The WorkChoices debate

Guest post by Chris White

Watching the National Press Club’s debate between Joe Hockey and Julia Gillard, I was once again struck by the Government’s big lie about the so-called ‘job destroying unfair dismissal laws’. I remember Minister Peter Reith’s answer years ago (when he first put this in a press release) when I asked, how could this be? I said SA had the first unfair dismissal laws operating for many years without hearing from employers about such a notion. He gave this amazing reply.

“Of course, when a worker is unfairly dismissed it adds to unemployment. My press secretary reversed what happens. It creates jobs. He made it up ” he said proudly.

“But how could that be?”, I persisted.

“Look, its all about politics. We’ll just assert abolishing these unfair dismissal laws creates jobs” and laughed. He thought this was a great joke and being very clever.

There is no research evidence that an IR system allowing sacking at will and abolishing the right of an individual to go to a hearing to test unfairness creates jobs.

But over the years, political business people parroted the line that somehow they would not hire unless unfair dismissal laws were removed.

With Howard and his business mates repeating this mantra constantly, it has had some political impact.

A sad but predictable commentary on the standard of IR debate.

The same can be said about Hockey’s other political “spin”. Working families can see through all this.

Like workers’ experience of not having any power when individually bargaining with corporations; or Hockey’s so-called new “fairness” test or the union “bosses” spin, just not believed as shown in the polls and so on and so on.

Julia Gillard’s point that WorkChoices slammed through Parliament has no democratic legitimacy is telling, as were her points in reply. A majority wants WorkChoices abolished.

However, it is not positive for workers and their unions that Julia Gillard again promised to retain parts of WorkChoices that go against the International Labor Organisation’s minimum standards on workers collective bargaining rights and freedom of association, such as retaining restrictive right of entry; making pattern bargaining industrial action unlawful (the only OECD country that does so); like the complex restrictions on protected action (see ‘What limits the right to strike?’); like the repressive Building and Construction Act that the ALP quite rightly earlier condemned as removing the civil rights of workers and
the human right to withdraw labour (see my background paper “The Perth 107”).

Chris White has a BA Hons/LLB from the University of Adelaide. He was a union advocate for 27 years, first with the AWU and LHMU and then at the UTLC of SA as Secretary. He is now a labour law researcher living in Canberra. He is a long-term ALP member who can be contacted at whitecd at

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Posted in elections
16 comments on “The WorkChoices debate
  1. Sam Clifford says:

    I’m disgusted that Australia outlaws behaviour which arises within a free market. This isn’t your standard economic neo-liberalism, seeking to remove “unnecessary” legislation in order to facilitate more open dealings; no, this is actively legislating against natural behaviour. This is about as un-democratic (and anti-democratic) as you can get with industrial relations law.

    Whether you’re a card carrying communist or a gun toting libertarian, legislating against pattern bargaining and striking is just not on.

  2. Ken Lovell says:

    Reith used to love citing ‘evidence’ that getting rid of unfair dismissal laws would create 50,000 jobs. The evidence consisted of assertions to that effect made by the Council of Small Business Organisations. Having worked for an employer association, I can imagine the research methodology … I suspect they surveyed the eight people hanging around after a council meeting for drinks – “Hey Leonard would you put more people on if they got rid of the unfair dismissal crap?” – and extrapolated the result to the Australian small business sector.

    Or they might have just made something up of course … it was always a suspiciously neat figure.

  3. amused says:

    ‘A sad but predictable commentary on the standard of IR debate’.

    That is now the thing that interests me most. How is it that the standard of debate about the proper governance of the workplace, and the standards of safety and general amenity that Australians might expect in places where they spend over half their waking hours, for around just over half of their adult lives, receives zero serious attention in the media?

    Apart from drivel about ‘union bosses’ from the usual suspects in the GG, Ross Gittins is about the only commentator I have read who made the point understood by few outside specialist circles, that wage and salary earners overall share of output has dropped sharply, and now sits at historic lows?

    Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether you buy or sell labour of course, but the point is there has been no debate or discussion about this remarkable fact at all in the Press. Similarly, the issue of just why exactly, Australian citizens are not to be permitted the right to collectively bargain that citizens in other countries with even higher living standards that the best country in the world apparently enjoy, also meets with no comment, other than idiocies trotted out by the usual suspects for whom democratic norms mean little more than the right to hire an Accountant to reduce their tax burden.

    It is a measure of just how profound the contempt now is for people who simply work for a living, that issues and factors that effect them as a particular group as a result of that fact, are simply not worth either notice or debate. It’s just as well that the elites don’t decide what gets debated isn’t it?

  4. jinmaro says:

    Don’t suppose we’re going to hear a peep from the ALP about how workers, say like the Victorian nurses, who’ve signed agreements for the next three years for increases that will be eroded by interest rate rises are going to be compensated?

    All worker-employer agreements should have a mandatory clause stating wage negotiations will re-open in the event of inflationary pressures such as interest rises, so that workers are not penalised by being locked into outdated wage agreements.

  5. mbahnisch says:

    Very well said, amused.

    You could have added the deliberate attempt to close down any debate through the lack of disclosure of stats and research and the vicious ad hominem attacks on anyone who attempts to enter the debate armed with serious research.

  6. Ken Lovell says:

    ‘… the contempt now is for people who simply work for a living …’

    Exactly, well put. We are all supposed to be capitalists now; kids in school aren’t asked what they want to be when they grow up, they’re asked if they’ve negatively geared their first investment unit yet.

    It has some positive aspects, in that more people than ever before are comfortable verging on wealthy. However it is also leading to the mentality that amused refers to, in which people with only their labour to sell are increasingly regarded as being less than full participants in society.

  7. mbahnisch says:

    jinmaro, how far apart was the settlement with the Victorian nurses from the union’s claim?

    Unions normally try to ensure that cost of living increases are factored into wages where agreements run for several years.

  8. mbahnisch says:

    Ken, Marx is looking better and better as an analyst of ideology and consciousness in current Australian debates and social attitudes all the time…

  9. jinmaro says:

    Mark, I don’t know the proportion affected but some Vic nurses were disapppointed that the agreement included pay rises of between 3.6% per year and 6.06% per year, depending on nurses’ level of classification when the original claim had been for the higher rate for all nurses.

    However, the outcome does mean that at least some Vic nurses are no longer the lowest paid in the country and there were other parts of the agreement relating to childcare, mat leave and staff-patient ratios that were good and welcome, plus the agreement to employ more nurses overall – if they can get them!

    Mark, Mick Costa has pledged only 2 and half % wage increases to NSW state public servants over the lifetime of the next 3-4year EBA’s – almost half what workers got in the last agreement. This represents a wage cut even on today’s terms.

    And the PSA’s EBA does not factor in overall wage increases tied to inflation or interest rate increases within the lifetime of the agreement and I don’t know of any other agreements that do.

    A friend who is a member of the MEAA raised this at a recent union meeting and the official was dumbstruck at the proposal. It had simply never occurred to him that workers should ask for such a thing!

  10. mbahnisch says:

    There are a number of collective agreements that barely keep up with inflation or represent a fall in real wages, jinmaro. I’m not defending them, but I suppose from the perspective of the state governments, the fall in federal funding implies difficulty meeting wages bills in labour intensive sectors.

  11. amused says:

    I must say I don’t see why wage claims should factor in interest rate rises at all. Not everybody has a mortgage, and people who have savings actually benefit from interest rate rises. Wage settlements should, at an absolute minimum, maintain real wages over the life of the agreement, (the term of any agreement should not be too long in a period of rising inflation) and ensure that people are able to share in productivity increases over the term, as either increases in wages, conditions, or whatever people decide they want and are able to persuade their management to agree to.

