You really have to laugh when Abbott says he doesn’t want to join the weak government club. Isn’t he already the captain?
And why would he say that stuff about penalty rates?
Here is the piece:
The government finally got around to sending the reference to the Productivity Commission to undertake an inquiry into the workplace relations framework in December last year. The Coalition had committed to initiate this inquiry during the election campaign.
Indeed, it hadn’t taken long to draft up some terms of reference. These were floating around in late 2013. The fact that it took another twelve months for the inquiry to commence can be sheeted home entirely to the Prime Minister – the terms of reference were sitting in his in-tray all that time.
As events turned out, the timing could not have been worse in electoral terms. Having sent the reference to the PC, it was only ever going to be a short time before an issues paper (in this case, five issues papers) were released. This release occurred in the middle of the Queensland election campaign.
These papers simply set out the scope of the inquiry, outline the key issues, pose a number of questions and provide information for parties wishing to make a submission. It is all standard practice.
The important question now is how the government should handle the PC inquiry. The answer comes in two parts. It is fundamental that the government gets on the front foot, embracing the inquiry and setting out a overall objective of higher real wages and higher employment. The government should reinforce the value of the PC’s processes – their transparency, the scope to make submissions, the careful weighing up of evidence.
But the second part to the answer is to refrain from making running commentaries on the inquiry and the submissions the PC receives. And when the draft report is released, the response should be that the government will wait until the final report is released before formally responding to the recommendations.
Mind you, Tony Abbott hasn’t got off to a good start by providing (misleading) commentary on the issue of penalty rates. “In terms of penalty rates, we have a very well-established system in this country – it began back in about 1903, as I recollect – and under our system it’s the Fair Work Commission which sets these rates, that’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it will be.”
Here’s the thing, the system of penalty rates did not emerge until the 1920s and it was the state systems that were the key rather than the federal system. State awards were the main drivers of conditions in retail and hospitality where penalty rates are most significant.
And here’s another thing, the penalty rates stipulated in those state awards were much lower or non-existent compared to the nationally determined penalty rates set out in modern awards today.
It is one reason why the shift to a national system, brought about by John Howard and the WorkChoices legislation, has been such a mistake. The modern awards merged all the state (and federal) awards, moving them to the highest common denominator.
For a state such as Queensland, with its tourism intensive economy, the costs have been substantial since penalty rates in the former state awards were previously low or non-existent. (And does anyone think that having a single minimum wage is sensible – the one rate for Currumbin and Canberra?)
When penalty rates were introduced they were to deter employers from operating during weekends and public holidays rather than rewarding employees for working in anti-social hours. It was a time when men worked, women stayed at home, families went to church and students working in part-time jobs were very uncommon.
Tony Abbott has also told us that he does not want to lead a weak government. But when it comes to workplace relations, the government has been guilty of both cowardice and inaction. Last year, the ineffective Workplace Relations minister, Eric Abetz, submitted a number of relatively inconsequential and technical amendments of the Fair Work Act to the Senate, but they were rejected. There was no public explanation of them, no attempt to outline the likely benefits.
With the exception of the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, it is not clear that the amendments really amount to a hill of beans, particularly as there are now very few new greenfields projects to which that amended provision would apply.
The government would point to the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption as an example of getting on with the job. But apart from extending its duration, it is not clear what the government’s messages are on the findings thus far. Trade unions behaving badly doesn’t really cut it.
To be sure, the government is proposing to establish a Registered Organisations’ Commission, which has been rejected by the Senate at this stage. It is not clear why the government wouldn’t go the full hog and allow the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to regulate trade unions and employer associations in the same way as listed companies.
And what has happened to the appellate body that will sit on top of the Fair Work Commission? This was part of the Coalition’s election platform but nothing has happened. There have been a number of conflicting pieces of legal advice floating around. But the government has gone completely quiet on the issue.
And what about getting on with some new appointments at the Fair Work Commission to fill some existing vacancies and some coming up? There is a crying need to rebalance the FWC with some suitable appointments; there is no reason to delay.
The government – or more particularly, Tony Abbott, who has taken charge of industrial relations – looks like a dazed rabbit in the middle of the road staring at the oncoming headlights.
There is a degree of sympathy for the complaints they hear from employers about the inflexibility of the system and its job and investment destroying properties, but that is where it ends. It’s all very well to talk about being a strong government, but on industrial relations, weak is the only possible description.