Monday, June 11, 2007

Tuesday column: The WorkChoices fantasy

Last Wednesday in an attempt to promote the government’s workplace legislation the Workplace Minister Joe Hockey donned green ears and pretended to be the ogre Shrek.

The program’s host Kerri-Anne Kennerley played the part of Shrek’s sidekick Fiona. Princess Fiona explained that she was pregnant and her boss had begun giving her fewer shifts. She asked what her rights were under the new Australian Workplace Agreements.

Hockey replied: “I'll protect ya, Fiona. I'll protect ya. It's unlawful, Fiona. The good government is gonna rescue you, Fiona.”

Away from the fantasyland of Channel Nine, the Minister has been less helpful..

SBS TV broadcasts real programs featuring real people.

On Monday its Insight program examined the government’s workplace laws for the best part of an hour.

The program’s host Jenny Brockie explained twice to the assembled audience that there was a gap in the line-up: The Minister Joe Hockey “unfortunately chose not to accept a longstanding invitation to join us.”

His opponent Julia Gillard took part, as did employer and union representatives and real employers and real workers.

Had the Minister made the time he would have been able to advise Bill Schultze, who at the age of 17 was told to sign an AWA that cut his pay rate from $9.09 an hour to $7.17. He didn’t, and lost his job.

As it happened his father did complain to a Coalition MP and says he got no response.
The Minister would also have been able to advise Jocelyn James whose 16-year-old son Christopher worked for six weeks without being paid. When she complained he was sacked.

Jocelyn approached Hockey’s Office of Workplace Services and said she was sent a bundle of paperwork “so involved there was no way Christopher could have done it”.

And Hockey would have heard from both workers and employers happy with AWAs. But he would have been disturbed to discover that as the hour progressed the guests became increasingly comfortable with the changes Julia Gillard was proposing. Freed from the need to provide soundbites or entertainment Gillard was able to explain the details of her policy and win people over.

So why on earth didn’t Hockey take the same opportunity? Surely it can’t be because he felt that his policy sounded better when expressed as sound bites or entertainment - that it couldn’t withstand detailed scrutiny.

I had assumed that it was just a problem with scheduling - the Minister happened to be available on the morning of the Kerri-Anne show but not on the night Insight recorded.

But the program’s executive producer Paul Williams assured me that he and his team had been trying to get Hockey to appear on the show for seven weeks.

At first Hockey’s staff simply said that he was unavailable. Then one of them explained that he needed to spend more time in his electorate now that he was facing a challenge from a high profile Labor candidate. (The candidate is a weatherman. Hockey’s margin is 10 per cent.)

As it happens the SBS studio is smack bang in the middle of Hockey’s electorate, down the road from Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s Channel Nine studio, so appearing in it at a date of his choosing need not have been too taxing for the Minister.

In the meantime the SBS went through the alphabet soup of organisations set up under WorkChoices – the Fair Pay Commission, the Office of Workplace Services (renamed the Workplace Ombudsman) and the Employment Advocate (renamed the Workplace Authority) in an effort to find someone in authority who would go on the program and explain the government’s rules. Each one said no, that was a job for Hockey.

Insight’s final conversation with the Hockey’s office was on the actual day the program was recorded. Paul Williams rang and said “Look – you are putting the employer representatives into an unfair position, effectively leaving them to argue the government’s case, some of which they don’t believe in. They don’t think the fairness test is necessary. Without you on the show we won’t have anyone putting the case for your policy.”

Williams never did find out why Hockey wouldn’t take part. His best guess is that the Minister didn’t feel the format was the best one for him. When I asked what he meant Williams said he thought Hockey “didn’t like the idea of being confronted by genuine people’s stories”.

I can think of another reason. I think it is also the reason why the government rammed through WorkChoices after an election in which it never mentioned it, why it never commissioned an economic analysis of its effects, why it stopped releasing data on what it was doing to working conditions, and why it preferred to explain its new amendments through 30-second advertisements rather than by tabling them in parliament.

It is worried about what an economic analysis of WorkChoices would show.

It would show that since WorkChoices the proportion of national income going to wages has fallen to an all time low. (At the same time the proportion of income going to profits had climbed to an all time high.) At the release of last week’s national accounts I asked the Treasurer whether he wanted the wages share of income to fall further. He replied that it was a trick question.

That might been a price worth paying if WorkChoices had unleashed “a new burst of productivity growth” as the Prime Minister promised. In fact after WorkChoices productivity growth slumped and went negative for a time.

And it would certainly be worth it if the alternative was a return to centralised wage fixing that spread inflation throughout the economy as the Treasurer has claimed. But it is not. Labor’s alternative is a return to enterprise bargaining – the system that Australia adopted in the 1990’s that restrained inflation while boosting productivity.

An economic analysis would show that WorkChoices has changed the division of Australia’s cake (more to profits, less to wages) but done little to increase its size.

The cake is getting bigger, but for other reasons largely beyond our control, notwithstanding the unlikely claim made by an employer in the program that : “If you want to kill off the resources boom, get rid of Workplace Agreements”.

Last week’s Insight program was its highest-rating ever (even without Joe Hockey or a pair of green ears).

In the words of its executive producer: “It shows that people are really interested in industrial relations, it’s not bullshit.”

“They are turning on because they want to know. And I suspect that the government senses that as much as we do”.