out some of the glaring problems with the new system.

Not surprisingly, given its ties with the union movement, Labor is vehemently opposed to the proposed Bill.

This is partly on ideological grounds; but, given there is not much difference between the parties, strategic political reasons are probably an incentive as well.

However, Senator Andrew Murray - perhaps the Australian Democrats' best regarded representative - cannot be accused of being a pro-union hack.

Murray made a substantive contribution to the Howard Government's first industrial relations changes and he supports further reform, including a unitary single national system.

However, after five days of hearings, Senator Murray concluded that the Government had provided no economic justification for the changes, argued that its Bill was fundamentally flawed because it failed to balance both employee and employer rights.

Quoting from the late Pope John Paul II, Senator Murray said the mark of a civilised liberal democracy was not just high living standards.

"(It is also) an egalitarian society that respects and protects working poor, and the disadvantaged, and that has advanced working conditions," he said.

"Our nation Australia is our people. It is our people that count, so the social perspective is the one that really counts - reform that accords with Australian values and has broad community support."

The fundamental ideology behind the Kevin Andrews Bill is an attempt to break up (over time) the checks and balances which protect workers at the bottom end of the scale and those who are powerless against the might of large companies.

By taking the Australian Industrial Relations Commission out of the role of setting minimum wages, and setting and varying awards, it hopes that all wages and conditions will be set by individuals at the workplace.

To this end, the new Fair Pay Commission will not have the same independence, and will also be subject to potential political interference.

In short, the independent umpire, whose job for about 100 years was to protect the weak and ensure a fair system, is being taken out of the game.

The Government argues that its new system will boost the economy and soak up the half a million workers still on the unemployment scrapheap.

Whether this will works or not is far from certain - certainly no proof was offered during the Senate committee hearings.

If it fails, the Government will be thrown out of office - just as the Bruce Government was when it tried to do the same thing in 1929.

But if the experiment works, and it does lead to the creation of more jobs and a richer economy, the Government will be only partially justified.

This is because the "cost" of the new system is the end of a guarantee of an independent umpire and of job security, and ushers in the arrival of a dog-eat-dog world of raw capitalism in Australia.

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