Surveys too often tell us something which is either self evident or of little relevance. The recent finding that in certain industries those on collective agreements earn more than those employed under AWAs is unsurprising. What this does not mean is that the WorkChoices system disadvantages workers.

AWAs, which predate WorkChoices, tend to suit small businesses in the industries surveyed, while for obvious administrative ease, a larger business in the selected industry will tend to prefer collective agreements, which are recognized under WorkChoices. Small business also tends to pay its employees less; larger businesses tend to pay more. The point is that the use of AWAs is not the reason for lower pay; rather it is most likely the size of the enterprise. (I suspect that that special case, the mining industry, would be an exception from these trends.)

Until about three or four decades ago academics in the sciences taught and conducted experiments the results of which they reported, while those in the humanities taught and wrote books and articles without the need for any significant funding. Then came surveys. The surveying by academics even of other academics became so tedious that many stopped answering them, in the same way that people now divert their phones to answering machines.

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In the meantime the media became addicted to surveys and polling. In a reversal of the usual rule about conflicts, each outlet even decided that a poll or survey is especially newsworthy if they had paid for it. So we have the regular scheduling of polls, with journalists waiting in excitement for the next poll as if something of importance were about to take place, similar to the opening of the entrails of some unfortunate animal in earlier times. While the weaker politician and commentator is alternately elated, depressed or reduced to panic, the general public, endowed with more common sense, remain calm and sceptical.

It was therefore refreshing to see a book which provides an intelligent and practical analysis of WorkChoices, rather than yet another survey. From a new publishing house, Connor Court PublishingFair Choices is by Paul Monk, rightly described as “a public intellectual of genuinely independent standing.” He makes the point that in IR, both sides in politics try to cater for the demands of their heterogeneous sets of constituents, leading to overtly complex and intellectually unwieldy industrial relations policies.

In trying to provide a clear and simple explanation of WorkChoices, Monk says they are an absurdly complex bureaucratic tangle of regulations, but that insufficient allowance is made its opponents for the genuinely liberal intention behind the scheme nor allowance made for its possible benefits. The general public, instinctively sceptical about these things, probably sees both sides.

Monk explodes some myths about WorkChoices, the first being that it replaces a system which worked well. The old system was appalling and had to go, as Paul Keating recognized in a quite remarkable interview on Lateline in June. Keating also grasped immediately what Julia Gillard did not – that Howard’s expansion of the corporations power would be extremely attractive to a future Labor government. Indeed at this year’s Samuel Griffith conference, Julian Leeser argued that the Labor states had deliberately ran dead in the High Court for this end.

I had thought that a gradual approach to liberalising the IR regime, with “unfair dismissals” dealt with first, would have been tactically better than this “Big Bang,” particularly one which so clearly offends federalist principles. But it was the same with the GST; who but Howard would have risked an election on the GST which he then gave to that gaggle of ingrate state governments? Howard’s centralist “crash through” policies have been spectacularly more successful than Gough Whitlam’s, a fact which the former PM recognizes.

The other myths Monk challenges are that WorkChoices will bring about a wholesale reduction in pay and conditions , that it will impose disadvantage through AWAs, that there is no independent arbitrator, and that it legitimises arbitrary dismissals. In fact under WorkChoices, all workers are protected against unlawful dismissal. All that WorkChoices has done is to end the use of the previous law to extract money from employers for dismissals which were self evidently fair. He mentions the notorious Ansett case where employees caught on video in the act of stealing alcohol were reinstated by the AIRC. That a Rudd government would actually restore this racket is not only bad for small business, it will have a significant deleterious effect on new employment.

Like the GST, WorkChoices has not been a wrecking ball going through employees’ pay and conditions. As Monk says, the simplest test of the value of WorkChoices is the casual relationship, or even the correlation, between the timing of the reforms, living standards and the rate of industrial action. The answer is obvious.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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