Labor MP’s doublethink on Fair Work Act

The term “Orwellian” seems to be attached to anything vaguely misleading these days, but I genuinely believe that it can be applied to Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite’s defence of the Fair Work Act (FWA) – Labor’s industrial relations legislation that was introduced to replace the Howard government’s Work Choices policy and came into full effect in mid-2010.

When extolling the virtues of the FWA, Thistlethwaite uses what I can only call “doublethink“, Orwell’s idea of telling “deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them”. Just look at the “facts” that he was using:

Just the facts on Labor’s workplace reforms | Article | The Punch.

A simple measure of unsuccessful bargaining in workplaces is the number of days lost due to industrial disputes. Since 1991 the number of days lost to industrial disputes has been falling. In 1991 the average days lost during the year was 239.4 days per 1000 employees.

To compare, last year the figure was 15.9 days lost per 1000 employees. This is a significant drop. There has been an average reduction in days lost to industrial disputes almost every year for the past two decades.

For a few reasons I am no fan of the FWA, but I am also able to change my mind in the face of solid evidence. I was curious about what he was saying and decided to investigate a little further. I did not need to go very far; Thistlethwaite’s own figures came from the ABS Industrial Disputes, Australia report on industrial disputes up to September 2011. Looking at the report, there was a dramatic spike in disputes that began in the quarter ending September 2010 – exactly when the FWA came into full effect.

Also note: the major industries where most working days were lost were construction, mining and education/healthcare and NOT in transport – nothing to do with Qantas.

Another point I noticed: remember how he was lauding the fact that the number of days lost per 1000 employees had dropped from 239.4 to 15.9 since 1991? Well a couple of paragraphs later:

… The Howard Government had more than 105 days lost to industrial action per 1000 employees in 1999-2000. This figure represents the first four years of the Howard Government’s initial industrial regime, a policy that turned the screws on working people.

There seems to be more to it than he is telling, but the ABS did not have a graph showing the trend in the data going back decades. Luckily, I could do this myself:

The red line is a moving average over the previous four quarters.

Strange, to me that looks like the 1999-2000 period happens to have been an anomalous spike in what was otherwise a consistent decline in industrial disputes during Howard’s term. Meanwhile, he conveniently did not mention the 1985-1991 period under the Hawke Labor government where industrial disputes were actually increasing (albeit not significantly).

After Keating took over, there was a drop, but then disputes started rising again until Howard started “turning the screws on working people” in 1996, when they began to drop again and did so more or less consistently, aside from the spikes in 1999-2000 and 2003-2004. Note in particular that the number of hours lost dropped under Work Choices (2005-07) and then have been slowly rising since Labor took over in 2007 and have risen sharply since the FWA came into full effect.

I was a little disturbed by this, but I did give Thistlethwaite the benefit of the doubt at first. After all, no one looking at this data with any remote mathematical competence would arrive at the conclusions that he did without very carefully and deliberately choosing only the parts that prove their argument and ignoring everything else.

Well, lo and behold, this Thursday was another Thistlethwaite piece in The Punch on the FWA:

In Australia work is fair and it’s getting better | Article | The Punch.

The recently negotiated Holden Enterprise Agreement shows that the Fair Work Act equips employers and employees with the tools to produce high quality, mutually satisfactory agreements.

The link that he points to says this:

Today’s stories about Holden signing a new EBA are premature.

The EBAs covering engineering and manufacturing employees have not been signed and the coverage today is misleading and takes a very one-sided view of negotiations.

Now I kind of feel like he’s doing this on purpose. This must be an Easter Egg. There is no possible way that someone would actually try to argue that their industrial relations scheme is working because of a protracted negotiation over salaries by a company that’s about to get a $300mln bailout and then back that up by linking to a press statement from that company saying that no agreement has actually been reached. I mean, that just seems silly.

Since 1991, wages have increased from $929 to $1287 per week in real terms. That means even once cost of living increases over the past two decades are taken into account, Australians are now $358 better off per week. Over this 20-year period, combined real wage growth was 33 per cent, an average increase real in wages of 1.7 per cent per year.

Since the introduction of the Fair Work Act, real wages have increased by 2.8 per cent, an average of 1.4 per cent per year. This is consistent with real wage growth trends seen over the last 20 years and shows that real claims about wages breakouts are grossly exaggerated.

Hold on a second, did he just  argue that the FWA has maintained real wage growth using figures showing that, under the FWA, growth has been 18% lower than average? I had to make sure, because it definitely looks like he did that.

It does make sense that the FWA would lower wage growth and cause more industrial disputes, seeing as it effectively takes Australian IR policy back to the pre-Keating era, when this was the norm:

Abbott’s fault line.

The labour market regression started with the FWA’s repudiation of Keating’s concept of enterprise bargaining. But it went a lot further; it abolished individual contracts and non-union collective agreements, made bargaining more difficult, bolstered the centralised system, returned to and reinforced the concept of arbitration, put agreement-making back into the tribunal thereby undercutting the involvement of employers and employees, brought the unions back into virtually every agreement, expanded the right to strike and reinvigorated the awards system. It widened union access to business through right of entry provisions; it broadened unfair dismissal provisions, changed anti-discrimination rights and gave the tribunal more jurisdiction.

… Under the FWA, all agreements are, in practice, union agreements because if, in any business, regardless of its size, there is even only one union member then the union with coverage becomes the default bargaining representative. The employer is not allowed to know the identity of that member. And the union member is not consulted.

That last point is particularly sore for me. Less than 20% of Australian workers are members of Unions. Note that I capitalise the “U” – this is because the Union movement in Australia today is not the trade union movement of the past. These are no longer grassroots organisations formed by uniting workers to demand better conditions; they are now large, opaque and corrupt institutions, which, as their membership numbers show, are becoming increasingly irrelevant with every passing year.

It is an absolute disgrace that there would be legislation forcing Unions into negotiations between employers and employees who are not Union members. Who is the Government to tell Australian workers who should be representing them? Especially when they have made a clear choice that they do not want to be a part of the Union!

But then I guess this is apparently a Government who can only defend the policy with proof that it isn’t working. That, right there, is straight out of Orwell.

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