Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Election 2007: Industrial relations

Industrial relations appears to be one of the big issues this election. The current Government has copped a lot of flak about its WorkChoices reforms (not that they refer to it as WorkChoices any more...). Here's a bit of a break down about where the two major parties stand:

Australian Labor Party

Industrial relations has long been at the hearts of the Labor Party's policies, probably because it was the very issue the party was founded to fight. This election, a promise to roll back WorkChoices is one of the Labor Party's big ticket items.

Traditionally, the Labor Party's policies on industrial relations flowed from their class-based collectivist philosophy - that the interests of employers and employees are always opposed and cannot be reconciled. Therefore, workers need protections - there need to be mechanisms to ensure that workers are not exploited too much by their employers and employees must be able to join together in collective action to fight for their rights/conditions, thus a special role is afforded to trade unions.

However, this traditional ideology is changing - at this election more than ever before. Labor's industrial relations policies are now founded on a more individualist base, but a base of individual rights. The key points of their industrial relations policy are:

  • A stronger safety net - ten minimum conditions enshrined in legislation

  • Awards applying to the majority of Australian workers which can expand on these ten minimum conditions and also contain an additional ten matters

  • Employers and employees can make collective statutory agreements (statutory, because their operation will be governed by the industrial relations legislation, rather than operating as a common law contract). Unions can represent employees when bargaining for a collective agreement. If a majority of employees in a business want a collective agreement, their employer must bargain with them for it in good faith. Employees must be better off overall under an agreement compared to their award.

  • Industrial action, such as strikes, is available to both employers and employees when they are formally bargaining for a collective agreement. Workers can go on strike or take other industrial action in support of their bargaining claims if they vote to do so in a secret ballot (subject to certain restrictions).

  • No individual statutory agreements (i.e. abolishing AWAs)

  • Greater individual flexibility will be guaranteed in awards and statutory agreements. Common law contracts for high paid workers will also be exempt from some regulation.

  • All workers can make a claim if they feel they have been unfairly dismissed, although not during their first six months of employment, or during their first 12 months of employment if in a small business

  • Simplified institutional arrangements, making it easier for businesses and workers to get help from the government

  • Otherwise retain existing industrial relations laws in most ways

Of course, the ALP will probably change various other parts of the existing legislation to make it more 'friendly' to employees.

Liberal Party

The Liberal Party's approach to industrial relations is premised on a rejection of the traditional Labor view that the interests of workers and employees are diametrically opposed. Instead, the underpinning ideology is that their interests are ultimately aligned. For example, employees, like their bosses, will want their business to be successful to ensure they stay in jobs and so they can advance in salary. This also implies a rejection of the traditional collectivist model, hence an emphasis on workplace relations rather than industrial (or industry-wide) relations and a reduction of third-party interference by the government or unions.

In addition, the Liberal Party's views about free enterprise and minimal state involvement implies a system where the government makes very little regulation about employment relations, allowing employers and employees free reign to contract for employment however they see fit. The WorkChoices legislation did this in some way by lowering the safety net when employers and employees made agreements (i.e. contracting on whatever terms they saw fit, not to a high standard set by the Government), reducing the ability for unions to insert themselves into the employment relationship, reducing the role of the Government in setting the safety net (minimising the role of awards and the number of conditions they contain), and various minor provisions that together acted to limit the ability of unions to get involved in the employment relationship. Some of these aspects have been rolled back a little with the introduction of the Fairness Test for statutory agreements this year.

The key points of the Liberal Party's workplace relations policy (based on existing legislation plus election commitments) are:
  • Five minimum conditions of employment enshrined in legislation, including minimum wages (formerly award wages) which are set by an independent Government body, the Australian Fair Pay Commission (wage setting must also take into account the needs of the unemployed).

  • Employers and employees can make collective agreements (with or without union involvement) or individual statutory agreements (AWAs). These are subject to a Fairness Test, which means that an employee must be at least as well off as they were under their existing monetary-related award conditions (but other award matters need not be considered).

  • Industrial action, such as strikes, is available to both employers and employees when they are formally bargaining for a collective agreement. Workers can go on strike or take other industrial action in support of their bargaining claims if they vote to do so in a secret ballot (subject to certain restrictions). Workers on AWAs cannot take industrial action.

  • No unfair dismissal claims for workers in business employing less than 100 people. A dismissal is also fair when it is made for reasons tat include genuine operational reasons.

Key differences
As you can see, the two policies aren't so different - I think that Sen. Barnaby Joyce was correct today when he said so. The main differences are that Labor will ease restrictions on unfair dismissal laws, increase the safety net of minimum conditions (legislation and awards), prevent individual statutory agreements (but not individual common law contracts) being made, give employees the right to force their employer to bargain and increase individual flexibility provisions. The likely impact of these changes may include some increase in conditions of employment for low paid workers and the potential for more industrial action by employees (existing workers covered by AWAs could force their employer to bargain, and they could then go on strike in support of their claims). It probably won't lead to centralised wage fixing like in the old days, as the Liberal party tends to claim.

