Last week the Business Council of Australia called for it and today Prime Minister Julia Gillard reached out and offered it. Today the Gillard Government wrote to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions offering what at first glance has the appearance of an olive branch to the business community from the Labor Government. The Prime Minister has now sought to give business, the unions and community groups the chance to participate in a national forum, to be named the National Economic Reform Panel.
The proposal from the Prime Minister is an attempt to get business onside, or at least to get them in closer proximity to the unions on a more regular basis than is currently the case. At present, aside from issue-specific working groups and committees, the relationship is limited to largely informal communications between the two interest groups.
The idea of the National Economic Reform Panel is said to be in the spirit of the Hawke Government Accords which saw unions make concessions in order to benefit from other policy changes.
The reality is more than likely going to be quite different. The only likely similarity is the make-up of the panel. They may agree from time-to-time in certain areas but overall, little compromise, except perhaps on taxation, is likely to be achieved.
The idea that the Gillard Government, through this panel, can achieve trade-offs similar to the ones that characterised the agreements which Bob Hawke’s government reached is just fanciful. Prime Minister Hawke’s agreements between business and the union movement were much deeper and broader than any Julia Gillard and her government may achieve, both in theory and practice.
An important part of negotiating is that nothing, within reason, be left off the table from the outset. However, it appears that changes in certain areas of law, specifically industrial relations, will not be on the table from the outset. That’s all fixed according to the government.
Of course, the unions are unlikely to budge on industrial relations in any case, unless it results in significant new power for their side of the bargaining table. But law changes that do not impact negatively on wages and conditions for employees must have a place at the meetings of this tripartite group.
It would appear likely that most of the changes that the panel would find itself agreeing to would just tinker around the edges of existing policy. Some existing rules and regulations and government policy would undoubtedly remain untouched as a result of negotiations between the three parties. So then unilateral government action would be required from time-to-time, defeating the purpose of such a panel.
Instead of being more like the accords under Hawke’s Labor Party, it appears, according to the letter that talks between business, the unions and community groups will have a central focus around how to implement the key recommendations of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. To this end, the idea of the panel is, in a way, more issue-specific again than about the broader economic challenges in the future which involves much more than just looking to Asia and thinking about how it is we can best compete in our region, the Asia-Pacific.
While the Asian Century White Paper does allude to domestic decisions that need to be made and implemented to compete with Asia in the Asian region, some of these are quite Asia-specific and we cannot spend too much time as a nation focusing on one geographical area. Other areas of the world that we engage with have a diverse range of needs quite independent to that of the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.
The timing of the announcement and what that implies suggests that the broader intent of the negotiating platform flagged by the Prime Minister has come too late, despite the fact that the BCA boss called for the panel as recently as last week.
The announcement of the reform group comes over two years into the second term of the Rudd-Gillard Government. Many of the key reform decisions have already left the parliament having been made into law. Some of these economic changes have had more business input than others, some with quite limited formal and direct negotiation with peak business bodies and company representatives.
Another certainty is that just about any agreed action in the near future faces the likely prospect of not being implemented. The budget is in a poor position and appears as though it will get worse before it gets better. So, in effect, business, the unions and community groups would be working towards having the government acknowledge aspirations in the near future at least, rather than implementing dramatic actions.
A nice symbol that gives the false impression of cooperation and a willingness to negotiate, but the reality underlying today’s decision is something almost completely different.
Perhaps it would have been better if the call to formal and ongoing discussions from the government had not come after five years of aggression towards certain areas of the business community from the same administration.
The likely outcome of discussions however, would probably be much the same.