12 February 2008

What are AWAs for?

Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) exist to enable employers and employees to trade away workplace rights and obligations that neither want, in favour of those they do.

It was silly of the Coalition to seek to impose AWAs on the very battlers (those earning average incomes or less) whom they relied upon to stay in government. The mooted compromise of extending AWAs to those at or above average incomes, such as those earning top dollar in labour-starved remote mining communities, was sensible and made the bureaucratically cumbersome no-disadvantage test unnecessary.

You could argue that Julie Bishop is going into bat for AWAs because she's from Western Australia, and is acutely aware of how necessary they are. Forcing highly-paid tradespeople in the Pilbara into the Edwardian machinery of awards is silly, and diminishes those from the labour movement who think they're doing workers a favour by insisting that all working arrangements must involve them. The mining companies can fight their own battles with the government.

It is more than understandable, it is to the good that Bishop would seek to both lend her support to positive policy, and to make the Government feel clumsy in its management of the perennially politically sensitive area of workplace relations.

That said, stories like this just don't help readers understand what's going on. Malcolm Colless hasn't thought about what has happened in federal politics over the past year or so, and he hasn't thought about what he's written. On that basis, it's not worth reading and it isn't worth having Colless report to Australian readers about a phenomenon he just doesn't understand.
Hopefully it also signals an end to the attack of the guilts that has gripped the Opposition since its defeat in last November's Federal election: guilt over losing this poll, guilt over its policies and it seems even guilt over having a majority in the Senate.

So any reassessment by a political party newly turfed into opposition is an "attack of the guilts", Malcolm?
Sensing this and capitalising on the despair within the Coalition the Rudd Government, and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard in particular, has been taunting it with claims that it has no right to exercise this power because the electorate voted with its feet on Work Choices.

How does that compare with the caring and sensitive way that the Howard government dealt with its Opposition, Malcolm?
Brendan Nelson, who is giving a very good impression of a transitional opposition leader ...

No disagreement there, but a fairly barbed aside in the current context. Let's hope there's a point in this sentence:
[Nelson] ... muddied the waters early on by rushing in to announce that Work Choices was dead. This ill-timed move played into Labor's hands and effectively pulled the rug from under the Howard government's industrial relations reforms that go back to 1996 when it introduced AWAs to enable more flexibility in negotiations between employees and employers on a one-to-one basis.

I'd suggest that having a majority of seats in the House of Reps and a sworn-in ministry "played into Labor's hands" more than anything Nelson could or couldn't have done. What is meant by "rug", exactly? I've heard legislation referred to as a "raft", or a "package", but a "rug"? Is workplace relations legislation like the Wizard of Oz: you have to believe, believe, believe to make your dreams come true?
The simple fact is that this system worked very effectively until the Howard government decided to remove no disadvantage provisions

Worked very well for whom, Malcolm? There is something pathetic about grubbing $100/week off a long-serving and lowly-paid employee. No wonder the business community did not rally to Howard's call to support WorkChoices by donating to the Liberal Party.

Does the role of WorkChoices in the Howard government's loss of office in a time of plenty warrant no examination at all, Malcolm? Nothing, only utter abandonment or strapping oneself to the mast?
Howard believed that in a situation of full employment workers had the upper hand in market negotiations.

is it possible that he was mistaken? Just possible?
... a fear campaign driven by Labor and the unions that created a perception of across-the-board exploitation of employees, particularly young people.

What it created was dissonance, the perception that one might not share in the economic bounty that Howard had apparently worked so hard to bring about. It's understandable that those who work in the media should overestimate its importance, but it does not make it any more true that your fellow citizens are sheep.
It now emerges that, faced with the increasing likelihood of election defeat, the Howard government considered an industrial relations rescue package that included a proposal to effectively scrap junior wage scales by removing discrimination on the basis of age.

This no doubt would have won applause from young voters who had been marching away from the conservative government in droves but employer organisations were unimpressed and forecast economic disaster if it went ahead with the strategy that was then abandoned.

