Insiders host David Speers (Image: ABC)

Despite the lamentations of neoliberal commentators and businesses, and their media supporters, about the lack of industrial relations reform in Australia since WorkChoices, they have little to complain about. Australian workers have endured years of wage stagnation and, in many industries, real wages cuts.

Industrial disputation has virtually vanished. Unions have continued to shrink. Company profits have soared. For industrial relations reform failure, it looks an awful lot like success.

Part of that success lies in how the issues are framed in public debate. The framing we’ve had for a long time is that trade unions are reflexively evil and an economic threat, as are rising wages; that industrial disputation is a relic of the dark ages; that the only relevant context for industrial relations is the impact on business bottom lines.

To see how such framing is constructed in the media, have a look at an analysis piece by one of Australia’s most senior and respected journalists, the ABC’s David Speers, on the weekend.

The tenor of Speers’ piece was that Labor had made an error by proposing to address precarity of work and low wages growth, opening itself up to a scare campaign by the government — one based on Christian “Public Bar” Porter’s claim that it would cost $20 billion.

Speers’ both-sides centrism and focus on political tactics rather than policy is par for the course from the press gallery, but it’s the framing that is of interest.

Speers admitted that Porter’s claim — which was entirely fictional — was “over-the-top” but “it is legitimate to consider what this policy might ultimately cost business, particularly small firms struggling to recover from a recession”.

Right there is the framing in action: that any protection for workers must be assessed in terms of what they cost business.

That’s even the case when businesses have been rolling back protections, stealing wages and curbing wages growth with impunity for years.

If it’s “legitimate” to consider the cost on business, Speers failed to address an equally legitimate consideration: what the cost to workers has been of the shift in industrial relations power over the last two decades, and in particular of the government’s deliberate strategy of wage stagnation since 2013.

In recent years Australia’s total wages bill — reflecting both wages growth and employment growth — has risen to half a trillion dollars and kept going. In the year to September 2020 it was around $580 billion.

But without wage stagnation, it would have grown significantly more. If Australian workers had averaged 3% annual wages growth since 2014 rather than the lousy 2% they got, workers would have received around $51 billion more from employers in the years since then. Even not counting the pandemic year of 2020 means $33.5 billion went not to workers but to company profits, to shareholders, to executive bonuses.

It’s a crude calculation, but 3% wages growth is hardly ambitious. The Wage Price Index grew at 3.4% a year while Julia Gillard was prime minister.

If Speers and other journalists want to repeat Christian Porter’s $20 billion claim — even acknowledging it’s “over the top” — then they should be pointing out Australian workers have been dudded of $50 billion since the Coalition came to power as well. It’s no more “over the top”. And that’s the starting line for any industrial relations debate.

Fifty billion that could have gone to the lowest income workers who have suffered disproportionately from wage stagnation in recent years — the labourers, machine operators, hospitality and retail workers who have gone backwards in real terms, and who would have spent a far greater proportion of it than the shareholders and company executives who pocketed it instead.

Australia is approaching a second decade of wage stagnation and no one in the government or business, and few in the mainstream media, are talking about how to address it, beyond the readily debunked drivel that company tax cuts will, by some process of magical financial osmosis, flow through to wage rises.

Labor’s proposals aren’t likely to shift the dial much either. But the mere mention of any idea of lifting wages growth reflexively prompts talk of $20 billion imposts on business, faithfully repeated by journalists.

See how the framing works?