Maintaining the rage against WorkChoices


'Undermining Howard', by Chris Johnston One of the aims of governments introducing far-reaching change is obvious: to see new laws bedded down and survive long enough to gain widespread acceptance. Progressive governments, especially, hope for the public's approval because they realise that, from a progressive and democratic point of view, extensive support is the only game in town.

Governments attempting regressive change, on the other hand, quite often need only rely on seeking the approval of the loudest and most powerful. Even if this method should fail at the ballot box, it might achieve the bulk of its purpose if a new government, claiming to be progressive, acquiesces by leaving most of the unjust legislation in place.

The frustrating and worrying aspect of the industrial relations discourse in 2007 was how appallingly narrow it was. For the most part, discussion centred on AWAs, erosion of penalty rates, and the Coalition's removal of the no-disadvantage test.

These were important (and repugnant) aspects of WorkChoices, but they were not its driving force. The philosophical mainstay of the Coalition's attack was its comprehensive undermining of union collective action.

WorkChoices made Australia the world's only western democracy where employers faced a fine if they made agreements that allowed union officials into a work site. Similar provisions, such as union training, were to be prohibited content; in Howard's Australia, employees or unionists could be fined for even asking for such a provision.

These and innumerable, similar aspects of WorkChoices constitute the proper context from which an assessment should be made of any legislation claiming to repeal or ameliorate the Howard Government's IR laws.

As the name suggests, the new Government's Transition to Forward with Fairness Act, which commenced on 28 March, is a stop-gap framework designed to address some immediate problems about replacing AWAs with Individual Transitional Employment Agreements, reinstituting a no-disadvantage test, and covering outworkers with relevant awards. It would be unreasonable to expect a transitional act to contain all the sorts of measures citizens would want to see in a thorough overhaul of the Howard legislation.

Having said this, it is disappointing that some other changes were not made in the interim. It is difficult to see, for example, what delay or other problem would have been caused by abolishing the prohibited content section of the Act.

But more broadly there are some worrying signs that the Labor Government will interpret — or has already interpreted — the 2005-07 grass-roots campaign against WorkChoices, involving unions, churches, and community groups, in the most conservative light possible. The Rudd Government could even be described as bordering on indifferent towards the groundswell opposition to the Howard legislation.

One major voice of opposition outside the unions was the Catholic Church. Drawing on Catholic social teaching, church organisations were able to point to numerous ways in which the legislation offended Catholic social justice principles. To the extent that WorkChoices shifted bargaining power further to employers, prevented or thwarted workers' collective action, or removed the authority of the independent Commission, it was clear that Catholic social teaching was violated.

The specific means by which these affronts were achieved are too numerous to list here. It is perhaps more fruitful to focus on a fundamental objection to the way political debate has been conducted in the past two decades, especially but not exclusively pertaining to industrial relations. It is what might be termed the 'we-can't-go-back' argument, which is not an argument at all, but an assertion.

The so-called 'modernisation' agenda is a necessary fig leaf to cover what would otherwise be plain to see: changes that rely on facile jingoes such as 'moving forward' (with or without fairness), and where their intrinsic merit is not explained, are, prima facie, shifts of power to the already powerful.

Catholic social thought defies this fashion — not only in a straightforward sense of upholding specific principles such as the primacy of labour over capital, or that unions, far from being 'third parties' in the employment relationship, are the legitimate representatives of workers, but in a fundamental and general sense insofar as Catholic social thought is grounded in a rich tradition that does not blow with the latest wind.

It is noteworthy that, shortly before last year's election, the late Quadrant editor P. P. McGuiness — God rest his soul — was reduced to claiming that the only problem with Catholic social thought was that it was 'out of date'. He did not even bother to explain why what many Catholics regard as universal principles were now to be regarded as obsolete.

The current wind is still in a decidedly neoliberal direction, and in the public debate accompanying the next parliamentary bill on IR, proponents of Catholic social thought will have to remain vigilant about universal truths that need to be enunciated, explained, and defended.

Fall in union membership blamed on WorkChoices (ABC)

Tim BattinTim Battin is senior lecturer in politics at the University of New England, and is author of Choice for Whom?, a critique of the Howard IR legislation from the viewpoint of Catholic social thought.



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Existing comments

Congratulations Tim, you are spot on target and do keep firing this particular broadside. Living in a developing country with a minimal tolerance of unions convinced me of their importance for the social welfare of workers. Middle aged to younger workers in Australia have no appreciation of how much unions have done to win the conditions they take for granted. Skilled workers can bargain for above award remuneration but individual agreements are a joke when it comes to the vast majority and it is the large corporations who are laughing. Responsible unionism is a right of all wage earners and should be encouraged by even a gentrified Labor government.

Bernard Cleary | 01 May 2008  

Another splendid piece from Eureka Street. Thanks Tim Battin - it's sound, clear and strong. There is so much ground to recover after the distortions of public life introduced by Howard that it will need constant vigilance to ensure that pressure is kept on Rudd to respond adequately - in this field and in the area of indigenous issues too.

Joe Castley | 01 May 2008  

Goodonya Tim, I love reading this kind of article and often wonder if the pertinent people ever see them. I hope you forward a copy to each of the members of Cabinet. Keep up the good work (fight?).

