The Australian government have made no secret of their desire to make 2014 the year to address Australia’s so called flagging national productivity and competitiveness. Spurred on by business and parts of the media, the government has announced they will review national productivity by undertaking a range of inquiries mainly about how Australian workers, businesses and government departments can work more efficiently to produce more goods and services from the same level of inputs.
The government announced the parts of the economy to be reviewed in 2014 and so far they include:
1. A root and branch review of the Fair Work Act;
2. Penalty rates;
3. The role and the regulation of trade unions;
4. Industry superannuation funds; and
5. The need to increase labour mobility.
And while the government says this is to be a wide-ranging review, it does appear that the focus of the reviews is to be on workers, workplace laws, employee entitlements and the regulation of trade unions.
So while you may have been of the view that you and your colleagues have been working hard and efficiently, delivering good services for a fair wage and conditions, you may be at odds with your government. Silly you!
The agency to be responsible for these reviews is the Productivity Commission which is a government review and advisory body on microeconomic policy, regulation and a range of social and environmental issues.
Since its beginning in 1998 the Commission has undertaken reviews of most parts of our economy. You may recall that in 2009 the Commission held an inquiry into the residential aged care sector and recommended new regulations and funding changes for almost everything except employee entitlements. This was surprising given that collectively the industry maintained that wages and working conditions were the most pressing problem in the sector and needed to be resolved. However these calls fell on deaf ears at the Productivity Commission.
Unfortunately this was no surprise to those who deal with the Commission. For some time now there has been a consistency or sameness about the reports and recommendations coming from the Commission. In fact you can now pretty well guess the content of a Commission report;
If it’s an issue about regulation – propose deregulation,
If it’s a government service – recommend privatisation,
If it’s about government service delivery – give consumers vouchers.
And so on.
In fact you could say that working with the Productivity Commission is a bit like going to buy a pair of shoes and to be told you can have any pair you like as long as they are brown and size 10!
Most people in the community accept that productivity growth is important. It’s one way we get rising living standards and sustainable prosperity and, if the benefits of productivity growth are shared, we can all receive a benefit.
However the targeting of workers, unions and industrial laws is of significant concern. It suggests that the new federal government remains fixated on these issues and continues to have an industrial relations axe to grind. If so this is disappointing.
For most mainstream observers industrial relations laws and labour costs are not the cause of productivity problems and they are not the solution. The Work Choices laws didn’t fix the problem and the Fair Work Act has not made it worse.
However this view hasn’t stopped right wing employers and their think tanks arguing that labour laws and unions in particular have killed the golden goose and if the “free” market could just be allowed to operate, we could finally achieve high productivity, low taxes, cheaper services etc, etc. And while it may be too early to say, we should all hope that these extreme views do not resonate with the government or the Productivity Commission.
There is also the lingering but diminishing post global financial crisis view that the way forward is to cut public services, reduce social services and stem wages growth. And while this is also a minority view it is advocated by loud and well resourced organisations like the mining industry.
But for the 85% of Australian families, including over 300,000 nurses, midwives and carers who go to work, earn a wage and rely on government services in their daily activities, these productivity reviews will potentially be very important.
The Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation will be actively involved with written submissions, by raising awareness and campaigning to not only protect our members but also advocate strongly of the need to maintain a balance between the interests, aspirations and fair treatment of workers and increasing productivity and efficiency in our national economy.
Senior Federal Industrial Officer