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Nostradamus he ainít

By Matt Meir - posted Friday, 13 April 2007


You could almost hear the Prime Minister’s advisers scrambling for the smelling salts last week when their boss fronted Radio National’s Fran Kelly on the anniversary of the Federal Government’s IR laws.

In a wonderfully hysterical performance, the PM breathlessly declared that the prosperity we are currently basking in - thanks to our dual ability to dig things from the ground and spend relentlessly at the local mall - would come shuddering to a halt if the ALP, stacked with merciless union bosses, began warming the Treasury benches.

The destruction of the mining industry, the re-imposition of a one-size-fits-all industrial system, union officials in steel-cap boots storming head offices across the land as our captains of industry cower helplessly under their desks - the PM’s prophesy was arguably too dire for the breakfast time slot it was allotted.

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Of course, those who remember the last time the union movement had any kind of influence with the Federal Government will remember the accord period - a time when profits were sky high, real wages fell and industrial disputes dropped.

Similarly, if a change of government occurs this year, it is highly unlikely to be as devastating for the populace as Howard would have us believe.

Central to Howard’s claim that a Labor victory would force us to subsist like caveman is that the ALP would re-regulate workplace relations through the use of awards.

Awards are a set of wages and conditions that apply to every employer in a particular industry. Their historical role was to prevent an employer in an industry gaining an unfair advantage over its competitors by cutting wages and conditions.

Awards dominated Australia’s industrial landscape until the early 1990s, when the opening of the Australian economy made a uniform approach to IR difficult to sustain. Hence the introduction of collective bargaining by the ALP Government in the early 90s, allowing firms and their employees to negotiate their own wages and conditions collectively, regardless of what other firms were doing.

This development has been embraced by all and sundry: awards now cover just one in five employees, with collective bargaining now the single most-used employment instrument, covering close to 40 per cent of employees.

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And no wonder; not only do they provide genuine flexibility for firms but they are good for employees too.

Figures from the ABS released in February show average hourly wages for all non-managerial employees are a full nine dollars higher for workers on a collective agreement compared to those on an award.

No-one from either side of the political divide is advocating a return to a system dominated by awards. Howard’s loud and frequent claims to the contrary are simply misleading.

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About the Author

Matt Meir works for the National Union of Workers (NUW) in Melbourne. Prior to this he studied political science at Southern Cross University in Northern New South Wales. He is a current member of the Australian Labor Party. His views are his own.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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