First published March 7.
If there were an Olympic event for the side-step, handball or back-flip, the Coalition would win all three at once this past week. Mugged by reality, former small business champions, Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull, duck for cover after the Fair Work Commission’s cuts to Sunday penalty rates for Retail, Pharmacy and Hospitality workers. Once righteous penalty cut crusaders, wild-eyed Coalition MPs now stampede in all directions. The PM wears his best shit-eating grin.
No-one is game to applaud the business lobby’s win over workers’ rights to a fair day’s pay. Once penalty rate cuts were an elixir for every ailing government. Now they are electoral poison. Gorgeous George Christensen, who hovers at large in a halo of self publicity – like a botfly forever on the edge of defecting from a government he seldom deigns to support, fears penalty rate cuts will cost him his seat unless something is done.
Nationals cat-herder Party Whip Christensen is big in the news this week for tossing in his tawse. And professing loyalty.
Abbott loyalist, Eric Abetz shows why he is the former Minister for Workplace Relations by rushing to the rescue with an absurdly unworkable grandfathering proposal for new workers only to be paid less than they are worth.
“The Fair Work Commission should use the powers that it already has to grandfather current employees’ salary rates so that only new employees are covered by these new salary rates. The Fair Work Commission, under current law, already has the ability to do this,” Senator Abetz writes in last Thursday’s Fairfax papers,
Cheaper workers would displace more expensive as the boss laid off old hands and hired new. It’s the Gresham’s Law of employment. But relax. Experts, ever generous with jargon, rush to tell us that “red-circling” is not practicable while most of us didn’t even know it was a phrase. What they mean is businesses could not possibly keep books which have workers on different pay rates. Way too complex.
Turnbull dismisses the proposal as impracticable. This does not mean, of course, that nothing is happening “in this space” to use another of the jargonistas’ favoured phrases.
… for the government to show leadership …
The best course of action for the nation would be for the government to show leadership and reject the commission’s recommendation. The FWC is not meant to further disadvantage our lowest paid, least secure workers. And our latest current accounts are an argument for a pay rise not a pay cut. The rising tide is not floating all boats.
The December quarter accounts show a rise in productivity but wage growth is in decline; the worst set of figures for workers since records began. While the economy grew nominally by 3% in the December quarter, the third best result in 28 years, according to Guardian Australia’s Greg Jericho, the amount of money flowing to employees fell by 0.5%, the worst since the ABS began measuring quarterly GDP statistics in September 1959.
The results torpedo the government’s mantra of jobs and growth. They are a slap in the face to trickle-down theorists on both sides of the House. Never before have our nation’s leaders been so publicly rebuked by the statistics. Wealth in the nation does not trickle down; it trickles up. What is a government to do?
Luckily a philosophical Scott Morrison is on hand to offer a healing gloss.
“… we must continue to remember that our growth cannot be taken for granted and is not being experienced by all Australians in all parts of the country in the same way.” Or the rich get rich while the poor get poorer. Shit happens, as his illustrious former Prime Minister put it so sagely. No inkling that governments might lend a hand to those in need.
Leadership is the first casualty in the Fair Work Commission’s war on the poor. To be fair, the PM has another Abbott attack to fend off. A La Trump, he says Tony Abbott causes the latest Newspoll which gives his government its eight straight set of dud results in a row and puts his approval rating at record low.
Having comprehensively established that rather Tony Abbott is the sole cause of his inept, dysfunctional government’s and poorly led government’s bad performance in the polls, Turnbull gets on his high horse and rides off in all directions.
… The Coalition embraces five different, contradictory, positions …
In the week after the Fair Work Commission’s decision the Coalition embraces five different, contradictory, positions, as Bernard Keane notes. It’s the decision of the independent umpire, it’s Bill Shorten’s doing, it’s good for jobs, it has no position at all, it is good for jobs but existing workers should be protected, a grandfathering proposal from Eric Abetz which the PM dismisses as unworkable. By Sunday, Murdoch hack and addled agent provocateur Piers Ackermann not only calls Turnbull’s leadership “terminal” he backs a plunge on Portsea Polo princess Ms Julie Bishop as successor.
