Too often Crikey is dismissed as “a gossip site” when we are in fact a national clearing house for tips, news and commentary covering business, politics and media. For instance, we think this is a very thoughtful and interesting contribution on the IR debate from Democrat Senator and IR spokesman Andrew Murray which he has written exclusively for Crikey:
It’s game over. A unitary IR system is on its way. John Howard has publicly accepted the principle. The Prime Minister has the political will and he has the numbers. He also has the constitutional powers. States rightists and vested interests, incidentally not always the same people, have lost.
Some State Premiers might appeal to the High Court. They will probably be wasting their time and money in a futile gesture. The expectation is that they will lose.
The Premiers have a weak hand. Whether there are any State cards left to play requires a look at the Prime Minister’s hand. The questions for him are those of strategy and effectiveness, of politics and policy.
The political consideration for John Howard will be how to maximise community acceptance of a change that sweeps aside a century of mixed federal and state systems. In his political calculation the first question will be ‘who cares’?
Numerically, not as many as you might think. The majority of union members are already under the federal system and less than one in five employees are members of unions, although many more respect value and benefit from the work unions do.
Some businesses and business organisations may grumble, but on this issue at least, business opposition will be very modest. The federal system covers Victoria, the territories of ACT and NT, and businesses and unions who are parties to federal agreements in the five states remaining.
The best educated guess is that the federal system currently covers 65 per cent of employees. So two-thirds of employees won’t really give a fig for the state systems.
What many do care about ‘though is the content of the federal system. The current and dominant Federal IR system has made a significant contribution to Australia’s prosperity. It has contributed materially to sustained and significant productivity increases, real wage increases, GDP growth, low industrial disputation, greater export competitiveness and a flexible economy.
Fundamentalists inside and outside the Government want to radically change this effective system, but this could generate politically meaningful community opposition or concern.
From a productivity and efficiency point of view, the big policy prize is a unitary system. The existing federal system is acceptable to Victoria, so why change it fundamentally and risk wide-spread community rejection?
The Howard Government policy is to get 100 percent federal coverage. The constitutional powers that will be used to take over the state systems will likely only reach 85 percent of employees, leaving most small business uncovered, because they are not constitutional corporations.
15% of employees will remain under state systems. To use an old Marxist term, the Feds could just wait until the State systems wither away, but that is not really satisfactory in the medium term.
So what cards can the Premiers still play? Like with the Corporations Law they could sign an inter-Governmental agreement to give up their IR powers, and create a unitary system. Perhaps in return for some payment to ease the pain and an agreement to keep the federal system largely intact, with only modest change until after the next federal election.
There has always been a lot of theatre and symbolism in many Coalition utterances on what they want changed in IR. Put that aside. The big permanent structural reform is a unitary system. The Premiers should agree to it, but exact a sensible quid-pro-quo.
As Africans say, you eat an elephant a mouthful at a time, but first you have to shoot it.