    While Team Rodent can wear this interest rate increase round their necks like an iron collar destined to drown them in the sea of the election, it should not be missed that Australia’s interest rates are not just higher than they were in 2004, they are among the highest in the world, and have been even over the life of the BESTEST ECONOMIC MANAGERS of all time. Now, where is the debate from McCrann and the rest of the daleks about why this is so, and what the long term implications of this are for future economic growth? Oh, I forgot, that would mean actually thinking for a change, instead of parrotting the talking points du jour from ‘self-interest central’, aka ACCI, BCA and the small business organisations whose leadership has always been utterly clueless, but always able to find its way to the front of the queue looking for handouts, while perpetually screaming for rugged individualism from their own employees. These people now believe that paying someone for their time is now ‘optional extra’, and that wages are simply a privelege which should not abused by people expecting to get them at the end of every week or fortnight as the case may be.

    Must give Barbara a ring. I am sure that used to against the Law-uh

  12. mbahnisch says:

    Not everybody has a mortgage, and people who have savings actually benefit from interest rate rises.

    Amused, as I said at PollieGraph yesterday:

    There’s another furphy lurking in all the political debate on the effect of interest rates. It’s often implicitly assumed that the only voters who’ll punish (or reward if you buy the risk line) the Government are those with mortgages and modest incomes. It’s now clearer that renters suffer as well, but consider also that so many of us are groaning under the weight of credit card and other loan debt. It’s not just to buy plasma TVs. For the large portion of the population, a portion that’s particularly large among younger voters, who don’t enjoy the fruits of permanent full time work, credit is a necessity to smooth over the peaks and troughs of an irregular income that results from reliance on casual, contract or limited term employment.

    And I disagree with you on your interpretation of the polls showing some people not holding Howard to account:

    Labor have been relatively successful, in pursuit of their argument that it’s not risky to change horses in mid-prosperity-stream, in convincing the public that government policy has only some influence on economic conditions. That’s the explanation both of why they can be lower in the polls on ‘economic management’ and why Newspoll is showing a fair number of people not holding John Howard to account for the six rate rises since his notorious promise in 2004.

    The post can be found here:

  13. jinmaro says:

    Wilful, what you are describing (in part) is wage indexation but the centralised wage indexation system that operated between 1975-1981 was abolished and replaced with enterprise bargaining, even though the former was a system specifically designed to cut real wages. But it wasn’t enough, you see. It ain’t ever gonna be enough. Which is why we now confront SerfChoices and the ALP’s lame, vague rollback (joke) plan.

    “ensure that people are able to share in productivity increases over the term…”

    Yeah, sure. When did that last happen, anywhere? And who is measuring this and how?

    I say productivity increases every time an employer cuts the number of its employees yet increases or even just maintains their existing workload and it increases every time new technology is introduced – a neverending process. Yet this increased productivity of workers is neither recognised nor remunerated.

    How come?

  14. jinmaro says:

    sorry, comment was in response to amused.

  15. amused says:

    I agree with your points about productivity jinmaro and the ways in which employees are increasingly unable to ensure their share of a pie which is growing ever bigger thanks to their increasing efforts and decreasing share of overall output.

    It is however, incorrect to ascribe to me, a hankering for ‘wage indexation’ of the type that existed between 1975-1981. For a start, wage indexation did nothing at all except ‘cement’ the wages system for a period when overall shares were dropping as a result of a range of other factors at that time. Second, wage indexation is a recipe for a lazy, inward looking labour movement that has forgotten how to bargain properly over their share of output.

    As to why it appears that people have forgotten how to properly account for the added value their labour produces, it is a long discussion which is too long for here, but one of the reasons might be that employers have been quite successful in ensuring that ‘competition’ among them is borne as diminished income for their employees, and the trade union movement has proved completely unable to deal with an appropriate wage strategy in the face of the contemporary political economy.

    If it is any comfort, that last observation is true of most trade union movements in the world (where they are still allowed to have them that is). However, I don’t except this situation to continue indefinitely.

  16. clarencegirl says:

    A very interesting ‘outing’ of the truth behind the unfair dismissal propaganda – thanks Chris.

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