CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Howard's biggest gamble since the GST
, October 22, 2005
Prime Minister Howard probably regards his controversial workplace relations legislation as the crowning achievement of his enormously successful political career.The biggest guessing game in the federal Parliament has suddenly become whether John Howard's industrial relations laws presage his retirement from the prime ministership next year.
Certainly the scope and the audacity of the changes suggest that Mr Howard may have finally decided to make his mark on history and secure reforms he has waited a career in politics to implement.
The changes may be ultimately good for the economy and for jobs, though the proof of this will not be clear for several years; but in the meantime there is little doubt the changes will burn votes and probably seats at the next election.
Furthermore, they will cause voters to rethink their decision to give the Howard Government a rubber stamp in the Senate.
The truth is Howard is taking his biggest gamble since the GST, and possibly a bigger one.
In 1998, the Coalition almost lost government when it decided to overhaul the tax system and introduce a GST.
But the IR changes pose an even greater risk because the Government has failed to make a cogent case that a workplace revolution was necessary.
Admittedly, the changes being foreshadowed do not meet the scorched-earth demands of industrial-relations zealots who basically want the removal of all restrictions on the labour market.
However, the changes will severely curtail unions, almost eliminating their ability to strike for increased pay and benefits, and even to enter a workplace site.
The new laws will also reduce the power of the Industrial Relations Commission - the independent umpire in industrial disputes, and eliminate penalty rates and weekend rates over time.
Existing awards will be protected, but new workers looking for a job may have to accept a workplace agreement or be refused a job.
Amazingly, the Government will also permit previously guaranteed workplace provisions, such as meal breaks and public holidays like Christmas Day and Anzac Day, to be thrown onto the bargaining table.
In other words, new workers or those entering into new contracts or changing jobs will be able to bargain away their right to paid public holidays.
Paid public holidays are effectively designated a job "perk'' in the new industrial landscape.
The fine details of the legislation are still to be released, but the Government appears to have toughened up its changes rather than watered them down since the plan was first announced in May.
Despite the wall-to-wall advertising designed to calm voters about the changes, there is no doubt the Kevin Andrews reforms will unsettle voters and families and introduce more uncertainty about job security.
The Prime Minister both argues and strongly believes in two things that will make the changes "work'' and improve the lot of everyday Australian workers.
First, he has an extremely benign view of employers, maintaining that the vast majority of employers will do the right thing and that the law should be skewed toward what is best for the majority rather than the roguish few.
Second, the PM holds a genuine view that employers, particularly small businesses and their workers, should be able to work out their pay and conditions at the workplace without interference from unions or an independent umpire.
It is a theory which may or may not be true, but it ignores the fact that negotiations in such workplaces are rarely if ever equal.
The idea of a 15-year-old checkout operator being able to negotiate an individual contract with the likes of a supermarket megachain like Coles or Woolworths is an absurdity.
Workers in all sorts of situations will become more vulnerable and will be forced to accept pay and conditions that their prospective employer offers.
Again, Mr Howard argues that the good economic conditions provide a "workers' market''; but the economy is cyclical and it begs the obvious question: what happens to pay and conditions during a downturn?Radical departure
Mr Howard will view the proposed changes as the crowning achievement of an enormously successful political career. He genuinely believes that, despite the radical departure from a long accepted system, the changes will be better for Australia.
Perhaps he will be right; but in the meantime the changes will create enormous uncertainty and unpredictability and instability as the new system becomes the new fabric of worker/employer relations.
What is certain is that Mr Howard will not be around to see if he is right.