Nearly four centuries ago the then King of Sweden, Gustavus II Adolphus, wanted a special ship built in his honour, to lead the fight in the war against Poland. Top heavy and with insufficient ballast, the Vasa foundered and sank barely 20 minutes into its maiden voyage.
If Gustavus were alive today, he would find a soul mate in the Prime Minister and his ship, WorkChoices. Disliked by the public since the day it was announced, but pursued relentlessly nonetheless, it has played a key role in the unpopularity of the federal government and its likely sinking at the forthcoming election.
A stream of research reports have emerged demonstrating, in one way or another, the accuracy of the public’s expectations at the time WorkChoices was announced. Studies have shown, amongst other things, that WorkChoices and its Australian Workplace Agreements were associated with poorer outcomes for workers, particularly the lower paid, in terms of wages, conditions and job security.
The response has been a three-pronged pattern of hysterical denouncement of any critics, suppression of information and dissemination of misinformation. This year numerous academics with the temerity to publish research have been personally attacked by Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey. In the more high profile instances, these have been followed by attacks from conservative columnists and propagandists.
One of the most recent instances of this was in Crikey itself, which published a diatribe aimed at this author, from a Mr Bertrand, that was apparently part of a broader assault on the [email protected] report. This report had found, amongst other things, that low-skilled workers on AWAs were paid significantly less than their colleagues on collective agreements.
Such attacks usually contain three elements: a message that, if someone criticises WorkChoices, their views cannot be objective, and therefore the facts they cite can be instantly dismissed; an inability to directly refute those facts that are unfavourable towards WorkChoices; and factual errors.
The sloppiness of the diatribe was shown by the fact its whole premise was that this author was “the other academic”, apart from Sydney University’s John Buchanan, involved in the [email protected] report. Anyone who bothers to look at even the cover of the report will see that it has four authors – John Buchanan, Brigid Van Wanrooy, Sarah Oxenbridge and Michelle Jakubauskas. But not David Peetz.
Now, yours truly did serve on an external advisory board for this report, advising on technical matters relating to questionnaire design – but then so too did Mark Wooden, a prominent conservative economist and advocate of labour market deregulation, who is also skilled in this area of questionnaire design. Despite someone’s imaginings, we cannot take any credit for the report. But I can say that it was rigorously designed, that its real authors are highly professional, that funding was approved only after a competitive process involving extensive peer review, and that despite Ministerial claims to the contrary, its findings are consistent with evidence from other sources, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
As well as attacking the messengers of unwanted information, the advocates of WorkChoices have suppressed unfavourable official information. Data demonstrating that the majority of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) under WorkChoices abolished “protected” award conditions such as penalty rates, overtime pay and public holiday pay, and that close to nine tenths reduced or abolished these “protected” conditions, were collected by government officials last year, but suppressed from public release.
Access to confidentialised AWAs (with names and identifying details removed to ensure anonymity), permitted to researchers before 2006, has been withheld under WorkChoices through administrative decision, by a public servant who featured in government advertisements promoting WorkChoices.
And then there is the third prong: the spread of misinformation. We became used to the selective use of data in debate leading up to WorkChoices. For example, the government routinely argued (and still does) that ABS data show AWAs pay more than collective agreements and indeed double what award workers receive. But this claim can only be made by using weekly earnings figures, distorted by the fact that AWA workers have to work longer hours than collective agreement workers, and indeed the majority of award-reliant workers only work casual or part-time hours. When you look at hourly earnings, you find that median earnings for AWA workers are 16 per cent below median earnings for workers on collective agreements.
Since Joe Hockey became Minister for Workplace Relations, matters have moved to a new dimension. Now, we are frequently told as “facts” things which are simply not true.
I could barely believe my ears when I heard Mr Hockey on The 7.30 Report last month insist – three times – that the loss of any award conditions, including redundancy pay, is “compensated fully” “in law” under his personally designed “fairness test”. Yet sections 346M and 354 of the Act are unambiguous: redundancy pay, like other non-“protected” award conditions, is not subject to the “fairness test”. Notably, the Prime Minister avoided reiterating Hockey’s fiction when invited to do so in the Leaders’ Debate last Sunday.
The Minister has a particular penchant for porkies about this author: most recently, some time after I released a research report on AWAs based on ABS data from 9,000 employers concerning 57,000 employees, he claimed in a media release that my research was “based on the opinions of twenty or so people”! Some earlier fabrications are documented in David Marr’s June Quarterly Essay.
Perhaps more disturbing was a statement issued last month in which Mr Hockey trumpeted a Departmental report to Parliament asserting hourly earnings of non-managerial employees on AWAs increased by 12.8 per cent over the preceding two years. As pointed out by Ross Gittins, this figure is a concoction: the average increase was only 5.9 per cent over two years.
The median increase, which, for reasons explained elsewhere, is a better indication of typical outcomes under AWAs, was not quite so bad at 7.9 per cent. But still, this deception is serious stuff. According to Gittins, “the secretary of the Workplace Relations Department and his senior staff should hang their heads in shame for seeking to mislead the public and the Parliament in this way.”
It was not an accidental error: on quizzing by journalists, both the Department and the Minister’s Office continued to defend use of this number. If citizens and the media cannot rely on a Department to provide honest, accurate information, what are they to believe?
Just as King Gustavas’ arrogance obstructed the ability of his officials to perform their proper duties, so too has the arrogance of an almost unfettered federal government reshaped, to the detriment of the public, the modern public service. It is a problem examined from a different angle in Pat Weller’s book Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, which focused on the “children overboard” affair. It raises some important questions for any incoming Rudd government.
Clearly some restructuring of the public service will be required. But more important will be a rebuilding of some of the core values of public service – including those concerning independence, honesty, Ministerial accountability, and appointment by merit (you could not get a job in the Workplace Relations Department, no matter how meritorious your abilities, if you do not sign an AWA).
There is a fine but important line between a public service that is responsive and one that is partisan. We need to maintain the independence and political neutrality of public servants, so they can serve any government and provide frank and fearless advice (“your ship will sink”) – and so the public can trust them. Simply sacking a few senior officials and replacing them with others more suitable will not in itself deal with a deterioration in the core values of public service that appears to have taken place over recent years. The lead will have to be taken by Ministers, who will need to accept a higher standard of honesty and accountability than has been demonstrated in recent times.
The Vasa, recently raised from the bottom of Stockholm harbour, now stands in a dedicated museum, a permanent reminder of the folly of arrogance and dishonesty. Perhaps the greatest potential danger of a Rudd government would be if it accepted, and thereby entrenched, the arrogant standards and values of public administration that it would inherit from its predecessor.