Industrial deftness and workplace reform

In announcing a review of workplace relations earlier this year, the Productivity Commission’s chairman, Peter Harris, made an important point – one missed on both sides of a debate crowded out by ideology. “Our approach,” Harris said, “will be evidence-based and impartial.”

To that end, the draft report he released this week appears to have kept true. But, of course, its reception has not.

Industrial relations is a difficult area for Tony Abbott. He was a minister in the government of WorkChoices, his treasurer the man most responsible for selling the doomed scheme.

It was Joe Hockey who as minister for workplace relations refused to accept that people were worse off under Howard’s ill-fated Australian Workplace Agreements, who slurred as “former union staffers” the academics who showed average workers made $100 less a week under these agreements.

It was only three years ago that Abbott was claiming “serious workplace relations issues” in Australia. “There is a flexibility problem,” he said. “There is a militancy problem. Above all else, there is a productivity problem.”

On each of those points, the Productivity Commission abundantly disagrees. The commission says “labour market performance and flexibility is relatively good by global standards”. It notes “considerable scope for flexibility”. And it notes that “real labour productivity in the market sector increased by 13 per cent” in the five years to 2013-14.

The report highlighted the importance of a minimum wage and of strong unfair dismissal laws, against pressure from business. It also put lie to claims wage growth was outstripping productivity. 

The report suggested two controversial reforms: a return to “enterprise contracts” that would have, unlike the first iterations of AWAs, a “no disadvantage” test; and a winding back of Sunday penalty rates, to match Saturday loadings. Both are at least worthy of discussion, although worthy discussion is not a feature of this debate.

Bill Shorten has already dismissed the draft report as “just another trip back to WorkChoices”. Indeed, uninterrogated, the spectre of “enterprise contracts” is manna for the Labor leader: “Mr Abbott legislating through the back door of a Productivity Commission report to cut penalty rates is just Mr Abbott up to his old sneaky tricks of going after workers’ conditions.”

Abbott is under no illusions about the toxicity of workplace reform. He was in opposition this government’s most strident critic of WorkChoices. He knows it cost John Howard his last election. He is happy to employ any mediaeval torture against it, to leave it not simply dead but also buried and cremated. For a man on only nodding terms with honesty, he is still happy to sign scraps of paper declaring the scheme void.

This week, he refused to go near the Productivity Commission report. “I want to absolutely stress that this is a draft report,” he said. “It is a report to government, not a report from government.”

Some of this is to the good. No reform should be considered that disadvantages average workers. A minimum wage should be defended and properly indexed. Individual bargaining deserves to be treated with great scepticism, as does any initiative that would remove unions from negotiations.

But just as with tax reform, it is a poorer country that cannot interrogate the systems under which its people live. It is a poorer country where even draft reports to government are too dangerous to properly discuss, where nervous stasis is preferred over reasonable reform. It is a poorer country where an evidence-based and impartial document is treated as a dangerous spell book and cast from public debate. Yet this is the country in which we live.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 8, 2015 as "Industrial deftness".

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