Now, here's where it gets tricky: the Liberal party argues that a lower safety net and less access to unfair dismissal claims increases employment, because it is cheaper and less risky for businesses (especially small ones) to take on new staff. However, other economists argue that this may not actually be true in practice, and that is too hard to attribute the fall in unemployment over the last eighteen months to WorkChoices. Alternatively, Labor might argue that it is better to maintain decent appropriate standards for workers, and the government should try to foster employment in different ways and maintain a fair social security safety net for people who are unemployed.

A Christian perspective

I posit that we are created for work - God works, in creating the universe and in other ways, and we are created in God's image. Adam, from the start, is set to work tending the garden and hard work is encouraged throughout the Bible. Work is hard (after the fall), but it is our lot in life and we must work. Therefore, reducing unemployment is important - we should encourage people to work and create conditions whereby they can find work. Now, other than saying that the worker deserves his wages, the Bible doesn't have a great deal to say about fair minimum conditions, or the rights of workers to join together in a union, or rights to take industrial action.

So, when looking at workplace/industrial relations policies from a Christian perspective, you must weigh up:
  • Is reducing unemployment the most important goal, or is it also important to ensure that workers receive fair (however defined) conditions?

  • Is freedom to act in an employment relationship however you wish important or should the Government act to restrict that freedom to ensure equitable outcomes?

  • For that matter, should the Government legislate for more equitable outcomes at all, or should it merely act to ensure that people don't fall below the poverty line (if you accept that the Government should do this at all)? And, should the Government legislate so that the onus for ensuring that people are paid 'fairly' is put on employers (rather, for example, than on the Government itself)?

I'm sure that you can add to this list, but that should give you a starting point for comparing up the major views on this issue.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Election 2007: Ideology

Here are some notes on the broad ideologies of the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia.

Australian Labor Party

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.
Australian Labor Party National Constitution 2007

The Labor Party was started to represent the interests of the trade union movement, and as such it has an ideology based on class and the need . After some major strikes in the late nineteenth century where the unions were mightily defeated, they started a political party to ensure that the Government would not always side with the interests of capital (business). In theory, this would probably have simply involved removing restrictions on the ability of workers and trade unions to take industrial action. However, the Labor Party also came to stand for the rights of the working class in general, and thus their actions in Government were about achieving desired outcomes for workers. Arguably, the Labor party was never truly a socialist party (despite having a socialist aim as one of their core tenets). Lenin famously said:
"The Australian Labour Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives."
"In Australia", 1913

Left leaning historians, such as Vere Gordon Childe("How Labour Governs") and Humphrey McQueen ("A New Britannia") also argued that the Australian Labor Party was really a middle class or aspirational party, rather than a socialist party.

In practice, what this means is that Labor was never on about bringing about a workers revolution, but about supporting the capitalist system and maybe helping workers achieve the Australian dream of owning a house and a piano.

The Labor Party's ideology is exemplified in former Prime Minister Ben Chifley's famous 'Light on the Hill' speech, which you can read here. In this speech, Chifley noted that the aim of the labour movement was better standards of living, greater happiness and a Labor Government should work for the betterment of mankind. This speech is still (apparently) seen by the Labor Party as almost a motto of what they stand for.

The Labor Party is also somewhat split between a socially liberal and economically socialist left wing, and a more economically liberal and socially conservative right wing. The right wing of the party is dominant (e.g. Kevin Rudd is from Labor Right), which means that their views dominate ALP policy.

Liberal Party of Australia
"We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise."
Sir Robert Menzies, "Afternoon Light"

The Liberal Party of Australia has been described by the Prime Minister, John Howard, as a broad church, accommodating both classic liberals as well as conservatives. As such, it is difficult to ascribe a particular ideology to the party, but broadly speaking the party is in favour of free enterprise and minimal government intervention (and thus deregulation).

You can see this in Sir Robert Menzies famous 'The Forgotten People' speech, which you can read here. Menzies made this speech during WW2 in his weekly radio address - speeches that he apparently considered to be in the mould of a fireside chat. In this speech Menzies rejected the class distinction that underpins the Labor Party's ideology and instead painted a picture of the importance of the middle class - those people who may be salary earners or shop keepers - who earn a modest living but advance themselves, and thus society, through their individual enterprise and hard work. This is a more individualist ideology (though not as extreme as the individualism of Ayn Rand or Margaret Thatcher) - an ideology where the role of Government is to allow people to help themselves and that individuals should not expect to rely on the Government to look after them. This is the broad ideology underpinning the Liberal Party, which Menzies founded in 1945.

