CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Voters suspicious about workplace reforms
, November 19, 2005
The Government's advertising blitz has so far failed to convince voters of the desirability of radical workplace reform.It does not require professional opinion polling to prove that the Howard Government's $55 million advertising campaign to sell its workplace relations changes has backfired.
Blanket advertising that provided little information, and at taxpayers' expense, and that appeared to be nothing other than a softening-up exercise before the legislation was announced was almost guaranteed to cause resentment or suspicion - or both.
So even before the Government's new industrial laws come in, the Government is suffering in the polls.
But despite Coalition MP optimism, the situation is likely to get worse, not better.
Most Coalition backbenchers are inexplicably sanguine about the proposed IR shake-up, comparing it with the arrival and implementation of the GST. This analysis is wrong on three counts.
First, John Howard came within a knife-edge of being beaten at the 1998 election, losing 13 MPs in one hit. The GST may well also have been a major factor in the 2001 election had it not been for the terror attacks in the United States and the arrival of the Tampa
which overturned the political landscape.
Second, residual GST resentment has not gone away at all. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses, sole traders and consultants still do not like the idea that they have been hired as quasi (unpaid) tax-collectors for the Australian Taxation Office; they do not like the paperwork and they do not like the grinding clampdown on the black economy.
Third, the dynamics of a new tax are entirely different from industrial relations. Industrial relations are likely to be an even worse headache than the GST because a tax change is in the end a tax change - it altered the mix away from income towards consumption.
By contrast, workplace relations involve the constant interaction of management and workers, and the resolution of disputes and other workplace problems.
If it is not left to the rule of the jungle, a Government workplace relations system, in whatever form, is the pressure-valve mechanism which releases the pressure of wage claims and employer resistance to those claims.
At its heart the Howard proposals overthrow a system of workplace relations which has existed in Australia for almost 100 years.
In contrast with the dog-eat-dog American system, the Australian system attempted to look after those at the bottom of the labour market by keeping minimum wages and conditions reasonable and the bidding war civilised.
The Howard Government is convinced that the existing system needs to be broken because half a million unemployed are effectively locked out of the labour market.
To this end it is making it easier for employers to fire people (so they can more easily hire people), and it is setting up the Fair Pay Commission to keep the minimum wage low.
Moreover, it is telling new entrants to the workforce, such as first-time workers, that if they want a job they should take it - even though their contract may explicitly rule out things such as meal breaks, public holidays or penalty rates.
But it will be possible under the new legislation for an employer to demand of a new employee that, if they want to take an ordinary public holiday, they won't get paid for it.
The Government is also promising to protect people on existing awards, but has designed a system which will over time starve them of oxygen with the aim of slowly killing off awards.
At the same time, it is putting heavy restrictions on organised labour's (i.e., the unions') ability to push for higher wages.
The fact is the new system will be difficult to implement because it seeks a cultural change in the workplace where individuals have to individually press for a rise or a change of circumstance - based on the mistaken belief that there is a level playing-field at the bargaining table between a 19-year-old uneducated person and a multi-national conglomerate.System blamed
It is a much more individualistic system. Coalition MPs may be confident that all will end well, but practically all future disputes will be blamed on the new system rather than the old.
Arbitrary dismissals, of the fair and unfair variety, will become more common.
And when greedy executives push for more millions in annual remuneration without the Government doing anything, the voter may start to become very uncomfortable and suspicious about the new system.