Nicholas Way

There are some merits to WorkChoices but, to the Government’s cost, they have been covered by political band-aids – and business is paying the price.

WorkChoices – where to now?

The Howard Government is paying a high price for never arguing the philosophical merits of WorkChoices.

Armed with a Senate majority and the historic opportunity to overturn 100 years of industrial relations thinking in this country, it simply rammed the legislation through without ever seriously engaging working Australians in the thinking that underpinned WorkChoices.

The consequences have been many and varied, but to this commentator’s mind one stands out. It has allowed the unions and, by default, the Labor Party, to dominate a debate about the legislation – a situation a more courageous Government would have not have allowed.

Let me explain.

WorkChoices was always going to produce winners and losers – legislation of this kind always does. The Government would never concede there would be losers. It would not deny some people might be worse off, but it never had the intestinal fortitude to openly acknowledge there would be losers.

It was a political misjudgment of enormous proportions – and business will pay the price with the politically-charged safety net amendments to WorkChoices.

The economic facts are that WorkChoices was deliberately designed to create losers. People with jobs at the bottom end of the labor market – where people lack skills, education, experience – would lose pay and conditions.

Because if they did, as any thinking economist will tell you, the consequence would be more people coming into the labor market. It’s no surprise Australia’s unemployment rate is less than 5% and falling.

While cynics claim this figure is a mirage and hides the “real” unemployment number, just ask any employer trying to hire competent staff whether this country is enjoying a buoyant labor market.

This is the debate the Howard Government should have had with the community. There will be losers, but there will be winners – people who couldn’t get a job and now finding work.

Labor and unions can still argue that preserving the benefits of those in work are more important, but no one should pretend that they have all the high moral ground. WorkChoices did have an important ethical dimension to it, and Howard is now paying the price for not arguing the case for it.


Philippe writes: I have never heard “fair” and “democracy” mentioned as often as they are now and, of course, by the Labor Party. My questions are: how democratic is it if potentially a government that is almost entirely run and made up by unions, and whose membership of some 18% of the workforce – a minority – can dictate to Australians the rules governing the workplace?

Regarding unfair dismissal, I don’t know of any small-business employer sacking a good worker; this usually happens only at the big end of business, where these ALP proposed IR legislations don’t go. We all know how truly unfair the “Go Away Money” decisions established at mediation really are, and we also know that they are usually made by people who, unlike small-busines people, never have to make a decision with their own house and security at stake!!


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