The chorus of commenters proclaiming WorkChoices and economic responsibility as synonymous is one symptom of a largely misinformed and hysterically partisan debate over industrial relations.

Another is inattention to basic facts. Some are available, despite the fact that apparently it’s too complex a task for the Employment Advocate to compile any on AWAs. The ABS still exists.

Very few newspapers now retain specialist industrial relations reporters, and the best coverage of workplace matters, in the “bosses’ bible”, the Fin Review, rarely seems to set off the radars of national political reporters and columnists.

As with other areas of debate over policy, reporting has become increasingly partisan, and distorted by prevailing myths. Those myths, which are often exaggerations which contain partial truths, can usually be traced quite precisely back to political spin, as with “Howard’s battlers” (a phrase coined by Andrew Robb in a press club address on 13 March after the 1996 election).

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, we also live in the era where all political reporting must bow down to the gods of balance. 

In light of these considerations, it will be very interesting indeed to see whether a press release issued yesterday by Tony Maher of the CFMEU (Mining Division) gets much of a run, or any run at all. Maher has compiled statistics that directly challenge the claims that AWAs are the backbone of the mining industry, and that AWAs are necessary to its continued health and productivity growth.

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the interpretation placed on the stats by the union (although figures cited by business lobbies are seemingly rarely suspicious because of their source). The figures themselves all derive from government sources — either from the ABS or from WA bureaucratic agencies.

Maher’s press release states:

Recent ABS data (6306, Feb 2007) underlines that Australian mining does NOT rely on AWAs — just 31% of workers in metal ore mines, and only 16% of the mining industry’s workforce are on AWAs. Mining relies more on common law contracts (as provided for in ALP policy) rather than on AWAs. About 55% of metal ore miners are on common law contracts.

The ABS data also shows:

Unionised coal miners earn an average of $46.40 per hour. Largely non-union metal ore miners earn $35.20 per hour. Coal miners earn an average of 32% more.

Maher also cites figures on productivity growth. Since 1996, productivity growth has been negative in gold mining in WA, and average annual productivity growth in the largely collectivised coal industry has been 2.87%, while over the same period it’s been 0.33% in the largely de-unionised WA coal industry.

It would, of course, serve more than the cause of “balance” if these figures were reported. It would also serve an old-fashioned journalistic notion — reporting the facts.

Peter Fray

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