Three areas in current federal government moves - industrial relations, welfare and terrorism (read also law and order) - suggest a neat fit in a national jigsaw which, when the pieces fall together, could bring unnerving change to the reach, strength and nature of federal government.
The new national IR legislation, in effect, will extend centralist government, and together with recent government decisions about education funding and the apparent ongoing lust to minimise, if not demolish, Medicare, does not promise at all well for the average family.
In addition, a forthcoming revision of media laws is likely to lead to a further whittling of media diversity, never a good thing for society, and proposed changes to sedition laws, as part of the terrorism proposals, are causing considerable alarm. Does this all have a pattern to it? It all seems to be happening at once, so what is the big hurry? Could it all be to deliberately confuse by setting several hares running at the same time? So what is the agenda behind the agendas?
While some politicians, lawyers, churchmen and journalists have protested loudly, they have naturally focused on a particular aspect or set of proposed legislation. A focus on the particular can obscure the whole. When all the pieces are brought together, along what path are we treading? And why is there an overpowering sense that people as individuals are being screwed down? A look at a variety of comment suggests that the feeling is well founded.
When introducing WorkChoices, Prime Minister John Howard said it had three major elements: the introduction of a national workplace relations system for the first time; the simplification of the agreement making process and a better balancing of the unfair dismissal laws; and that, “A new and totally independent Australian Fair Pay Commission will be established to deal in a less legalistic and adversarial fashion with such matters as minimum award wages”.
But Economics Editor Ross Gittins (Sydney Morning Herald, November 21, 2005), among others, has condemned WorkChoices proposals in terms of class, and as an undisguised assault on unions, unionised workers and workers generally. The aim? To inflict a blow on the Labor Party. He says that with WorkChoices, “There’s no overall gain to the economy, just a transfer of income from one part of the economy (workers) to another part (employers)”.
“It’s not at all clear this single-minded attempt to discourage collective bargaining (and hamstrung unions in the process) will lead to increased employment, increased productivity or higher wages,” he wrote. Under WorkChoices, “employers may have been deregulated but unions have been subjected to more, highly prescriptive regulation”.
It is not possible to have true bargaining where parties are thoroughly unequal in terms of power.
Gittins’ sentiments echoed James C. Cobb, writing about the effects of Hurricane Katrina (New York Times, November 19, 2005), and low wages and non-union labour which had kept thousands in poverty:
At the very least, Hurricane Katrina put the lie to a generation's worth of ballyhoo about the newfound prosperity of the Sunbelt South. It showed us not only the impoverished and immobile masses of New Orleans, but the shack-dwelling, hand-to-mouth lives of thousands of others within the three-state swath of its hellish destruction. Here the disaster laid bare the shackling legacy of generations of pursuing industry through promises of low-wage, non-union labour and minimal taxation ... where folks have been laid low by wholesale outsourcing of jobs and economic policies that have left real wages stagnant and a social safety net in ever greater disrepair.
Could this happen in Australia?
It is highly remarkable and indicative that Queensland’s National MPs voted (The Courier-Mail November 25, 2005) with their sworn enemy, Labor, to condemn the proposed industrial relations changes.