At least the Labor Party’s posture is consistent. Despite its crippling Neoliberal infection, the workers’ party which long ago sold workers down the river, the party which helped rich rob poor under Hawke and Keating, is here to help. Labor pledges to fix things up by proposing new laws to protect low paid workers’ penalty rates. It knows it’s riding a winner. Yet, as Turnbull calculates, it is also compromised; vulnerable to attack however loudly it may protest its loyalty.
“Quite frankly, last Thursday, when Bill and I looked at the decision, we were – to say the least – surprised and disappointed that there was a significant net loss to workers without compensation whatsoever and we felt we had no option but to stand on the side of workers,” says Shadow employment Minister Brendan O’Connor.
Solidarity is well-nigh irretrievable. The Hawke-Keating government reduced corporate taxes by 16 per cent from 49 to 33 per cent. It cut the top personal tax rate from 60 cents to 47 cents in the dollar. Union membership fell from over 48 per cent to below 31 per cent. By September 2016, Roy Morgan estimates, national union membership was around 17.4 percent, the lowest result since the research firm began collecting union membership data in 1998. Gloating, the IPA calls it “terminal decline”. Workers are increasingly part-time, casual, underemployed and non-unionised.
Under Hawke and Keating the wages share of GDP fell from 61.5 per cent of GDP to less than 55 per cent, a transfer of $50 billion from poor to rich. Encouraged by such betrayals, Turnbull works all week to frame Shorten as another working class traitor. It’s ill-judged. Those suffering rate cuts don’t get much comfort from killing Bill. Forget the spin. But a Work Choices style campaign would cut through. Workers know all about the real decline in their pay packets.
Under the Coalition, real wage growth has reversed: increases in nominal weekly wages haven’t even kept up with inflation. It’s the worst wage performance in Australia’s postwar history, reports The Australia Institute.
… chooses to focus on the workers’ stories …
Yet there is an astonishing lack of empathy or compassion for those affected, in government ranks. The Opposition, on the other hand, to its credit, chooses to focus on the workers’ stories. It reads case studies of men and women whose earnings have been cut, a powerfully eloquent testimony to the real suffering unleashed by the Commission’s decision.
For Tony Abbott, however, another week brings another sniping. Who gives a fig for the working poor when there’s yet another opportunity to knife your nemesis? And he’s a veteran armchair general. He’s a dab hand at giving Turnbull the very advice that he could never take himself in his own brief reign of failure as the IPA’s best Prime Minister.
“Against Labor’s pitch of ‘high wages’ versus ‘low wages’, we need to pitch ’high wages’ versus ’no wages’,” Abbott tells The Australian Friday turning exploitation into a zinger. “The issue is not higher wages versus lower wages.” “It’s about making it possible for more businesses to stay open because if the business is shut no one gets paid anything.”
Abbott, typically, deigns to offer evidence that any business has been forced to close because of penalty rates but it’s a bit of rhetoric which Turnbull picks up gratefully late Friday. Much of his week, however, is wasted blaming Labor.
It’s all Bill Shorten’s fault, screams the PM, his voice hoarse from a week of hurling abuse at Labor’s leader. “Labor appointed all of the full bench who made the decision.” Labor’s to blame. Blaming others is this government’s signature.
Just as Labor’s Mediscare campaign disrupted Turnbull’s “powerful and positive campaign” causing the Coalition to be returned with a piddling one seat majority – just as Tony Abbott caused the government’s eighth consecutive dip in Newspoll, the causes of adversity are always someone else’s fault. Come what may, penalty cuts, whatever its latest self-inflicted injury, the Coalition always has Labor or someone else to blame. It’s a strategy that shrieks weak leadership.
… how independent is the FWC?
By Tuesday it’s the fault of the independent umpire, a phrase which the PM wears out with overuse. The independent umpire, he labours the phrase, almost leering, like some knowing Pantomime Dame. What he’s hinting? Is it ironic? Just how independent is the FWC?
Liberals say it’s stacked by Labor. Former Deputy President Brendan McCarthy, a Howard appointee, stepped down from the FWC in December 2014, telling The Australian the Fair Work Commission “is not the appropriate body for the setting of minimum wage and awards. No longer has it the best experience to set Australia’s minimum workplace standards.”
McCarthy gave his serve following the resignation of FWC vice-president Graeme Watson who complained to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash that the industrial umpire was becoming “politically compromised and dysfunctional” under President Iain Ross’s leadership. The jibe moved Tony Abbott to write glibly that the FWC was “pro-union and anti jobs”, typically without being pressed to explain the contradiction.
