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Byron Shire
May 23, 2024

WorkChoices ghost stalks the land

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Mungo MacCallum

It’s back!!! After more than seven years in exile, the malign spirit of WorkChoices is once again stalking the land.

Actually it never really went away: Tony Abbott said repeatedly that the policy was dead, buried and cremated but somehow its stubborn ghost has remained unlaid.

Abbott has himself mused, unwisely, that WorkChoices was not all bad. His right-wing warriors have been more direct; in the parliament, in the business community and in the media they have spruiked for at least some aspects of it to be resurrected. And for the unions and their allies, the mere mention of the words ‘labour market reform’ is enough to raise the spectre in its fearsome entirety.

The boss of the Productivity Commission, Peter Harris, knows the monster he has unleashed: he insists that he is interested in busting the myths, and that WorkChoices has been done in 2012 – although its demise really came straight after the 2007 election. ‘We’re not here to do it again,’ he insists somewhat plaintively. ‘We’re here instead to examine the effectiveness of the system in terms.’

Well, perhaps: but the immediate reaction of the players was that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is unlikely to resemble a pet budgerigar. Indeed, it is far more probably a predatory vulture in camouflage.

There has to be a recognition that the jobs do not entail abject poverty, and this has been the view in Australia since 1907.

And it must be said that the Commission’s own items for consideration tend to confirm the view. At the top of the list are the minimum wage, penalty rates and unfair-dismissal laws. Let’s face it, would be remarkable indeed if the Commission’s review recommended increases in the rates of the first two and the untrammelled retention of the third. And beyond them is the threat of tinkering with enterprise bargaining and the furthering of individual contracts. This program is potentially very radical indeed; if it is not literally WorkChoices, it is a bloody good imitation of it.

According to the employers, this is as it is meant to be.

And many, if not most, conservatives agree: it’s a no-brainer. Cutting wages and conditions leads to more jobs, end of story. Well, up to a point; taken to its logical conclusion this chain of reasoning leads to universal slavery, thus providing work for all, whether they want it or not. But not even the free-market zealots of the Institute of Public Affairs are advocating that – at least not in public, not yet.

There has to be a recognition that the jobs do not entail abject poverty, and this has been the view in Australia since 1907.

In that year Justice Henry Higgins in the newly formed Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Tribunal laid down what he termed the basic wage as ‘the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being in a civilised community’. And, importantly, he emphasised that this was not to be determined on the profits of the employer.

In those days it was taken for granted that the average employee was a man with a non-working family. These days the minimum wage of $18.70 an hour is not generally considered sustainable, to use one of Abbott’s favourite words, to support a whole family without a second income or supplementary assistance. Nonetheless, the pressure is on to reduce it further.

And as for penalty rates – in 2015 people eat and drink, shop and pay for entertainment all week and on holidays; why should the employers have to pay their workers extra to accommodate them? True, it works for the customers but that is just the point. The customers go out at weekends and holidays because they can – because those are their days off. The vast majority still work five days a week; they include most factory workers and office workers and just about all students.

Clocking in at weekends and holidays is not the norm, and is not likely to be for a very long time.

Those who are required – or choose – to work during those hours expect to suffer a disadvantage, and therefore expect compensation. Abbott thinks this is unreasonable: ‘If you don’t want to work on a weekend, fair enough; don’t work on a weekend,’ he advises somewhat smugly. But it isn’t as simple as that: in many businesses both big and small the staff are expected, demanded, to follow the rosters set by the boss. And if they don’t, my way or the highway. This applies particularly to so–called ‘permanent casuals’, who have no choice at all.

Abbott complains that the Melbourne hotel in which he stays has closed its dining room on Sundays because of penalty rates. Well, perhaps if the owners don’t want to pay to open on Sundays, fair enough; don’t open on Sundays. And it is worth remembering that the profit share of the economy continues to rise with or without penalty rates. Abbott can choose from plenty of other establishments to indulge his culinary preferences.

Expect the debate to continue more or less acrimoniously from the moment Peter Harris prematurely released his press release (a week before the Queensland election – Campbell Newman was not amused) until the Commission’s deadline in November. Then Abbott and his ministers will have to decide what to do with it, and on present indications it will not be pretty as they seek a new mandate in 2016.

If they squib it on the recommendations, they will be excoriated as gutless by business and its factional warriors, but unless Abbott have regained a lot of political capital in the coming year, they will have no choice: the alternative would be a reprise of Howard’s suicide pact of 2007. And in any case, running dead would probably not help; when it comes to election promises Abbott has form, and Labor will constantly tell the voters that he has another hidden, savage agenda ready if he is re-elected.

Abbott has, belatedly, redeemed one pledge from 2013: he has set up the Productivity Commission inquiry. And this may well turn out to be yet another promise that will end in tears and recriminations.

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  1. The concept of trickle down economics is getting a bit tired. I guess by cutting the minimum wage and penalty rates, profits will increase and the benefits will trickle down. It is a wonderful theory, and I have no doubt it will be different this time. Every other time I have promised that by putting cash into someone elses pocket I would become better off I have felt the charitable glow of a good deed, but been left poorer.

    Even now, I can feel the golden stream trickling down from on high. Sadly though, I don’t feel any richer for it.

    • My friend, Labor will never give up on this legislation , Why !! it is one of the best tools they have in their locker to stir up trouble and take attention away from their lack of policies,

      Lets get Toni again today the papers will jump on board, What a great party Labor is, not a working brain among them.


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