Monday, November 05, 2007

Tuesday Column: Why on earth are we away from work today?

Why on earth are we away from work on Melbourne Cup Day? If there is one day a year when every Australian I’ve ever met actually wants to be at work it is today - the first Tuesday in November.

First up there are the office sweeps (or there used to be until Jon Stanhope killed the whole thing for us in the ACT), then the silly hats, the champagne, the prawns, the roast chicken, the race itself and the gloriously happy afterglow.

Work can be fun and workplaces function best when they work as communities.

Paul Keating pushed Australia towards a workplace culture during the previous government - the one John Howard says was under union control. As the former Prime Minister puts it now, “I was the guy who had to get the Australian Council of Trades Unions in a headlock and pull its teeth out with a pair of pliers.”

Enterprise bargaining, rammed through by Paul Keating without warning in the early 1990s forced the people working in workplaces and the people running them to work together in order to create the wealth that would fund their pay rises...

The old idea of bypassing the workplace and going to a judge to get a deal that took no account of its circumstances went by the board. Productivity surged as a result in a way that it hadn’t in years.

WorkChoices, also sprung on workplaces without warning after the most recent election kept wage negotiations at the workplace level, but encouraged a new move toward individual rather than whole-of-workplace negotiations. What had been a case of “how can we work together to do better and earn ourselves a pay rise” became more a case of, “how can I do better to earn myself a pay rise”.

Perhaps because of the new individual focus productivity growth slumped, and for a while went negative.

In his own small way in this small sliver of Australia our own Jon Stanhope has accelerated the decline in workplace culture. None of us should thank him for it, however much we enjoy a holiday. We do like being with our children, but not on Melbourne Cup day – the day that used to be for colleagues.

(The fact that Jon Stanhope has done it to compensate for the trade union picnic day is doubly destructive of workplace culture.)

But the nonsense talked about how our break from work today will harm the Territory itself can’t withstand scrutiny.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry says it’ll cost Canberra’s private sector $292 million. Its chief executive Chris Peters cheerfully concedes that his estimate is a “back of the envelope calculation”.

He says the 25,000 private businesses in the ACT fall into three categories – those such as aged-care facilities that will have to open anyway and pay penalty rates, those that will close but will have to complete contracted work on another day paying extra overtime and penalties, and those that will close and lose nothing other than dead rent and overheads.

Making rough guesses as to the losses for each type of business, he has come up with a total for the Territory of $292 million – $11,700 per employer.

But he can’t be right. As the Prime Minister and Treasurer are repeatedly reminding us Australia is a $1.1 trillion economy. By that they mean that roughly $1,100 billion is spent, earned and produced in Australia each year. According to the Statistician about $20 billion or $20,000 million of that is spent, earned and produced in the ACT. That’s $55 million per day - about half of it in the private sector.

Mr Peters’ suggestion that ACT business could lose $292 million by losing a day’s production normally worth $26 million appears to be out by a factor of ten. When I pointed that out to him he laughed and said he had no explanation.

The Reserve Bank board will be at work from 9.30 this morning in Sydney’s Martin Place as it is on every Melbourne Cup day (its meetings are always on the first Tuesday of the month) and it will take its responsibilities seriously.

Attending from Canberra will be the Secretary to the Treasury Ken Henry, unusually free of the need to consider the wishes of his master Peter Costello while the government is in caretaker mode and Warwick McKibbin of the Australian National University who usually drives up and stays in Sydney for a few days to attend to his duties as a Professorial Fellow with the Lowy Institute.

Along with the other seven board members they would have spent the weekend reading closely the highly-confidential briefing sent to them late in the week by the Bank’s economic division.

With those papers will have been a recommendation from the Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens about what to do about interest rates, a recommendation that they will get around to discussing after staff from the bank begin the meeting with a presentation about the economic outlook and risks.

Also at the meeting in addition to the Governor and Deputy Governor will be the former head of Woolworths Roger Corbett, BlueScope Steel chairman Graham Kraehe, Telstra Chairman Donald McGauchie, former merchant banker Jillian Broadbent (the solo woman on the board) and attending only his second meeting the newest appointee John Akehurst who used to run Woodside Petroleum.

The discussion will be intelligent, robust and probing, and at the end of the meeting there will be a vote.

The former Governor Ian Macfarlane told the ABC’s Maxine McKew last year that during his entire decade at the top he had never had a recommendation rejected, although on occasion the decisions had not been unanimous.

Sometimes he would delay recommending a rate move until he was sure he would win the day.

As he put it: “You might feel, well there is a bit of a case to go now but it is really not strong enough when you put it down on paper to be convincing to people who might be skeptical.”

The meeting is usually over in time for lunch in the bank's dining room adjacent to the boardroom.

On occasion an invited chief executive or a celebrity will join the board for lunch. Previous guests have included the painter Leonard French and the now deceased author Morris West.

The lunch in part a bonding exercise – an opportunity for the board members to relate to each other as human beings, just as the Melbourne Cup day race used to be at workplaces in the ACT.