Kevin O'Loughlin | 01 May 2008  

A key to Rudd's win was WorkChoices. Good he is being a realist and appreciates that most of WorkChoices is imperative if we are to avoid becoming uncompetitive internationally.

brian martin | 01 May 2008  

Thanks for that, Tim Battin. I know little of Catholic social justice principles, but I always thought it self-evident that the benefits of the shared endeavour that occurs in any workplace should also be shared.

My understanding of history is that the Capitalists of the Industrial Revolution held to the view that the benefits would be shared among the owners of its Capital, with no portion for those on whose endeavours the enterprise profited. The development of Marxism was a necessary consequence of the Capitalists’ denial of the obvious.
That Marxism is an inferior economic model is neither here nor there, that some form of capitalism is a necessary expression of freedom in a free society is, to me, self-evident.

Marxism’s apologists agitated for industrial action to retard economic progress in democracies, apparently unaware that they were simply Stalin’s dupes. The HR Nicholls Society and its clones elsewhere in the world, however, are oblivious to this history; they simply seek to “restore the balance”; trouble is, their idea of a balanced social contract is that struck in England c.1820.

Had Messrs Howard et al. not introduced their so-called WorkChoices set of travesties, their goal of seeing unions decline to irrelevancy may well have come to pass. But they couldn’t help themselves ...

Whether, in Mr Rudd’s Australia, neo-liberalism is anything other than a return to 19th century remains to be seen.

David Arthur | 02 May 2008  

Tim Battin's critique and its basis in Catholic social teaching has been supported by the electorate. I am just as concerned that WorkChoices appears to have been transplanted from US labour practices, with the previous Govt's full knowledge as to how labour is treated in that economy. The US labour system (sic) is certainly not what the Harvester decision had in mind for 'working families'.

Chris Cudmore | 05 May 2008  

Labor’s new IR bill is pro business.

The ALP's Transition to Forward with Fairness Bill became law on March 28. Labor’s intention was never to change Australian industrial relations in favour of workers, but to reshape Howard’s notorious Work Choices into a new system that maintains the spirit of deregulation of the labour market and provides the utmost flexibility for bosses.

Contrary to government rhetoric and popular belief, the new bill always contained provisions that allowed statutory individual contracts (AWAs) to continue indefinitely under Labor’s new industrial relations regime. The current bill also fails to restore unfair dismissal provisions, leaving workers without protection.

Under Work Choices, a business with more than 100 employees can lawfully use "genuine operational reasons" to sack workers and rehire new staff for less money and worse conditions. Work Choices also took away workers’ rights to challenge unfair dismissal if their workplace employed less than 100 people. The federal government has ruled out reintroducing unfair dismissal laws until January 2010.

The ALP's 'award modernisation' concretely means having flexibility clauses inserted into EVERY EBA, which will guarantee employers to opt out of collective agreements and offer individual agreements.

Still no right to strike and no right of entry for unions. The more things change the more they stay the same...

Margarita Windisch | 05 May 2008  

Well put Tim Battin.

We have had human principles eroded for 11 years. It continues to astound me that some politicians see recent key Liberal Party policies and Catholic social teaching as compatible.

No party is perfect and no politician agrees with all his/her party's thought but we are talking about serious key policies that ignore human dignity - supported (no - promoted) by Catholic politicians.

Work Choices is only one - an illegal and expensive war (discouraged by the Pope), the ignorance of innocent casualties in that war and rejection of Aboriginal pleas for fairness are others.

We have had our collective conscience suppressed for so long I hope that it can be revived. Rudd needs to be encouraged towards policies that respect human dignity.

Damian Cudmore | 06 May 2008  

Tim: Thankyou for your thoughtful article and timely reminder that the worst aspects of Workchoices are yet to be dealt with. However, your words come as no surprise to those of us who've wondered for a long time now whether or not the "modernised" ALP, with its laughably hollow claim to still be a social democratic party, ought not instead stand for Alternative Liberal Party.

More to the point, your article brings two issues to mind:

1) It appears as though the new Federal Government is following the Howard Government's lead in inserting party political slogans into the titles of legislation. As if the Coalition's notorious "Workplace Relations (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill" wasn't bad enough, this Bill's title (Forward with Faitness) is just risible.

2) The aspect of the Rudd legislation that hasn't been sufficiently commented on is its proposal to do what Howard longed to do but wasn't able: get rid of the independent umpire (the IRC) altogether, and replace it with a "one stop shop" IR instrumentality. Thus, in a single legislative stroke (okay, strokes), Australia's unique system of independent conciliation and arbitration, which has served employers and employees well for over a century, will be done to death. And replaced with what? A government instrumentality that can be likewise gotten rid of with the merest shifting of the political winds, thereby leaving us with Howard's ultimate dream: a completely decentralised, unregulated industrial sector...

Brendan Byrne | 08 May 2008  

Tim is right in his overall analysis of what WorkChoices was trying to do - eliminate collective employee action at all levels from the ACTU-led National Wage case down to individual 'bargaining'.

However, there was a concerted effort to try to talk about the broader and more fundamental aspects of the legislation but it was an uphill task even in areas, including in the Catholic Church, where social conservatism has replaced catholic social teaching in a range of areas including employment laws. Other Churches were much more receptive in places.

This is a conversation which needs to developed quickly if Australia is not to lose its collective/social traditions completely.

Keith Harvey | 14 May 2008  

I strongly resist the workplace agreement. It is a scandal that will long reverberate!

Theo Dopheide | 01 December 2008  

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