01/05/2007 - 22:00

Battle over AWAs goes inter-party

01/05/2007 - 22:00


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The industrial relations genie is now out – Australian Workplace Agreements aren’t bad for everybody.

The industrial relations genie is now out – Australian Workplace Agreements aren’t bad for everybody.

In fact, according to our premier, AWAs aren’t bad at all – at least for those working the mining sector, one of Western Australia’s biggest sectors in terms of employment.

That’s quite a lot of people who seem to have signed individual contracts with their employer, without detriment.

With the resources sector trundling along making money for everyone, including its workers, no-one wants to see an IR jolt that might derail that source of jobs, investment and taxes.

But the issue is far more fundamental than that.

There is no doubt that getting rid of AWAs is a backward step. The mining industry is a very good example of what can be gained – for all parties – by moving to individual contracts, an arrangement between the company and the worker.

Just look at the sector before that.

Up in the Pilbara, where global-scale mining arguably first took place in Australia, old-style industrial relations hurt the industry for decades as two behemoths – old-fashioned labour and old-style companies belted each other in a fight that had only one winner.

Miners were paid well, so long as they toed the line and went on strike when the union leaders wanted to show how important they were, going to battle over trivialities like flavour of ice-cream was in the mess. It was a national disgrace.

The employers and employees have moved on since those times; only the unions remain focused on the past. They showed that during the recent construction of the Mandurah railway, defying a Labor government on a massive public service project for the community good.

Imagine what they’ll do when granted power over mine sites up north.

Even Kevin Rudd must shudder when he thinks of the consequences of derailing the WA boom. Alan Carpenter clearly can, hence the about face on ceding the state’s IR powers to the commonwealth.

What’s disappointing about this is that Labor has missed the opportunity to take what’s happened in the mining community as a standard for every other industry.

As much as they hate to admit it, AWAs are where market forces gets it right.

The mining industry is successful and needs workers, so it has to strike a good deal.

Why can’t Labor see the positives in this system and propose to take them across the country?

If AWAs work so well for mining, isn’t it possible they work well for employees in other industries, maybe even most employees in all industries? While the mining industry has been held up as an example of AWAs working, there have not been the expected flood of shock and horror stories elsewhere, just a few isolated examples you’d get with any policy change.

Surely Labor understands that the world now centres around the individual. Some individuals need protection, and a smart policy would have found a way to do that better.

But stepping back to the days when everyone gets the same deal, when merit means little and some faceless power broker negotiates blanket agreements on your behalf is not what aspirational people want. Collective bargaining is dinosaur stuff.

Aspirational people don’t need to be tricked into believing retail or hospitality jobs are going to pay as much as mining or resources.

But they might like to know how, by choosing to stay in the big cities they can best tailor their work life to suit those peculiar needs of theirs.

Many people don’t mind working weekends or public holidays, so they can trade off penalty rates for other benefits. Lots of people choose to work nights so they can enjoy our fine beaches during the day.

Some people find it suits them to have a part-time job, or work from home.

A smart bit of policy would have helped these people achieve what they want even better than the current system. Rather than resisting change which is, let’s face it, irresistible, why not embrace it and make it better.


No logic on uranium

Speaking of embracing change, I just loved reading Mike Rann’s speech this week welcoming the federal Labor decision to overturn its Claytons ban on uranium mining.

The South Australian premier used some strong language that must be hard for his WA counterpart to swallow.

Mr Rann suggested Labor had “joined the real world” and ended its “illogical, outdated and ineffectual” policy.

By default, he’s suggesting that WA is not in the real world for sticking with an illogical, outdated and ineffectual argument to continue the mining ban here.

I tend to agree with him.

Whatever your personal view about having nuclear energy, it seems odd to deny other nations the opportunity to have that power source – especially ones not blessed with abundant gas and oil supplies like our own.

I am also getting a bit peeved at Premier Alan Carpenter’s line that if we export the yellowcake we’ll have to accept the waste back.

I think this is not only nonsense, but damaging to us. With all due respect, the more Mr Carpenter states it, the more likely it will become accepted by others in the world community as true. If the premier is trying to cut off our options in the future, he’s doing a good job.

Waste is a market like any other, and we ought to be able to choose what price, and at what risk, we’ll accept to have such material returned. We should not have the idea foist upon us because of some notion that the country that produces a product must accept responsibility for every by-product.


Missed opportunity

Both of the subjects above point towards a similar issue – that the current state government is looking a little out-of-date.

I know its challenging to focus on doing new things when booming revenues invite governments to rest on their laurels, but such good times don’t last – especially if a bit of IR unrest upsets things.

Apart from the rail line south, announced early in Geoff Gallop’s first term, and the recent liquor deregulation, there seems to be little about this state government that indicates it is forward thinking about anything.

Perhaps I am being hypercritical, but there is so much that could be done that isn’t.

I fear we’ll look back at this period as one in which we missed a golden opportunity.


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