One of the things the Kevin Rudd-led Labor opposition was very good at was ignoring the agenda John Howard and Peter Costello wanted to dominate the political debate — primarily by simply agreeing with whatever the government said — in favour of running an agenda it knew would resonate with voters. One of the techniques Rudd adopted was of calling fora or summits on particular issues, like housing, which drew mockery from Howard but focused debate on issues on which the government was apparently immobilised.

Four years on, housing remains a vexed issue apparently beyond the capacity of our leaders to deal with effectively, but anyway.

The jobs forum (apparently we no longer have summits) announced yesterday, scheduled for October 6 while the tax forum is on, has a similar goal in relation to the political agenda. Unions that wanted a full-scale, Steve Bracks-style manufacturing inquiry will have to make do with a one-day talk fest, but it’s presumably better than nothing. But unlike the housing summit, it’s a summit in search of a problem.

“The changing structure of the Australian economy, drivers of job creation and investment, manufacturing: the next decade, adapting to the high dollar” are all issues worthy of deep consideration within Treasury and the Department of Innovation, but the economy is near full employment and the biggest labour problem continues to be skill shortages in high-growth industries.

The pointlessness of the gathering will be underlined by the likelihood that business will use it to insist there’s nothing wrong with the economy that a little WorkChoices and de-unionisation wouldn’t fix and unions will use it to insist on greater support for manufacturing and finding ways to increase demand for local manufactures.

These are both symptoms of policy laziness. Unions want demand for domestically-produced goods artificially propped up at the expense of imports. Employer groups are worse. Despite clear evidence that IR deregulation actually leads to a drop in productivity — Judith Sloan, amusingly, today tries to shift the goalposts on that issue — they keep calling for it. Might it be they’re not so interested in productivity as in increasing their share of profits by cutting labour costs, thereby continuing the long-term decline in the wage share of national income?

In any event, the forum will be a good opportunity for both sides to talk past each other on the issues, while a government that is uninterested in either further IR reform or a significant shift toward protectionism sits and watches. It’s also unlikely to be interested in the one thing both sides will agree on: the need for further government support for industry. Still, it gives the government something to point to when employers demand IR reform and unions demand measures to assist manufacturers.

Peter Fray

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