Hence Turnbull’s glee – a schadenfreude that is his undoing. He sees a commission which Abbott and others call too left wing to ever get it right now giving a decision to the right. But is it a victory? The focus on the FWC risks shattering any illusion that the body has any effective role in protecting workers. Surely the government has some role here, too?
Certainly a week passes before Turnbull manages to affirm the decision. He croaks out the patent lie that cutting penalty rates makes for more jobs, instead of just forcing low wage earners to seek an additional job or more hours to survive.
By Sunday he claims airily that “masses of evidence” exist to support a reduction to some penalty rates by the Fair Work Commission, saying the changes mean more businesses will open; jobs will be created.
They won’t. According to experts including University of Melbourne’s Mark Woden, “The most likely scenario is that some businesses, not all, will now have their existing staff offered a few more hours.”
Its default option is to scatter …
Given the government’s long war against penalty rates and its carte blanche to the commission, its contortions and its buck dodging are ugly and unedifying. Its default option is to scatter – as it did when Minister for Coal-fired energy generation, Josh Frydenberg hinted at a carbon pricing scheme recently. Scatter and finger Bill Shorten. Has there ever been a more gutless or ill-disciplined government?
Turnbull himself once crusaded for cuts. “Penalty rates are an anachronism” he bellowed in 2015. A mob of other MPs have been just as keen to do the business lobby’s bidding. Michaelia Cash claimed they were a brake on weekend work. Wokka Entsch reckoned penalty rates closed businesses. Hard to fathom, Bernard Keane notes given the mini-boom in hospitality over recent years. But now there’s a deafening silence. Above all, no-one owns the government’s choice not to make any submission to the Commission – effectively handing it a blank cheque.
The government is caught flat-footed again. No plan is at hand, oddly, to spin business’ victory; explain any “benefits to the economy”. Other fumbles follow. World’s loudest treasurer, Scott Morrison flubs his latest undeserved lucky break when growth, of sorts, returns, on his watch. But it’s no cause for celebration.
While MSM cheer our escape from a “technical recession”, the quarterly account figures show workers, hardworking Australians are increasingly excluded from sharing in any new productivity or economic growth. The truth hurts. This is a government which has helped wages to decline while enabling company profits to soar 20 per cent.
No-one challenges the Coalition and business lobby backers’ false report of a dying Hospitality trade. As Bernard Keane regularly reminds, us far from being “crippled” by penalty rates, Australia’s cafe and restaurant sector is growing so fast it will soon overtake manufacturing.
Many open-on-Sunday businesses are booming. It’s their workers who are being sent to the wall. The issue is not about who is to blame or whether the umpire is fair, but about exploitation; the inexorable decline of wages and job security.
From 1 July, a retail worker on an hourly rate of $19.44 will lose $77 after working an eight-hour Sunday shift, all because the FWC deems Sundays to be “less important” to us today. Not how important rates are to workers’ pay. Absent from the FWC’s calculation is any notion that poorly paid workers depend upon penalty rates to pay bills and buy food. By contrast, bosses will get tax cuts to boost their profits. Our agile PM can’t skedaddle fast enough.
… our expanding illegal cash economy.
The decision to cut penalty rates helps legitimise our cash economy, a labour market where Chinese workers may be paid as little as six dollars an hour. While the 700,000 workers affected are among our lowest paid, there are hundreds of thousands cash in hand workers even worse off. In a Fairfax investigation, hundreds of thousands of workers were found to be exploited. The ATO estimates about 1.6 million businesses (mostly micro and small businesses with an annual turnover up to $15 million) operating across 233 industries make up our expanding illegal cash economy.
This sordid truth underpins the “transitioning” economy, a favourite phrase used by a treasurer whose government is increasingly adept at turning a blind eye to human suffering and distress. Never have our two nations; the two Australias – the worlds of the haves and the have nots been so far apart.
While the PM claims $273 per night to stay in his wife’s Canberra apartment, the average accommodation and food services worker earns $524 a week. Retail workers earn just $687 – compared with $1163 for all Australian workers.
