May 28, 2012

EMA debacle: more incompetent policy-making from Labor

The shambles around the announcement of the first Enterprise Migration Agreement is a good illustration of the incompetent state of Australian political policy-making.

Alan Kohler

Business Spectator editor-in-chief

Yesterday’s shambles around the announcement of the first Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) is a pretty good illustration of the dysfunctional, incompetent state of Australian political policy-making. The introduction of EMAs was first revealed in last year’s budget speech by Wayne Swan. It was a throwaway line, attached to an announcement of 16,000 skilled migration places for the “regions”. That pre-empted by two months the final report of the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce, which recommended EMAs, although the idea had been raised in an interim report; it was one of 31 recommendations, mostly to do with training more Australians to work on resources projects. By the way, the “Industry Reference Group” to this taskforce, included one Paul Howes, national secretary of the AWU, Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the ACTU and Dave Oliver, secretary of the AMWU and now Lawrence’s successor at the ACTU. A low level debate about EMAs bubbled away throughout last year. Employers welcomed them, smaller mining companies worried that they wouldn’t get access to them, Dave Noonan of the CFMEU said he was against them, Bob Katter said he was against them. Howes, Lawrence and Oliver kept their heads down. In February this year, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed, when asked at a press conference, that he was assessing an application from Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting for an EMA covering the Roy Hill project. Once again Dave Noonan of the CFMEU was the unions’ chosen man to deplore at. “All they have to do,” Noonan said at the time, “is get a consultant to produce a report to say there's a skills shortage. You can get a consultant to say night is day if you pay them enough”. The general statement about consultants may be true, but the rest of it was not. After dozens of submissions and months of work, the taskforce report last July concluded that the peak demand for construction jobs on new projects in 2012-13 would be 45,000. It added that employment growth in mining operations would create 65,000 new jobs by 2015. “As a result, the resources sector could be 36,000 tradespeople short by 2015. If these workers are recruited from other sectors there will be skills shortages in those industries. Clearly there was a looming problem that required immediate policy action by the government or a lot of projects simply wouldn’t get finance. Obviously workers would have to be brought in, as well as trained locally. The EMA for Roy Hill announced at the weekend was a precondition for that project to get finance. The taskforce was chaired by Gary Gray as parliamentary secretary for WA and Queensland (who knew there was such a position?) and comprised bureaucrats from the four departments involved in the problem – Employment, Immigration, Resources and Infrastructure – as well as bureaucrats from WA and Queensland, plus Phil Bullock from Skills Australia and Ken Scott-McKenzie from Macmahon Holdings as an industry representative. It was a good, comprehensive report and as far as I can tell, the bureaucrats have all done their best. “Outreach officers” from the Immigration Department have even been travelling the country giving dozens of seminars on skilled migration. Yet the politicians have managed to stuff the whole thing up and the union leaders have once again shown a total lack of leadership. The bureaucrats and business people working on the policy and the projects must be in despair. Contrast this process with the long, careful partnership between Paul Keating and Bill Kelty that resulted in the introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1991. The behaviour of Paul Howes, especially, is a disgrace, asking yesterday – “whose side are we on?” – but the government has been hopelessly incompetent as well. It would seem that Howes, Oliver and Lawrence were merely plonked on the Industry Reference Group to the taskforce in the hope that they would go along with it – no one in the government has apparently worked with them to develop the policy and lock them in behind it. If they have been working behind the scenes then Howes really is treacherous. As with bringing in enterprise bargaining agreements in the 80s, the leadership needs to come from the top; enterprise migration agreements are too important – and too sensitive – to have been left to Chris Bowen and Martin Ferguson. They didn’t have the authority to negotiate an Accord on the subject with the ACTU. Paul Keating was not the employment minister but he led the opening up of the workforce with Bill Kelty. It should have been Julia Gillard and/or Wayne Swan, working with Jeff Lawrence and Ged Kearney to produce a sensible application of 457 Visas to the resources sector, to underpin Australia’s resources boom. Stop laughing. Yes, those four are so consumed by their own petty squabbles and grandstanding that they would have been incapable of anything so visionary, but they didn’t even give it a try. Swan actually made it much harder with his ridiculous attacks on the mining billionaires this year. So after more than year of reports and debate, of seminars and consultation, about what is clearly one of the most important policy issues facing this country, the announcement of the first EMA yesterday was able to be greeted with faux surprise by the unions and the media and apparently genuine surprise by the ALP Caucus. As a result there is renewed speculation about Gillard’s leadership and reports that numbers are being counted against her, with two former union leaders, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten, touted as successors. Hey wait a minute…

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25 thoughts on “EMA debacle: more incompetent policy-making from Labor

  1. SBH

    And for added flavour – where does Twiggy Forrest’s failed Australian Employment Covenant fit into this picture. After pledging to find 50,000 jobs for Aborigines, many of whom live near mining hotspots, he’s found about two thousand jobs in total.

