Even as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was outlining its long-awaited parliamentary reform agenda,
John Howard was showing his contempt for the people’s Parliament –
jetting in his selected coterie of business types in a Budget-style
lockup on Sunday to prime them on his IR reforms, well before
Parliament had a chance to see them.

As Louise Dodson points out in today’s SMH,
the new reform process is a PR exercise, not a genuine debate. But it’s
working. The PM and Kevin Andrews managed to get all their big business
mates into the first news cycle yesterday – dominating spin on the
reforms – and all without a leak of the package details.

There are some implications down the track for this type of all-controlling government, as Steve Lewis hints in “Reasons to tremble as Howard starts up the steamroller” in today’s Australian.

“We
are witnessing the practical effect of last October’s decision by
voters to give the Coalition total parliamentary control,” records
Lewis. “The Senate has been reduced to a clearing house for an
executive that is cheered on by a business community receiving private
briefings on Coalition reforms.”

Which means that even Howard’s
sillier notions are likely to become law. Like his effort last week to
support the repeal of unfair dismissals laws: it would, said the PM, be a
“hit” with workers when they realised it could be used to get rid of an
employee considered “a pain in the neck.”

His point? “If
you’re living in a small business environment, you’ve got, say, five or
eight people in an office or a workshop and one of them is a pain in
the neck and is making life difficult for everybody else, it’s workers,
in many cases more than the boss, who would like to see the back of
him. That’s a point overlooked by some our union critics.”

Howard
doesn’t say what behaviour constitutes a PITN. But online pundit Rob
Chalmers in his latest “Inside Canberra” bulletin hazards a guess:
“Would an employee urging his or her fellow workers to join a union be
regarded a PITN?” he asks. “What about a worker who objected to fellow
workers smoking in confined workplaces? Or a worker who objected to
excessive swearing and profanity?”

“We know not, but there would be only one judge of a PITN – the boss.”

Encouraging
employees to turn against their workmates, Lord of the Flies-style,
is surely a novel tactic in the campaign for stripping workers of
unfair dismissal protection. Notes Chalmers: “With unfair dismissal
rights out the window, a bigoted boss is not going to say to a worker:
‘You’re sacked you Muslim mongrel.’ He can sack the worker by simply
claiming the worker is not satisfactory. With unfair dismissal laws
gone, the boss doesn’t have to explain why he sacks anyone, even if the
real reason is based on gender or race.”

Lewis reminds his
readers today: “A vibrant democracy requires a robust parliamentary
process. The only significant opposition to executive fiat now resides
within the Coalition partyroom. But there are few signs of internal
dissent or even robust debate over policy direction.” It appears that
not even fixed four years terms will fix that.

Peter Fray

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