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Oct 23, 2012

IR media debate 'without rigour, logic, fact and integrity'

A leading industrial lawyer has teed-off on the state of IR debate in the Australian media. It "occurs without any scientific, factual or empirical basis" -- especially at "right-wing blog" The Australian.

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Australia’s highest-flying employment lawyer has offered up a savage assessment of the state of industrial relations journalism and discussion in Australia, zeroing in on the role played by national broadsheet The Australian in distorting the terms of the debate.

Maurice Blackburn principal Josh Bornstein, in a speech delivered to the Australian Industry Group today and obtained by Crikey, unloads on the standard of public dialogue, slamming it as a “debate that occurs without any scientific, factual or empirical basis. It lacks rigour, logic, fact and integrity. It is enough to make a cretin weep.”

Bornstein, who recently represented Peter Slipper and whose court victory over stevedoring company Patrick in the waterfront dispute was immortalised in the hit ABC miniseries Bastard Boys, gives three examples of distortions: unfair dismissal laws, individual contracts and the productivity-workplace flexibility stoush.

But he reserves his sharpest barbs for The Australian — that he agrees is a “right-wing blog” — and its “editor-at-large” Paul Kelly. He highlights a 2011 Kelly feature “Bell Tolls for IR Law” as a “spectacular illustration of all that is wrong with the IR debate”.

Instead of applying “rigour, science, research, scepticism or factual inquiry to test the assertions of a link between the Fair Work Act and productivity performance”, Kelly “embellishes the assertions” of the usual suspects from the business lobby like Michael Chaney and Heather Ridout.

Kelly’s take, Bornstein says, was “simplistic, misleading, lazy and hopelessly partisan” and “economically illiterate”. “The article comes from a journalist who has won a Walkley Award for ‘journalism leadership’ and is now described as ‘editor-at-large’ of The Australian,” he said.

Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell hit back hard this morning, branding Bornstein a paid-up member of the “IR club”. “He would say that wouldn’t he?” Mitchell mused.

But he might be on to something with productivity. As Crikey has repeatedly demonstrated, labour productivity has grown at an average of 2.1% a year over the last two decades, including by 3.7% in 2011-12 (its highest rate since 2002). The real issue, if there is one, is multi-factor productivity and how that dovetails with pro-employer legislation. That case is less than clear cut.

Rapid productivity improvement occurred in the 1990s, when labour regulation was much tighter than it is now. And this graph delivered up by Saul Eslake last year says the big “reforms” of WorkChoices had less-than-spectacular results and weren’t “productivity enhancing”.

Bornstein says the unfair dismissal debate is often erroneously framed as if the inaction of stronger laws could lead to more unemployment when there is little evidence to back it up. Print journalists and “a conga line of shock jocks” defer to right-wing ideologues who find themselves without a leg to stand on when pressed for actual evidence.

“The idea that unfair dismissal laws have any significant bearing on unemployment has not been established since the first such laws were introduced in South Australia. In other words, we have had over 40 years experience of such laws without a single, credible piece of peer-reviewed research that would support such an attack,” he said.

And he says the idea that Howard-era claims about the supposedly vigorous employer/employee negotiation over individual employment contracts “is about as rare as a mortgage contract negotiated by a bank and a customer”.

“What is notable about these events is the lack of scientific rigour or integrity in the arguments put by the business community, politicians and employer groups. This is compounded by the echo effect experienced when reading a newspaper,” he said.

Bornstein’s media criticisms also reflect the ailing ranks of serious IR journalism. As this helpful report from May’s ACTU congress showed, there are now only a few industrial relations scribes remaining in Australia. In the 1970s, Sydney alone boasted 15 dedicated roundsmen.

Ben Schneiders at The Age is an experienced chronicler and often weighs in as a senior writer; the paper’s day-to-day industrial coverage is helmed by workplace editor Clay Lucas. The other leading lights were Ewin Hannan on The Oz (who escapes Bornstein’s sabre), hard-bitten AMWU chronicler Mark Skulley on The Australian Financial Review and Newcastle Herald veteran Ian Kirkwood.

As an aside, Bornstein accurately recalls that union-buster barrister of choice and HR Nicholls society vice-president Stuart Wood, who recently represented Kathy Jackson in her HSU fight, was once a left-leaning student at Melbourne University in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Andrew Crook —

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

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