“It’s not a decision of the government,” Turnbull says like Pilate washing his hands. “It’s a decision of the FWC, an independent commission.” Yet he has done nothing to preserve that independence. Since gaining power, the Coalition has not appointed a single workers’ representative to the commission. In not making any submission, moreover, the government has effectively given the green light to penalty rate cuts unlike Labor whose submission opposed cuts.
Claims of independence also ignore the eight members the coalition appointed to the FWC in 2015; four in September by Eric Abetz and four in December by Michaelia Cash 2015. It’s also a spectacular backflip. After years of bleating about the need to cut or abolish penalty rates to “grow businesses” the Coalition seems caught out by the decision; with no real plan to sell penalty rate cuts to the electorate.
That’s been left to businesses themselves. Yet it’s not happening. A defensive Employment Minister Michaelia Cash denies that she has fumbled the handball; businesses will step up and sell the cuts on behalf of a gutless government.
Worse, the Turnbull government, soft on banks, hard on welfare recipients, has wedged itself between its $50 billion business tax cut largesse to the wealthy on the one hand and its swingeing pay cut to the poor on the other.
… it leaves others nervously wondering …
The Commission’s decision to cut penalty rates beginning 1 July not only lowers the take home pay of some 700,000 workers it leaves others nervously wondering when their wages will be cut too. Restaurants, Fast Foods, Clubs and Hair and Beauty Awards remain the same but the commission invites interested parties to “express a view”. The lower rates will also influence enterprise bargaining from 1 July this year. No wonder Labor sees it as the thin end of the wedge.
Turnbull settles for calling Shorten a “double gold medallist on backflips on penalty rates”.
Last week despicable Bill was a “social climbing parasite”, this week, he is a hypocrite who flip-flops from support for the FWC’s decisions to contesting them. Won’t respect his own Fair Work Commission’s decision or the umpire’s independence, honks Malcolm Turnbull. Why he even traded away penalty rates. And the money went to the UNION.
Turnbull’s desperately confected indignation, outrage and derision, serves to drive him deeper into the politics of denunciation and character assassination. By Thursday and the finale to this week’s episode of our record-breaking national political melodrama, Question Time. Killing Bill is the answer to everything again.
Turnbull riffs about Cleanevent and Chiquita mushrooms, firms and workers Shorten sold down the river, he screams. He loves the sound of his own baritone, as he goes loud and long on mock outrage. His fog carries him beyond reality to an upland plain where he is a dragon-slayer. He lies about the commissioners, eight of whom are Liberal appointees. Ignores the times he’s walked all over other independent umpires such as in the CFA dispute. Or sacked them.
If only shouting abuse could make turncoat Bill the scapegoat for his government’s own incompetence. By Thursday, not only is Shorten a class traitor “He’s moved into the post-truth environment.” Is this politics or some surrealist poetry slam? 700,000 workers who find themselves suddenly unable to pay rent or buy food could tell him.
Sneering at the Labor leader won’t disguise his government’s pathological inability to make a decision. Turnbull’s a dead man walking – not so much because his colleagues have their knives out but because of his own crippling indecision. By Thursday, he’s lecturing the FWC about the need to protect low-paid workers, hinting that the decision may be delayed or somehow fairly phased in. Apparently he’s changed his mind but only if you trust the rhetoric.
Caught napping by a Fair Work Commission decision to cut penalty rates, the Prime Minister leads his government along a well-worn goat track where everything from the energy crisis to refugees on Manus and Nauru are all Labor’s fault.
Blaming Labor doesn’t require a lot of preparation or real team work. And it’s the of the few things the crew can agree on. But it may serve to make the Coalition’s headache only worse as the focus shifts to the plight of the low paid workers whom through incompetence and ideology it abandoned or assumed it could safely ignore. It is a huge miscalculation.
It is also a huge disservice to women who will bear the brunt of the cuts: “For many women, working on weekends is their only option because conventional career work on weekdays is too inflexible for them and there is no childcare,” says Marian Baird, Professor of Gender and Employment relations at the University of Sydney business school.
The 700,000 workers whose earnings are cut plus those many more whose wages will drop as a consequence and the millions more who know or depend upon them and anyone with a sense of justice will remind them an Australian government with no clear plan or policy; a government which exists merely to meet the needs just of the rich, the privileged and the powerful soon forfeits its right to govern at all.
*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.