Reform agenda

First there was the ceasefire, ushered in by the pandemic. Now, Scott Morrison says, is the time for unions and the government to lay down their weapons and come to the table to negotiate the terms of the peace.

As a show of good faith the prime minister has put away the stick – shelving the Ensuring Integrity Bill, for the time being.

What’s being offered as a carrot is less clear.

Morrison is asking the unions to agree to sweeping workplace reform, which he says is needed to boost our ailing economy.

But Christian Porter has already warned that the government will push ahead on its own, if the unions don’t co-operate.

To call this an accord is to misrepresent history.

During the Hawke-era negotiations, the government gave as much as it got – boosting unemployment supports and income supplements for poorer families, offering tax cuts and, of course, Medicare.

Were the Morrison government serious about genuine collaboration it would bring to these negotiations a bargaining chip. It already has one in its pocket – the $60 billion earmarked for the JobKeeper program, which will now go unspent.

By Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s own calculations, the government could extend income support to a further one million people, casuals and foreign workers, and still have $42 billion left.

Locked out of the JobKeeper scheme, haemorrhaging revenue without international students, Australia’s public universities will soon start shedding tens of thousands of jobs.

Higher education expects to lose $4.5 billion in revenue this year. The government could fill that void, and still have $37.5 billion to spend.

It could match the $130 million in support that’s been put up by the states and territories for the arts sector, which has experienced some of the country’s biggest job losses.

And still there would be tens of billions of dollars left – to fund TAFEs and ambitious infrastructure projects, to boost wages for essential workers who have been on the front lines during this pandemic.

The reality is the government had to draw a line somewhere, and it did, at $130 billion.

To spend less would be to undermine what its sharpest economic minds said was necessary to keep the country afloat.

The unions come to these negotiations with a tantalising prospect for the Coalition – that it could be the first conservative government to strike a deal to overhaul Australia’s industrial relations system.

They would be wise not to trade that, and the bargaining power of their members, for a pittance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Reform agenda".

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