Industrial relations is the Church's business


Cardinal George PellLast Sunday Cardinal Pell dropped another very large pebble into Canberra’s political pond. He expressed concern that the new industrial relations regime would put downward pressure on minimum wages. The ripples could still be seen the next day in the flurry of questions in Parliament.

It follows his speech to the National Press Club before the Work Choices Bill passed the Parliament. There he had no praise for the changes, and expressed some apprehension about them. He emphasised the need to protect those on low incomes and called for a slight increase in the minimum wage. He stated that he would welcome a modest increase in union influence.

This might sound radical for a commentator on public life more usually associated with a more conservative perspective. But widespread Catholic concern over these reforms should come as no surprise. From its conception the Australian approach to industrial relations has been a brew in which Catholic social thought forms a key ingredient, especially the ideas propounded by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Now that the changes are law, the Government has to deal with a Catholic Church that has been seriously rebuffed. The Government’s welfare changes, to which the Senate amendments were very modest, have also annoyed the Church.

Your Rights At WorkBut the Government also failed to win over the economists. Speaking recently at the Economists Conference, Mark Wooden, of the Melbourne Institute, doubted that the proposed changes would reduce unemployment. In the continuing opposition to the laws might God and mammon form a rare alliance?

The Government has tried to bridge the divide by appointing Ian Harper to the proposed Australian Fair Pay Commission. He is a formidable economist and a committed churchman. What better political bandage to cover the ungainly sore that church figures have bared on the new arm of the Government’s economic reform!

But the sore goes much deeper than Government believes. The Catholic Church’s apprehension about the IR changes does not simply express ecclesiastical zeal directed to political purposes. The tradition of thought and reflection at stake here is not only deeply entrenched not just in the Catholic Church, but is also incarnated into the values and institutions with which Australia has come to feel comfortable.

Harper may be able to appeal to some religious ideas in order to support his economics. But the key point made by the Catholic Church is that the priority of economics over social concerns must be inverted. Economics are a means to an end. So the subordination of the religious to the economic that is embodied in Mr. Harper’s appointment, risks sharpening the emerging lines of division.

Ian Harper – why I’m committed to fair payThe narrow mandate given to the Fair Pay Commission will further aggravate tensions between the economic and socio-religious viewpoints. The purpose of minimum wages is to combat poverty and to build into society a basic minimum for a household or family. But in his office, Professor Harper is required to focus on economic concerns.

If the Fair Pay Commission is not to be a covert mechanism for reducing real minimum wages, it will need to work more broadly than its current legislative mandate allows. Its decisions will need to be set within an overarching strategy to combat poverty. It will also need to be co-ordinated with reform of the tax and the family tax payment systems. This will ensure that Treasury does not seize back any minimum wage rises through high effective marginal tax rates.

Mr Howard and Mr Andrews believe that in the end the churches will not stand up to the business leaders they have coopted, but will retreat to their cathedrals and central theological concerns. They have failed to realise that in the contemporary Catholic Church the proper relationship between economics and the good of society is a central theological concern.



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Existing comments

One would have more faith in Ian Harper if he hadn't written in Australia Quo Vadis 200 that American sweatshops were a good thing for the economy because employers did not have to pay reasonable pay and conditions.
That future awaits our children and our childrens' children
Barry Welch | 27 June 2006

In regard to Cardinal Pell's comments, The Age newspaper published the following letter on June 20th.

For Pell, choice is never an option.

It was a bit rich to read "Pell opposes WorkChoices" ("The Age. 19/6).
The reality is that Sydney's Cardinal Pell is rigidly anti-choice.It's always his way or no way.

He has a deaf ear, even for his own clergy, let alone the laity. That's best exemplified by his recent public repudiation of a key ingredient of his own church catechism: primacy of conscience that alows Catholics to be guided by their own certitude, even if that's against papal pronouncements. He wants the church "bosses" to have the final say.

A number of people, including myself, have petitioned the Vatican's Curia to have Cardinal Pell explain his anti-choice stance and return to the fold in that area, a move he has dismissed as "a hoot."

Brian Haill,
ST Francis Xavier's,
Frankston, Victoria.

Brian Haill | 27 June 2006

Cardinal Pell and Brendan Long are to be commended on their stand for a responsible approach to wages. In spite of some excesses responsible unionism is to be ecouraged.

A further challene to the government is to encourage investment in industry which will provide employment for blue collar workers, 'near their homes'. Even if it is possible, at the moment, to import goods cheaper from overseas than to produce them ourselves, this government has let our overseas debt explode so badly ($500 billion) we will soon be unable to pay for more imports; or our dollar will fall so low that imports will become expensive.

Never forget that 10 years ago present treasurer, Peter Costello, sent a debt truck around Australia emphasising that $190 billion debt was disastrous for us.

All this points to the need for the capability to produce more of our own goods, providing employment paying a reasonable wage.
Pat Healy | 27 June 2006

Economically, it is tragic to leave most Australian, the low income earners, battle to stay alive.

If the system of government has been changed, reduction of parliamentarians whose income substantially can support 3 or 4 families, economists or none, Australia will be better of.

Our support economically portrayed by the dramatic increase i.e. for John Howard, figure of $30k+ with a wage earner of $10week less tax =.

To superficially bandage our problem, chances are a striking public is immenent.
Sonia | 27 June 2006

I consider Bishop Pell's bring many conceerns forward which are threatening to security in many ways for workers. The I R change are also very threatining to family life.
Noeleen Green. | 27 June 2006

The views of Brendan Long's are predictable - he is an opposition employee. Why does Eureka Street appear to have difficulty in publishing material from writers, who are impartial.
Peter Sheales | 05 July 2006


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