IR: Gillard fails on process, Keneally on policy
In any dispute involving the NSW Government, the temptation is to assume that the NSW Government is 100 per cent in the wrong. It just saves time.
The stand-off between Premier Kristina Keneally and Prime Minister Julia Gillard over industrial relations reform is a bit more complicated than that.
Keneally might be out of step with other Labor Governments and the Commonwealth in refusing to accept what are modest and sensible reforms to work safety laws. But Gillard has been found wanting both in terms of her capacity for effective and sincere negotiation. She also looks like she tricked the voters by claiming during the federal election campaign that a deal had been done with the states to wind back the excesses of work safety laws, saving business millions of dollars, when it is now quite obvious that no such deal had been done.
Julia Gillard’s handling of this issue is the industrial relations equivalent of her sloppy East Timor solution to the asylum seeker question. Shortly before the election campaign Ms Gillard said that Dili had agreed to the establishment of an off-shore processing centre for asylum seekers; the only problem was that Dili had done no such thing, and Australia ended up facing a motion of condemnation on the floor of the Timorese Parliament for suggesting as much.
Ms Gillard’s handling of the issue was more about convincing the voters that, unlike her predecessor Kevin Rudd, she had found a workable solution to the asylum seeker mess. The opposite was true. No deal had been done with the Timorese and their blind-siding by Canberra on the eve of a highly-charged election campaign damaged the relationship with one of our closest neighbours and did nothing to bring more sense or certainty to our border protection policies.
It’s a hard image to picture, but Kristina Keneally is the Jose Ramos-Horta figure in this stand-off over industrial relations.
As Tony Abbott rightly pointed out yesterday morning, Ms Gillard told the Australian people and Australian employers during the election campaign that every state was locked into this agreement on workplace reform. It simply wasn’t true.
Ms Gillard’s handling of the impasse, where she has been accused by Ms Keneally of leaking their private correspondence to the media before she had even received the letter from the PM, has served only to inflame the situation further.
You want a hard-headed PM who can make decisions and not be cowed by premiers banging their state issues drum, but the question is whether Julia Gillard is being effective in the way she has handled this issue with NSW from the very start.
If Julia Gillard has been found wanting in terms of procedure, Kristina Keneally looks like a cloth-capped industrial dinosaur in terms of policy.
The reforms which Canberra is pushing on industrial relations are in no way draconian or ham-fisted. They will have no negative impact on the rights of workers to a safe working environment, nor will they make it easier for unscrupulous, slap-dash bosses to avoid sanction for breaches of occupational health and safety laws.
The reforms put an end to this absurd situation whereby unions can treat worker injuries as their own private jackpot, under a pretty tasteless arrangement where the union is allowed to take action on behalf of an injured worker and then keep half of the amount the employer is fined as a reward for fighting the case.
The Victorian and Queensland Labour Governments have enthusiastically agreed to axe this provision. But Kristina Keneally has instead decided to make a stand on this issue.
The other arcane bit of 19th century industrial policy she wants to retain is the system whereby the onus of proof is reversed in cases involving worker injuries. That is, it is assumed under NSW law that the employer is at fault when a worker is injured. It’s the only part of Australian law where it’s assumed that a party is guilty until proven innocent, a bit like the French legal system which operates under the rule of “trial by ordeal”. Setting aside the actual policy implications of this law, it shouldn’t even exist on the grounds of consistency with the rest of our more enlightened legal system which assumes the innocence of parties until they are proven guilty.
It is difficult to fathom Kristina Keneally’s decision to die in a ditch over these laws. She could not have been any more blunt in her choice of words to describe the PM’s conduct - “disappointing”, “heavy handed”, “illogical”, “premature”, in threatening to withhold up to $144 million in incentive payments to NSW should the state not fall into line.
On the face of it, Keneally’s actions appear to have less to do with policy than politics. Keneally is a more modern style of Labor politician, not an old-school union rabble-rouser. Fuelled by the knowledge that she’s facing a shellacking at the poll next May, she has probably decided that she will need all the help from the unions that she can muster.
It’s a pretty ordinary way for a premier to behave. In a once-powerful state which finds itself lagging behind other smaller states in terms of jobs growth and employment, she has stumped to keep a set of industrial laws which will make NSW less competitive, less attractive to employers, and all because she’s decided she needs to win some friends somewhere ahead of next year’s poll.
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