    Close the Gap? more like shut the door.

  2. Jimmy

    I find this article interesting, it ostensibly accuses the govt of stuffing up the policy while saying the actions taken by the govt are not only required but also important.
    It blames the govt for the reaction of the unions (which are always going to be at least seen to be representing the intersts of their membership) and media who are always going to portray the slightest ember as a raging bushfire.

  3. Stephen

    Australians are already being offered two or three times AWE to work in mining, houses in Karratha rent at Manhattan levels, we already have a precipitously high migration program, the mining tax has been neutered, and we don’t have a proper resource fund, so the multi-billionaire still needs a special deal otherwise we won’t be able to dig up every last skerrick of earth before last Thursday.

    In whose interest is this deranged and disorderly panic? If I vaporised my own private economic resources in this unseemly manner, I imagine someone would give me an injection and take power of attorney over me. While I understand that the ‘balanced budget’ may require us to be civil to the Ginas of the world, no matter how odious they are as human beings, I can’t admire these repeated genuflections.

  4. sottile6

    I find the attitude this article expresses extraordinary. What Kohler is asking for is some kind of Stalinist policy making where unionists are not free to express an opinion different from the government’s. The increasing calls from those on the right for totalitarian solutions to the problems of modern capitalism are amazing. The Keating and Hawke governments and the ACTU came to agreements after many years of negotiation starting in the 1970’s. It wasn’t a magical thing but the Accord was also criticised heavily by many both on the left and the right of politics at the time. The relationships between unions and government today is very much the norm for labour history. Kohler is expressing his own ignorance here and should do some research. This is quite a childish article.

  5. GeeWizz

    So Labor think foreign workers are better than Australian workers for half the price?

    If Gina can’t get Aussie workers on her project it means she isn’t paying them enough… this is a supply and demand market just like any other. Perhaps she could dip into her “wealthiest woman in the world” bank account and find the extra funds needed for an all Australian staff.

    Just another Gillard Labor stuff up….

  6. Jimmy

    Geewizz – What makes me think that if the govt had of opposed this EMA you would of been on here having a go at the govt about that.

    The EMA doesn’t guarantee thre will be 1700 foreign workers (out of about 6500 by the way) it just provides financiers confidence that the project will be able to be completed because workers will be able to be found.

    As for paying them half the price do you have evidence of that, reports I heard over the weekend was that they would be employed under Australian conditions and at Australian rates.

  7. GeeWizz

    [“I find this article interesting, it ostensibly accuses the govt of stuffing up the policy while saying the actions taken by the govt are not only required but also important.”]

    For years now Dillard and Swan have been whinging about Gina Rinehart ripping off Australians.

    Then a week later they do her a “special deal” to import 1700 foreign workers to take Australians jobs.

    It really is a bad look, no matter how the hacks try and spin it. We’ll add this one into the growing list of government stuff ups….

  8. GeeWizz

    Jimmy what this country desperately needs is a Schools-To-Work program.

    What currently happens is that Grade 12 students are told to do their studies, do some lame intelligence test and then they are on their own… off you go… not our problem any more. It’s complete BS and a dud system.

    What I want to see is starting in Grade 10 at least one day a week designated to tertiary or work experience outside of school. Send the kids who want to go to Tafe to Tafe. Send the kids who want to go to Uni to Uni. Send the kids who want to train for the mines to a mines training site. Send the kids who want to work in retail or hospitality to work experience.

    This is how it should be… but our leaders are too p1ss weak or lazy to radically change Australia’s education system. Kids don’t know what to do after they leave school, a lot will committ suicide because they feel “lost” or end up on the dole.

    So what I’m suggesting is actions that will put people after school into studies or occupations as soon as they leave school…. and they will know what they want to do because they will have tried it already.

    How does this relate to mining jobs? Guaranteed jobs on completion of training at the high school level…. thats how.

    Sick of hearing about there being a lack of “skilled workers” when the government treats school kids like idiots.

  9. Jimmy

    Again Geewizz 6500 jobs at Roy Hill, UP TO 1700 MAY be taken by foreign workers.

    Would you prefer the govt refuse the possible visas and the financiers walk away becasue of the lack of certainty, the project doesn’t get done and there are no jobs for anyone?

    And given thre are expected to be 65,000 jobs created through new mining projects in the next 3 years do you really expect them all to be sourced from Australia?

  10. Jimmy

    Hmm – Good rant there Geewizz once agina largely ignoring any facts but ask yourself this, which govt is putting more money into tafe training places and introducing a HECS style loan for Tafe fees?

    And where is your condemnation of the Victorian govt ripping millions out of TAFE funding?

    And again there are going to be 65,000 jobs created in 3 years do you want al of these guaranteed for Australians even if it means jeopardising the project altogether?

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