Feb 242011

Peter Reith, the horse upon whom John Howard rode during his tilt at unionism windmills, is again bellowing from the barn of retirement about ye goode olde days of industrial conflict and workplace disputation over workers rights.

Reith is, and I’ll put this plainly, a liar. An obfuscator of the second order, in line behind only Howard in the falsehood stakes. He writes today in the Conservative Express from some self-perceived lofty perch labelled ‘Productivity Reform’. How necessary this process of ‘Productivity Reform’ is to the benefit of Australia’s future. What Reith is touting is the re-birthing of that supposedly ‘dead, buried and cremated’ social policy, WorkChoices. Make no mistakes, and the tone of his op-ed makes this crystal clear, he advocates destruction of the union movement, no quarter, no prisoners.
As his preferred point of referential support, he uses a speech by the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, 8 December 2010 delivered as a keynote address to the Annual Forecasting Conference of the Australian Business Economists. Just pause a moment and take that in. A conference of business economists. Bean counters and fiscal theoreticians. Not social historians or policy makers or business & industry captains. Reith takes selectively, as such arguments seem permanently destined to be formed, from Bank’s speech.

If ‘productivity enhancing’ reform is indeed becoming a no-goer, Australia is in for a tough time. Productivity enhancing reform is so crucial to our economic (and social) futures because productivity growth itself – the ability to get more out of a country’s resources – is the mainstay of economic progress.

The first sentence comes from the last para on page two, the rest from the second para on page three of Bank’s address. In between are these words.

For a start, this would make it harder for us to meet the fiscal challenges of the Global Financial Crisis in the short term and, in the long term, the ageing of the population. We would also struggle to meet the demands and costs of more sustainable resource use and desirable environmental rectification. Australians may again start to see international competition and globalisation as threats rather than opportunities. And our capacity to raise the living standards of Indigenous and other disadvantaged members of the community would be weakened, when it needs to be strengthened.

By selectively cutting and pasting from the speech, Reith has deleted the context in which Banks spoke. That context being social in nature and broadly fiscal in presentation. Nothing whatever to do with industrial relations, reform or otherwise. Put simply, the op-ed is a fantasy document intended to insight the anti-unionist conservative to rally to the same cause championed by Howard in 1998. Destruction of the union movement by any means necessary. Installation of an employer-oriented workplace regime, outlawing of industrial action and legal processes to deal harshly with those who, in the interests of a greater good, chose to withhold their labour, will not advance the cause of productive reform.
No-one would argue against maximising productivity and workplace efficiencies as both a bulwark against costs and improvement of returns to both shareholders and workers, however it is vital that business realises that its workforce IS its business, for without a workforce, there is no business. Consensus, as pioneered by Robert James Lee Hawke, is the lynch pin in ensuring negotiated understanding between two potentially conflicting ends of the workplace spectrum. Unions are not going away anytime soon, and at 20% of the Australian workplace in representation, can hardly be considered an overwhelming & militantly destructive force. Neither should unionism be directly attacked by any government on the pretext of improving productivity. By the same token, militant unionism ought not be tolerated outside the auspices of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Workers must not, as is currently the case under current modifications to former WorkChoices legislation enacted by Rudd-Gillard governments, be deprived of the right to withhold labour. To strike. Certainly, strike action should be a last resort. Arbitration, the very first step to concerted negotiation, must be encouraged, but cannot be legislated if good faith negotiations are to become the norm.
Renewing an antagonistic industrial relations brawl between worker’s representatives and bolshie employers handed carte blanche legislation empowering them with the legal version of whip & chain will not improve productivity. Only through consensus can productivity be improved and necessary, on-going industrial relations reform be achieved. In inciting a new conservative rebellion, which would essentially work against prudent workplace reform, Reith is being deliberately disruptive, disingenuous and unrepresentative of genuine Liberalism. The dogma of he & his kind needs to be removed from the Australian Industrial Relations scene, for good and all, and the good of all.

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