Three takeaways from a talkfest

Thursday’s talkfest on the nature of employment in the Australian economy was dazzling for the diversity of its contributions.

Critics said the event would just be a stage-managed gab fest.

But the range of ideas floated by some of the 143 representatives of unions, business and broader society included contributions that were almost certainly spontaneous.

Liverpudlian maritime unionist Christy Cain warned big business to “come to the table” and share profits or be “on the menu”. Andrew Forrest, the country’s second-richest man, hoped for cooperation for the sake of the national interest. The two had briefly exchanged pleasantries in the foyer.

The audience was warned not to expect an easy fix for the economy.

After hearing so many viewpoints even easy lessons seemed hard to come by, but three discussions stand out.

Wages pledge lives

Employment Minister Tony Bourke unveiled plans for legislation to overhaul laws for negotiating workplace pay and conditions to support an increase in wages.

The government’s election promise to get wages increasing was dismissed by many as unachievable and an issue now beyond the influence of government.

The government’s plan unveiled on Thursday includes a contentious reform: To expand the potential breadth of workplace deals.

At the moment, workers’ pay is either set as a legal minimum, individual deal, or as an agreement between an employer and their entire workforce (“enterprise bargaining”).

The union movement has called for multi-employer bargaining.

They argue employers ultimately hold all the cards when negotiations are confined to just one workplace and employees’ bargaining powers are limited.

Business has objected to this reform which it says could leave some employers isolated and pressured to accept deals just because they have been accepted elsewhere.

One employer body, the Ai Group, is warning that wider negotiations would produce “crippling” nation-wide industrial action. 

The more influential Business Council of Australia did not issue a statement in response. It previously said the case for such change is not convincing but released a joint economic policy statement latest display of cooperation between them. 

In an apparent compromise legal protections guaranteeing no employee is left worse off under new workplace deals will be simplified, something unions have not agreed to previously.

“I’m interested in anything that gets wages moving,” he said.

Evidence from the industries in which such bargaining is used suggest that it does coincide with higher pay rises.

Details about the big picture changes announced on Thursday will come after consultations. 

Enough babysitting

The jobs summit has drawn comparisons to the national economic summit that followed Bob Hawke’s election in 1983.

But the government emphasised a major point of difference from the outset on Thursday.

“At the 1983 Economic Summit there were 97 participants,” Finance Minister Katy Gallagher said. “Trailblazing Senator Susan Ryan was the only woman in the room.”

In contrast, women make up the majority of this summit, which opened with a session on equal pay.

Ms Gallagher said that women and women’s economic security were at the centre of the government’s thinking on the economy.

Increasing women’s participation and closing the gender pay gap is not being framed as a moral problem. There is money and productivity at stake.

RMIT economist Leonora Risse said about 125,000 Australian women wanted to work but could not because of child care or other personal responsibilities.

Increasing the rate at which women participate to equal men’s participation rates would add some $353 billion to the Australian economy if achieved by the middle of this century, the Finance Minister said.

Helen Dalley-Fisher, from the Equality Rights Alliance, summed it up pithily: “We can’t keep asking women to babysit the economy.”

All of this supports one of the government’s centrepiece election promises, a controversial multibillion-dollar policy to move child care towards become a universal service with some subsidies even for families on high six-figure incomes.

The government says taking away the obstacles to women working will generate economic gains much larger than the policy cost.

Departing from script

Sometimes the summit played out like stilted theatre, or a TV talent show whose participants were given a microphone for three minutes at a time with varied results.

But a seemingly rehearsed moment showed why the government is not pushing for a discussion with greater focus in keeping with the PM’s opening plea that participants not give into the impulse to deeper trenches.

ACT Senator David Pocock is an outspoken critic of the construction industry and the government’s plans to abolish the body that regulates it.

That commission has long been viewed on the left of politics as a union-busting outfit long in Labor’s sights.

Speaking against its axing might have been drowned out by booing in a party political crowd.

Mr Pocock said: ‘‘Fundamentally, how do we stop this issue from being the highly ideological political football it has been for more than a decade?”

He then called on Kate Jenkins, perhaps Australia’s leading expert on reforming workplace culture, about making construction sites safer.

“I feel like this summit is another turning point,” she said.

Hours later, the government said it planned to establish a forum to regulate mental health and safety in construction.

For a question on such a politically charged issue to bring about movement from a government might have otherwise seemed implausible.

That Mr Pocock holds the balance of power in the Senate no doubt helps his case.

But it is a public display that goes to why these sometimes digressive contributions are being allowed to take centre stage in national political debate.

A summit doesn’t erase fundamental differences. But it recognises them and involves them in a formal process held on civil terms.

Mr Burke said participants had gone from “railing against” ideas they opposed to “saying effectively they want to see where the case is being made”.

Politics becomes a bit like the world of international diplomacy. Details are hashed out beforehand, as ministers did at industry roundtables in recent weeks.

What’s on public display does not produce compelling dialogue, but it seeks to reset the tone of debate on an issue that has divided Australia deeply.

There will be different views over whether that matters, or is desirable. But instead of talkfests accompanied by no action, this is action accompanied by a talkfest.

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