Tuesday, May 29

With his back to the wall, our Prime Minister discovers fairness!

In Parliament last night (May 28), Prime Minister Howard goes on the attack against Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd (inset). At the same time, the latest Newspoll showed Rudd gaining ground. Daily Telegraph images

A longish post this time. Industrial relations. It's the issue that won't go away, and perhaps even more than climate change or the abandonment of an Australian citizen in a US hellhole, it's one which is likely to topple the Howard government.

Not that I'd write Prime Minister John Howard off. There's still the chance another Tampa will sail over the horizon, or Pauline Hanson's laughable new party may just take off and deliver votes to Howard again. Or, on the other side, some wild union claims may derail Kevin Rudd's economic cred.

But in Laurie Oakes words, concluding his column in the current Bulletin (dated May 29, the last day it's on sale), “Faith in Howard's ability to perform yet another Houdini act is starting to wane.”

Here's what Oakes said on WorkChoices:

“Howard claims it was never the government's intention that penalty rates and overtime should be traded off without adequate compensation. But if that is the case, why was a safety net not included in the original legislation?

“There were, after all, plenty of warnings about what would happen. Howard ignored them, and the government is paying the political price for his stubbornness.”

Oakes also warns Howard about attacking the Labor Party's opposition to Australian Workplace Agreements in an attempt to undermine Rudd's economic credibility.

“Every time Howard or Costello deploys that argument, it draws more attention to industrial relations changes that were introduced with no electoral mandate and which, according to every opinion poll, are overwhelmingly on the nose.

“The story might be different if Howard and Co. had put forward a seriously argued economic case in support of WorkChoices when the changes were first proposed. But – arrogant at suddenly
finding themselves with a Senate majority they had not expected – they did not bother to prepare the ground properly.”

Blame it on the union:

Perhaps Joann and Don Doolan should complain to their union. The owners of the Lilac City Motor Inn in the NSW regional city of Goulburn have been to hell and back since Labor's deputy leader Julia Gillard waved around in parliament a copy of the AWA they'd required their 15 staff to sign.

As Ms Gillard said, the AWA allowed the Doolans [whom she did not name] to pay the minimum wage of $13.47 an hour with no penalty rates, no overtime, no leave loading – none of the allowances which traditionally formed part of the pay of workers in the industry.

The Doolans received hate emails from as far away as Norway.

Yet it turns out the Doolans are good employers, paying staff above the $13.47 an hour in the AWAs they required employees to sign.

Where they went wrong is they took the advice of their union – the Hotels, Motels and Accommodation Association – which drew up the AWA and rushed it in before Howard's “fairness test” came into effect on May 7.

Okay, so the HMAA is an employers association. But is there an essential difference between a bosses' union and an employees' union, apart from their being on opposite sides of the fence?

Well, there is one difference – John Howard is dedicated to the destruction of one type while encouraging the other to make employers more powerful, and even paying some of them to help implement WorkChoices.

Closer to home:

A member of my family thought he was negotiating on good terms with his employer, a decent fellow who treated his staff well. But when the employer presented the agreement to him, it contained a provision that for every day that wet weather stopped work on contract sites, a day could be deducted from his annual leave.

This employee has a family. Annual leave means something to him. The result – the family member approached another employer, and after a fright when he learned of a no-poaching agreement (is that legal, Mr Howard?), managed to move across to a more challenging and better-paid position.

A few years ago, I'd vetted an individual contract offered by the first employer – back before John Howard shafted the “no disadvantage” test – and noted a line at the bottom that copyright in the form was held by the industry employers association.

The bosses' union, in other words, had drawn up the contract and sent it out to all its members to be imposed on their employees without individual negotiation.

As with the Doolans, a decent employer – who normally found work around the yard for his employees on wet days – was persuaded by his union to offer an AWA which allowed him to screw his workers. Yet it's likely he had no intention of doing so.

Once I was naive:

Years ago, Richard Court, then Liberal premier of Western Australia, required all state public servants to sign individual contracts. At the time, my brother was head of a major department and had the job of carrying out the instruction.

Truly naive, I remarked to him that I would appreciate the opportunity to negotiate individually with my employer.

My brother set me right. There were no individual negotiations. Staff came in one by one and were presented with the contract they were required to sign.

The Court experience was a foretaste of what was to come under Howard. With the ability to screw down the cleaners who wielded the mops, some WA cleaning contractors began to undercut the quotes of those employers who treated their staff fairly. The decent contractors had no choice but to follow.

Would the Doolans have found themselves in the same position, trying to compete with other motels which cut their tariffs after slashing their workers' pay and conditions in accord with the AWAs devised by the motel owners' union?

I've said before that good employers don't need AWAs, and bad employers don't deserve them. You may now see what I meant.

What is fairness?

So John Howard sees the need to legislate for fairness in employment contracts, where once he did not. It would be nice to believe he experienced a road-to-Damascus conversion.

It would be nice to believe in fairies, too.

Newspoll this morning (May 29) shows a further lift for Rudd. The electorate has come to see Howard as mean, tricky and arrogant. Has anything changed with his backflip on fairness? Yeah, facing electoral annihilation – his word – our Prime Minister is less arrogant. Still mean and tricky? The public seem to have made up their minds.

And we're still waiting to see just what fairness is, although we learned last night the Federal government would allocate almost 600 bureaucrats and a $370 million budget to check all AWAs for whatever it is to be.

It seems the fairness test will exempt employers experiencing financial difficulty. Perhaps most staff would support a good boss in such a position, as well as try to save their jobs. But if so, it's essential our insolvency laws are changed to give wages, leave and superannuation benefits owed to staff absolute priority over all other creditors if the employer goes under.

Fairness should also extend to rostering. Lower paid employees often depend on second jobs to achieve a decent living standard, and they need predictable rosters to manage them.

And what about Therese Rein?

So far, most of the politicians have been walking on eggshells with the issue of the multi-million dollar employment business built up independently by Kevin Rudd's wife, Therese Rein. Most people, even Howard's supporters, would admire her achievement and approve of Rudd's support for her as an independent businesswoman.

She should not have to sell her Australian operations to allow Rudd to seek the prime ministership. Although the practical difficulties of not doing so are formidable (the Australian government is overwhelmingly her major client), we should work on ways Therese Rein or anyone else in her position could continue their independent careers.

Rudd went pretty close to the wind when he referred to middle-aged men whose wives were appendages, and his insistence that he was not referring to John and Janette seemed unconvincing. Recall that John Howard has said publicly he doesn't have a partner, he has a wife, as discussed in a post further down in this blog (to read it, go to bottom of this page and click the Older Posts link, then scroll down).

One of Howard's junior ministers seemed to boast that his wife had given up a professional career so he could advance his political career.

But when it turned out all of Rein's employees are on individual contracts, it was too hard to resist and Howard took the risk and went on the attack last night.

However, it seems Rein's employees are on individual common-law contracts, not AWAs. And Labor policy, at least as offered to the mining industry, seems willing to accept common-law contracts to achieve more flexible workplace practices. It's the mining companies which claim common-law contracts are too cumbersome. Rein appears to prove them wrong.

Of course, AWAs with a fairness test for employees earning less than $75,000 base wages – which would cover 90 per cent of Australian workers – may prove superior to common-law contracts. Without the fairness test they were cruelly weighted against lower paid employees.

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