28/08/2015 - 06:02

Barnett rates penalty chances

28/08/2015 - 06:02


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Colin Barnett has set the scene for an industrial stoush with his proposed changes to Sunday penalty rates.

FREEDOM OF CHOICE: Shopping is more pastime than necessity these days. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Premier Colin Barnett has done what Prime Minister Tony Abbott studiously avoided – promise industrial relations reform in the lead up to a general election.

Mr Abbott has clearly been spooked by John Howard’s experience with his WorkChoices changes, which helped mobilise the union movement in a concerted effort that ended his government’s 11-year term in power in 2007.

Even though Labor, under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, introduced measures that were favourable to the union movement, Mr Abbott has been reticent to restore the pre-Labor conditions and risk provoking the labour movement.

It seems the labour unions need little encouragement, however, based on reports they are preparing for another election campaign blitz against the federal coalition, and the prime minister.

In Western Australia, however, Mr Barnett is undeterred, having decided to throw caution to the wind at the state level and go for the Sunday ‘daily double’ in the retail industry – extended trading hours and the halving of penalty rates. In essence, he has floated allowing shops to open at 9am on Sunday (two hours earlier than at present) and halving the penalty rate paid to assistants in smaller outlets, making it the same as for Saturday work.

Given how current trading hours have been received since their introduction in 2012 – with Labor’s support under then new leader Mark McGowan – the move to extend the hours has some logic. Mr Barnett’s justification is that it would bring Perth’s trading hours into line with most other capital cities.

It’s undeniable that the community's attitude to Sundays has changed. The church argument has pretty much gone by the board (fewer people attend services), and the days when even first-class cricket was not played on Sundays are a distant memory, along with the family roast around the dining room table at lunchtime.

The push for extended trading has gone on for years. It was an issue when I was The West Australian’s industrial reporter in the 1970s. That paper has always supported longer hours, but the Shop Assistants’ Union secretary at the time, John Try, told me many times it was only because its owners believed advertising and profits would increase.

The real political challenge for Mr Barnett relates to penalty rates. The Productivity Commission recently recommended that penalties for weekend work be scaled back, resulting in lower costs for employers and, in its view, the creation of more jobs.

Mr Barnett said big retailers such as Coles and Woolworths had negotiated out penalty rates, adding that he wanted small business to have a similar deal to big business.

At present, assistants in small shops qualify for a 50 per cent loading on Saturdays and double time on Sundays. They are not the only ones, of course, who get extra for weekend work. Many in the public sector get even more generous payments.

However public sector workers are represented by unions, which can cause governments a lot of trouble and have been overlooked in the current round.

The premier claims a union campaign against cutting retail penalty rates on Sundays cannot be justified; regardless, he’d better get ready.

It promises to be a major stoush, with one plus for the government – it could divert attention from embarrassingly big budget deficits, mounting state debt and the loss of the AAA credit rating.

Mano e mano

Opposition leader Bill Shorten used the recent ALP national conference to reaffirm his position that at least half of all Labor MPs would be women within 10 years. Prime Minister Tony Abbott agreed that more women should be in parliament, without setting a target.

However when the first opportunity came to apply these noble intentions – the endorsement of candidates for the by-election in the federal seat of Canning on September 19 – both parties selected men.

And they are, undeniably, high calibre candidates. The Liberals chose former SAS officer Andrew Hastie, who spoke impressively at the party’s state conference, including when he rebutted allegations of questionable actions while leading his unit in Afghanistan in 2013.

Labor selected lawyer Matthew Keogh, who quit as president of the WA Law Society to contest the seat.

As noted previously in Political Perspective, there is much riding on this by-election, caused by the sudden death of the Liberal member Don Randall. The Liberals will be hard-pressed to contain an expected big anti-government swing in a seat it holds with an 11.8 per cent margin.

The main candidates might be men, but they will have two high-profile women backing them up. Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop will be at the forefront in promoting Mr Hastie, and Labor MHR Alannah MacTiernan – the former state MP for Armadale, which is in the Canning seat – has already been active in Mr Keogh’s corner.

Both women MPs have strong personal followings. Perhaps there’s a message for the Liberal and Labor parties there.


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