News Michael Pascoe: Who do you trust Christian Porter to serve?
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Michael Pascoe: Who do you trust Christian Porter to serve?

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It’s the trust thing, again. Whose interests do you trust the government to prioritise – those of its “base” or the rest?

In particular, who do you trust Attorney-General Christian Porter to primarily serve with the biggest industrial relations reform since Work Choices – employers or employees?

If “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour”, the rest and employees have good reason to be wary of the omnibus IR bill Mr Porter is scheduled to unveil this week.

The core of the Coalition’s base is the employer and investor class, those least enamoured with Labor-supporting unions.

The heart of that core is small business – the HiLux-owning, Bunnings-going independents, Scott Morrison’s avatar.

For decades now, the Coalition’s policy drive has been to increase business’ share of the national pie and decrease labour’s share; to maximise profits and minimise wage costs; to increase employers’ power in the workplace and decrease employees’ power.

It has been very successful. Private sector real take-home wages growth has been minimal or non-existent for seven years.

Labour’s share of national income has been on the slide for the lifetime of most Australians, capital’s share on the rise.

The repeated guise for this policy is “job creation”. This is where neoliberal economic theory collides with lived experience.

coronavirus job losses abs
The Coalition concept of “job creation” is different from what many unemployed people in Centrelink queues would imagine. Photo: AAP

Example (A): Winding back penalty rates was supposed to create extra jobs – employees lost money, jobs did not grow.

Example (B): Increasing the superannuation guarantee is supposed to reduce wages – wages happily increased while the super guarantee was being increased. Wages have not increased while the promised super guarantee has been frozen. (And I’ll wager wages growth will be stuck around the consumer price index with or without next year’s legislated super guarantee increase.)

Example (C): The productivity increase delivered by our increasingly casualised and flexible workforce has flowed to corporate profits, the job creation that has occurred has tended to be casual and insecure with little or no bargaining power.

Example (D): Well, this isn’t the “job creation” excuse, but the government’s move to limit public sector wage increases to those of the private sector means lower wages growth overall, hence less demand, hence fewer jobs.

Thus, as well as past performance, Christian Porter stressing “job creation” as the reason for his package is reason to be wary.

Michael Pascoe says the Coalition have done their best to rush the drafting of the bill without consultation or due diligence. Photo: AAP

So is the methodology of the bill’s creation.

You don’t have to be particularly cynical to suspect Machiavelli’s advice to never waste a good crisis has been heeded.

There’s the COVID Crisis! The ’Rona Recession! There’s no time for a White Paper to explore the government’s policy, let alone a Green Paper considering policy alternatives.

No, let’s have a rushed series of behind-closed-doors, invitation-only roundtables, produce a bill within months and suggest the details can be negotiated later.

You also don’t have to be cynical to think that for a bill to be drafted so quickly (in stark contrast with the national integrity commission’s snail pace), the government already knew what it wanted to do.

By the nature of Mr Porter’s process, any details to be negotiated are in the bill – and the only negotiation that will matter for the government will be what it can get through the assorted odds and sods with the balance of power in the Senate.

Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party could be lured by more promises of millions. Photo: AAP

What bribes will One Hanson extract this time? How many more millions will flow to Mayo to deliver the Centre Alliance vote?

The Guardian has reported Mr Porter’s bill is expected to push the continuation of greater employer power over employees that were agreed by unions as an emergency measure when COVID first hit as part of making JobKeeper work – but there will be no more JobKeeper.  

And “Porter’s draft bill proposes that industries hardest hit by COVID-19, including retail, should gain “part-time flexibility”, allowing part-time workers working at least 16 hours per week to be offered extra hours at ordinary time rates without penalties or loadings”.

Yes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or a bag of old prawn shells as bad. Ditching penalties and loadings smells like lower wages.

“If you want to make it easier and less risky to employ someone – flexibility shouldn’t be temporary,” the Council of Australian Small Business Organisations chief executive Peter Strong told The Guardian.

What’s missing from “jobs, jobs, jobs” guise is any consideration of Australia’s broader economic challenge. Greater “flexibility” and lower wages are presented as unquestionable truisms for the greater glory of all. That’s rubbish.

As has been mentioned in this space many times, it’s the lack of consumer demand, rather than the cost of labour, that had business investment going nowhere long before the pandemic struck.

Keep wages down long enough, consumer spending deteriorates i.e. demand weakens.

That’s why the Reserve Bank had identified weak wages growth/weak consumption as our biggest domestic economic problem before COVID, why it cut interest rates three times last year to try to counter the Coalition’s wages suppression and tightening fiscal policy.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe warned for months before coronavirus about weak wages growth. Photo: AAP

The emergency now for our economy is for consumers to have a sense of security and increasing real incomes.

Yet more “flexibility” is a euphemism for less security. Making it “less risky” to employ someone is a euphemism for making it easier to cheaply sack them.

Will Christian Porter’s bill make workers better paid and more secure in their employment? That’s the bottom line to look for. Good luck finding it.

Meanwhile, remember the government’s excuse for not finalising its long-promised National Integrity Commission (the NIC, as I can only hope it would be called)? It was too busy walking the COVID to chew integrity gum at the same time.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus was integral in helping Australian workplaces tackle the pandemic.

Turns out Mr Porter hasn’t been too busy herding five roundtables into an IR omnibus to stop stalking the CFMEU.

The anti-union Ensuring Integrity Bill failed to clear the Senate last year and government then made a virtue out of necessity by dropping the bill as a goodwill gesture towards the union movement when its help was needed this year.

While the bigger IR omnibus issues will be taking oxygen, the government’s Australian newspaper reports Mr Porter will be seeking legislation to enable the breakup of the CFMEU.

The paper reports Mr Porter wants to divide and conquer by allowing the CFMEU’s divisions to leave the union.

“The government’s expectation is the mining and energy division would be first to take up the opportunity presented by the new legislation, followed by the manufacturing division.

“Once they have walked, the construction and maritime divisions would be weakened, At that stage, the government would look at proceeding with a further legislative response that targets the two divisions and, in particular, (CFMEU Victorian leader John) Setka.”

Maybe you can trust the government to run true to form.

As for trusting Mr Porter, among other things, he is the Attorney-General responsible for pushing the Witness K and Bernard Collaery prosecutions when his predecessor had been happy to let sleeping injustices lie.

Maybe Mr Porter also can be trusted to run true to form.

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