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Here’s hoping ScoMo’s new consensus with the unions is not what it appears

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 28 May 2020

Is Scott Morrison's industrial reform agenda a serious attempt to make industrial change, or is it #ScottyfromMarketing looking for a mechanism which shifts blame away from him if the economy fails to recover quickly?

I hope it is the latter, because it's hard to see how a consensus arising from his five working parties is going to be good for the economy. Good reform is more likely to come from parliament, and indeed, even with a consensus, can't come from anywhere else.

I remember the last time when consensus was the reigning theology of industrial relations and you had what was referred to as the industrial relations club. Industrial relations wasn't run for the benefit of the country, but mostly for the benefit of the established players – industry associations and unions.


They used their power with government to ensure regulatory and taxation barriers were put in place to prevent the emergence of domestic and international competitors, protecting their fiefdoms, but making the country uncompetitive and reducing relative standards of living, even for the industrial princelings and their courtiers in favoured industries.

It took Bob Hawke, a Labor leader, to end this, because when it comes to industrial relations, it's Labor who has enough purchase with the unions to get them to accept change.

This is because the unions are the bankers and shareholders of the Labor movement via donations and the factional blocs they pay for and control within the party. Labor is the unions, and vice versa. (Which makes a joke of Scott Morrison's claim to have excluded the Labor opposition from this process).

And even so, the price that Hawke had the country pay was huge – the creation of super-unions, and an industry superannuation industry with virtual monopoly control over the retirement savings of the employees in whole industries.

Morrison starts at a severe disadvantage. He is the class enemy, and the only way Liberals have been able to properly reform the sector is by decentralising industrial power and building a constituency that saw no reason for union involvement in their workplace. Most of the 44% of employed Australians who work in the 2.1 million small businesses in the country don't need a union, either because the can talk to their boss easily themselves, or they are the boss and set their own wages and conditions.

Fortunately, while you have the same institutions involved, the insistence they come to a consensus is likely to see the whole process fail as long as the government is interested in effective change, rather than a peace treaty.


There are really only three groups that count in the process – the unions, the employer organisations and the politicians.

Past experience says we can disregard the "individuals chosen based on their demonstrated experience and expertise and that will include especially small businesses, rural and regional backgrounds, multicultural communities, women and families".

These tend to be window dressing, most of whom will have a poor understanding of industrial relations, and an even poorer idea of what an ideal system might look like. Lacking the resources of the larger organisations they will be either easily suborned, or dogmatically stick to a point of view which will see them marginalised in a "consensus" process.

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This article was first published in The Spectator.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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