Today we kick off a four-part election series on wages, industrial relations, Labor and the union movement ahead of the 2019 federal election. You can read an analysis of Labor’s living wage policy here.
Industrial relations is in the DNA of Australian politics: it is the defining policy issue that has traditionally distinguished Labor from the Coalition.
Industrial relations issues have featured prominently in recent election campaigns, with Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), WorkChoices and union governance being the subject of fierce contestation between the major parties. However, this election the policy contrast is especially evident.
While the policies of the major parties have always differed, over the past 30 years there was a neoliberal consensus on economic policy that in some respects extended to industrial relations.
For instance, the Fair Work Act implemented by the Rudd government reversed some but not all elements of Howard-era industrial relations policies. It largely maintained constraints on trade union power.
But this consensus is fracturing, as reflected in the policy settings of the two major parties. The Coalition has held steadfast to the idea that industrial relations and labour market issues are best left to the logic of the market. From this perspective, a strong economy enabled by low taxation and minimal government intervention results in employment and wage growth.
In contrast, and in light of the evident decoupling of economic growth and wages growth, the ALP has taken a more interventionist stance. This reflects less confidence in market mechanisms alone to solve persistent issues such as gender inequality, low pay and the proliferation of precarious work.
The Coalition’s commitments
Much of the Liberal and National parties’ policy platform focuses on what the Coalition has achieved in office. Most prominent is the focus on the Coalition’s job record, particularly its claim to have created 1.3 million jobs since it was first elected in September 2013.
The Coalition highlights recent job growth among younger workers, increased workforce participation among women and the creation of full-time jobs. This is despite persistent challenges relating to gender equality at work, unemployment and under-employment among young workers and a prevalence of insecure and non-standard work arrangements.
Very little is said explicitly about wages, job security and other “core” industrial relations issues. One explanation for this could be memories of the “WorkChoices election” of 2007 when the Howard government’s weakening of worker protections led to its removal from office.
Or it could be because of an ideological view that removing market constraints, particularly for small business, will lead to improved conditions for workers. This is a strong theme in the Coalition’s platform: it claims that lower taxes are “a critical part of our plan to deliver a strong economy and record job creation”.
The Coalition also points to its record in “tackling union lawlessness”, particularly through the establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. A key aspect of the Coalition’s policy platform is to highlight Labor’s perceived weaknesses through its links with the union movement and also the potential impact of climate change policies on employment in carbon-intensive industries.
But it’s hard to see this resonating much among voters, who for the past two decades have seen unions are having much less power than big business (see below).
Voters’ perceptions of the power of trade unions and big business, Australia, 1967-2016
Authors: Sarah Kaine, Associate Professor UTS Centre for Business and Social Innovation, University of Technology Sydney