It’s been a big few weeks for the industrial relations landscape in Australia.
Former Fair Work Commission vice-president Graeme Watson was in the Financial Review talking about the need to address Australia’s underemployment and unemployment crisis and how prohibitively high weekend penalty rates are the biggest impediment.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash went on Neil Mitchell’s program to rebut the ACTU’s submission that the minimum wage should be increased by $45 per week by claiming that lower paid workers are “often in high-income households” and again echoing agitprop that higher wages means fewer jobs.
Jennifer Westacott at the Business Council of Australia continues her campaign to lower company tax rates, again talking about how prohibitively high taxes are stifling business and restricting economic growth and the jobs that come with them.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s James Pearson was in conniptions over the wage review, claiming that $45 increases are “ambit” and that the ACTU needed a “reality check” if they think the Australian unemployed and underemployed can afford such an increase.
In various ways, and for various reasons, all of these claims and protestations are lies, misrepresentations or simple anti-worker propaganda. There are lies told by these groups and by people within them that rebuking them seems degrading. But they are told so frequently and with such sincerity that to let them go unchallenged would amount to industrial relations negligence.
What is immediately striking about the talking points of Big Business this week is the terms in which they are couched. A cursory glance at their arguments and you could be forgiven for thinking that all that they do is engineered to improve the working standards of ordinary Australians. But none of what they describe is true in particular and will make things worse in general. None of these claims come with any serious evidence, and none bear any relation to common sense at all.
Graeme Watson, in a parting shot to the Fair Work Commission, avers that the entire Commission is failing the ‘better off overall test’ in its approach to dealing with Award reviews because it does not account for the effect that penalty rates and the minimum wage have on the unemployed. There is an inverse relationship, he claims, between high wages and high employment – a relationship that appears to cease once you reach the controversial topic of executive remuneration.
Graeme Watson’s message for unemployed people is simple: we shouldn’t deal with proximate causes of unemployment, such as the disastrous decline in Australian manufacturing, a failure to deal adequately with automation, or a failure to train our younger people in a trade, but instead we must pay you less when you finally get a job because if we don’t you won’t get one at all.
This sort of reasoning trades unemployment for working poverty. It’s what happens when WorkChoices allowed employees to be paid in pizza. It’s what happens when working people in the United States have to find three or four jobs – subsidised by food stamps – just to survive. This reasoning is so stupid you have to be very wealthy to believe them; the value of income seems to decrease when you have more of it.
Where Watson is concerned, it is all the more egregious given his previous job as a government mandarin earning half a million dollars signed for by the Australian taxpayer. Businesses are certainly necessary for the employment of Australian workers, but they are not in the business of employment, they are in the business of selling goods and services. Businesses no more employ three people to do the job of one than you might buy more than one stovetop for your kitchen. Were there some great hiring crisis within Australian business hindering their sales they’d simply be foregoing margin and hiring more.
While Graeme was in the paper talking about the need to reduce wages Big Business pay, Jennifer Westacott and the Business Council of Australia talking about the need to reduce the tax Big Business pay. This seems, at best, an exercise in redundancy as many Australian businesses, it has been revealed, paid no effective tax in any event either because they didn’t make a profit or they were able to use legal methods to avoid it.
In this case, a reduction in company tax rates merely equates to a reduction in the cost associated with hiring tax accountants. Every week, Australian workers hand over a portion of their income to the Australian Tax Office, some get a portion of it back, but most pay rates of tax that Australian companies have not paid in years. This would, perhaps, be less of a problem if they weren’t also campaigning to reduce the wages of ordinary Australian workers. But they are doing both and Australian workers won’t cop it.
It’s clear, however, that the tide is turning.
In our submission to the Fair Work Commission, the SDA made the case that retail and fast food workers should receive an additional 10% weekly wage increase, further to the ACTU’s submission of a $45 / week increase to the federal minimum wage. In its reasoning, the Fair Work Commission made the point that weekend are culturally indistinguishable from weekdays. This is wrong for a variety of reasons, but by their own logic and if the Commission is dinkum it will accept the SDA’s submission and compensate retail and fast food workers for the value of the weekend wages they have just pilfered.
Further, it is clear that the public pressure placed on politicians is working. Only last week, Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch and Nick Xenophon have admitted that penalty rates are an issue so important to Australian workers that they have formally changed their positions and today’s Senate vote passing Australian Labor’s bill to protect these rates now heads to the House of Representatives. People like Pauline Hanson were very clearly against penalty rates earlier this year and despite not being well known for backing down, she has.
Big Business lobby groups do not deserve the influence they have over Australian industrial relations policy. It is clear where the public sit on issues like penalty rates and if talking heads like Jennifer Westacott are honest when they say that they want to increase Australian wages, they should point to where they have tried to do that.
In the likely event they cannot, the government should accept this is an argument they are doomed to lose. The Liberal Party should look at the decimation of its WA branch and know that the political carnage reaped by going after Australian workers will be repeated if their campaigns against us continue. Australian Labor will be front and centre with Australian labour to help reap more of that carnage.
Mitchell Goff is a unionist and member of the Australian Labor Party
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