Thank goodness those turkeys are no longer governing us, eh?

As a teenager on the NSW Central Coast, I saw my peers competing for the only jobs going in that area - retail jobs - with women in their twenties and thirties who were more motivated and had better understanding of customers and stock control than your average teenager. All the teenagers had going for them was junior wages. Many employers decided to wear the extra expense to get more reliable employees.

Far from being "no doubt" aimed to attract young voters, this policy threatened both to cut the first rung off the employment ladder for young Australians, and to hope they wouldn't notice until after polling day. The "marching" imagery is silly, as younger voters are the most difficult people to organise and control in the manner implied by "marching". 2007 was not 1968. It is probably more accurate to say that the conservative government marched away from young Australians and their future. Applause is fleeting, Malcolm; you can't take it to either the bank or the ballot box. It was silly for conservative strategist to seek "applause" from people who were ignoring them, assuming that's actually what they were doing.
Whatever the merits or pitfalls of this strategy, born out of despair, the result was that Labor was able to wreak maximum electoral havoc on the Coalition over Work Choices.

The merits of the strategy are determined by how well it prevailed, given the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by those who formulated it, as well as the multi-million-dollar advertising campaign funded by the then government (which Colless, strangely, does not mention).
Killing off AWAs will simultaneously undermine democracy in the workplace by stripping away individual rights while bestowing disproportionate power on the unions that have become increasingly irrelevant.

"Killing" is a bit emotive, isn't it Malcolm? Did individual rights in the workplace not exist before 2005 (when WorkChoices was first passed) or 1996? Is it not possible for the government to come up with a compromise in which unions are present, but neither omnipresent or excluded? Surely placing power in the hands of the irrelevant is a temporary measure, as we have seen.
Bishop is correct when she says that Labor's claim to have a mandate to roll back Work Choices does not give it the right to disregard all of the Howard government's industrial reforms, including AWAs.

No, she's not. Labor's claim to have a mandate (much like the Coalition's in times past) enables it to abolish all, or some, or none of the measures introduced by previous governments. There may be merits for retaining or amending certain measures, but debating these merits is not the same as denying any right to make the changes for which a majority of the electorate has voted.
The Opposition cannot allow itself to be intimidated by Labor on this issue.

And even if it did, how would the result be different? How is sticking to a failed and rejected policy evidence of non-capitulation? John Howard was boxed into unsustainable positions because he didn't want to appear weak, when defending the indefensible was actually the weakest thing he could have done. Why should the Liberals defend the indefensible, and how will this help their claim of being able to govern Australia going forward?
the risk of a wages explosion driven by increasing inflation will rise sharply once AWAs are ripped away.

Again with the emotive language, "ripped away". What about the proposal for AWAs above average earnings, Malcolm? What about Gillard's statements about a common-law instrument that might fit this purpose, Malcolm? A press gallery correspondent with your experience has no excuse for ignoring these things. Clearly, you don't have to be part of the labour movement to run a scare campaign.
It is a depressing reality for the conservatives that, having lost power after 11 years in Government, they almost certainly have further to fall before the tide turns and they will probably face at least two terms in the political wilderness.

Depressing for whom, Malcolm? Do you think that clinging to demonstrated failure will make a worst-case scenario more likely?
But while they struggle to bring about internal structural reform they must shake themselves out of their state of denial and get on with the business of being an effective Opposition if they expect to be taken seriously. And taking a leaf out of Kevin Rudd's me-too policy book is not the way to do it.

What about John Howard's me-too policies that so infuriated Keating in 1995-96? They work, and given that the Coalition haven't put a foot right since Rudd became leader, it might be best if you stop undermining your own positions, stop trying to ignite damp squibs, and tell us what's going on.

Malcolm Colless: your analysis of the political situation needs to improve for your credibility to survive beyond the end of the Howard government. If Milney can do it, you can too.

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