The Liberal Party's is also a conservative party in other ways, for example it has a more socially conservative outlook on many moral issues (e.g. abortion, sexual ethics) and is broadly resistant to change in society (e.g. rejecting Australia becoming a republic).

Other parties
I won't get into detail about other parties here, but broadly
  • National Party - has a conservative ideology, but may advocate Government intervention in the interests of regional Australia

  • Australian Democrats - split away from the Liberal Party in the 1970s. Hold both a socially and economically liberal ideology

  • Australian Greens - socially liberal and more economically socialist, particularly where that would benefit the environment

  • Family First - socially conservative and appear to have a somewhat mixed view on economics, supporting whatever economic policy would benefit families

A Christian ideology?
What would a Christian ideology be? Is it more individualistic or more communal?

Of course, both sides of Australian politics could claim Biblical support for what they believe. The Liberal Party may look, as Margaret Thatcher did, to Paul's words to the Thessalonians that "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" as support for their take on individual responsibility and that people should not rely on the Government to provide for them. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about the importance of working hard as an individual, e.g. in Proverbs and other parts of Paul's letters. Individual responsibility is important.

However, social responsibility is also important. Throughout the Bible it is revealed that our relationships with each other and our concern for others is important. All humans are made in God's image and should be valued and respected and cared for. We have a special responsibility to look after the poor (e.g. Luke 3:11), God identifies with the poor (e.g. Matthew 25) and the early church certainly lived in a way that somewhat resembled communism (Acts 2:44).

How to vote
So, how to balance these? Well, that's a trickier question. I can't answer it for you directly, but here's some things to think about:
  1. No Government or political philosophy is perfect. We live in an imperfect, fallen world that will not be made perfect before Christ returns. Any choice you make will involve compromise. You need to weigh up choices as you see best. For example, on a question of ideology where both sides have some agreement with Christianity, which do you think is more important: individual responsibility, social responsibility, conservative morals, etc?

  2. It may be a good thing to vote for a party that will behave more in line with the way you think Christians should behave, after all - you are voting for someone to represent you.

  3. You shouldn't necessarily expect the Government to do for you what you should be doing as a Christian. If it is the responsibility of Christians to look after the poor, you shouldn't necessarily abrogate that responsibility be voting for a Government who will do more for the poor instead.

Reflections on elections

The beauty of a democracy is that everyone gets a say about the way things should be run – we all get to make our viewpoint heard and get to vote for the people or ideas that best reflect the way we want our nation to be.

The problem with a democracy is that we all get to have our say in the way we want things to be, but unless we all agree, we don’t all get our way. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and in any election there are people and ideas that lose, and therefore all those who support them also feel that they have lost.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Election 2007 - How will you vote?

How are you going to vote on Saturday?

(Just a reminder to Australians, that there is an election on this coming Saturday 24 November 2007 - in case you had somehow missed it - not that I think that were possible)

I know you'll do it by filling in numbers on a piece of paper and placing said paper in a box and I respect your right to privacy when it comes to what boxes you will tick on a secret ballot, but how do you plan to make a choice?

Are you going to vote the same way your family always has? Are you going to vote for the best looking candidate? The one your church or other religious group endorses? The one who is offering you the most 'pork'? The one who will look after your (or your class/subculture/suburb/[other grouping]'s) needs?

I posit that as Christians, all other things being equal, it is best to vote for the candidate and/or party who has the overall package that is best in line with our beliefs as Christians. And I mean this in a broad sense - looking to the candidate who will best represent our views about society, ourselves, people, the economy. Of course, we might also look to the character of the candidate themselves, if we can actually discern that. We don't elect policies - we elect people to make decisions on our behalf, so it's important to elect people who can competently make decisions - who you trust to make good ones.

I can't tell you what your candidates are like. No-one could. There are 150 electorates in Australia, with multiple candidates in each one, not to mention the senate. I doubt anyone knows all the candidates, let alone be able to give an account of what they are really like. However, I can post some thoughts on the comparative policies of the major parties, and I intend to do that over the next few days.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

To be discontinued

Just letting any interested parties know that I'm discontinuing this blog and will probably delete it from Blogspot by the end of the year.

Obviously despite grand plans this year hasn't worked out quite as planned and I never really got running with this blog in the way I wanted to. In a year where issues of Christianity and Australian politics have been so much in the media I thought that I could contribute some analysis, but this has turned out not to be the case.

For some insightful and intelligent (if sporadic) comments on Christianity and politics, may I refer you to my good friend Byron's blog at http://nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.com/, in particular his series 'Would Jesus vote Green?'

Grace and peace, Tim