Five special essays


The State of the States 2005 presents the Evatt Foundation's 12th annual assessment of the performance of Australia's state governments. Casting a shadow over the assessment, the publication was prepared while the Commonwealth government under John Howard was proposing an epic rearrangement of the Australian federation. Accordingly, following the traditional Evatt Foundation State Government League Table in Part One, in Part Two we present five invited essays on key aspects of the Howard government's proposed reorganisation of the country.

     In the first of the special essays, Jeff Shaw and Monika Ciolek survey the Constitutional question. Can the Commonwealth exploit its senate majority to unilaterally destroy the jurisdiction of the states over labour? They conclude that, should the High Court uphold the unprecedented power grab - by no means a certainty - at the Commonwealth's furthest exclusive reach, the proposed scheme will remain less than national, uncertain and litigation prone.
     We follow with an analysis of the productivity question, upon which the Howard government has placed great rhetorical weight. As Australia's labour economists have virtually universally found, John Burgess and Peter Waring also find that this argument is basically bunk. Terms like 'productivity' and 'flexibility' are masks for sustaining low wages, privileging managerial prerogative, shrinking employee rights, lowering minimum standards and intensifying work. If Australia is to depend on these proposals, real long-term productivity will go begging or decline.
     In the third of our special 2005 essays, Chris Briggs, Rae Cooper & Bradon Ellem examine the consequences for collective bargaining. The effect will be to further empower employers to force their employees onto individual contracts. The authors critique the notion that the new laws will allow more choice, as this relies on the preposterous contention that individual workers stand in the same bargaining position as their bosses. The conclusion is that the proposals are bad news for Australian workers. They will undermine wages, working conditions and human rights.
     The two remaining chapters look at the consequences for women, who have always been disadvantaged in the labour market, and children, the most vulnerable in the marketplace. Meg Smith and Peter Ewer observe that the Howard power grab threatens to reverse advances toward full equality for women in the workplace in two ways. Firstly, the national wage-fixing system that Howard aims to cripple has been crucial to Australia's comparatively good international performance in achieving equal pay. Secondly, the state jurisdictions to be engulfed by the Commonwealth have been the sites of the most recent progress in correcting the undervaluing of women's work.
     The concluding chapter by the NSW Commission for Children and Young People questions the proposed scheme against the experience of children at work. Almost 60 per cent of children aged 12 to 16 years work, and over 60 per cent of these work for a formal employer. Given that the government's proposals entail a sweeping re-regulation of work relations in favour of employers, the difficulties that 15 year-olds will face in individually negotiating reasonable contracts are plain.
     The five essays address five key aspects of the Howard government's bid to refashion the nation's federal-state labour laws, but they scarcely cover the full implications. They barely touch, for example, the detail of the draconian curtailment of union activity, the right to strike and appeal rights over unfair sacking. The incidence of dire, harsh, unjust and unreasonable dismissals will increase, as will lock-outs.
     It should also be made clear that the essays are mainly based on the announcements made by the prime minister and his minister for workplace relations at their joint press conference of 26 May 2005. As The State of the States 2005 was being finalised, the Howard government launched a massive media propaganda campaign and released a booklet with the Orwellian title of WorkChoices. The advertising has not assuaged the concerns raised in these essays, only reinforced them. Perhaps there is a degree of ambit in the government's offensive, or it may buckle under popular uproar. It seems more likely at the time of writing that the direction and associated concerns will only become more deeply entrenched as the new 678-page law is examined.
     Finally, while some have opposed the Commonwealth take-over according to the doctrine of 'state rights', there is little substantive cause for objection to a unitary system of labour law in principle. The jurisdictions are already nationally integrated in many ways, and the Howard proposals will fall short of the full field, even with a willing High Court. The important general point that arises from the analyses in The State of the States 2005 is that the Howard proposals are positively hostile in intent. They do not aim to subsume but destroy the states' jurisdiction, thereby smashing Australia's time-honoured industrial relations framework to install instead a reactionary regime akin to 19th century employer-employee power relations.
     Lack of representation, lock-outs, exploitation of the vulnerable, imposition of excessive hours, low pay, sweating of outworkers, unsafe work practices, the absence of safeguards against arbitrary sackings or mass redundancies and the denial of workers' dignity are conducive neither to Australia's economic success nor social peace, let alone to improving the state of the states.

Christopher Sheil
Editor, The State of the States 2005

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