Margaret Thatcher once remarked that consensus was “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved”.
Talking about talking in the name of finding consensus without a specific goal will never be the quickest route to results that will help build a more resilient economy. This is likely to be the fate of Scott Morrison’s drum-circle council of unions, big business and employer groups.
At the last election Morrison said he and his government would be the voice of quiet Australians. But it is not clear if the quiet Australians will be heard by the industrial relations working groups outlined by the Prime Minister in his address to the National Press Club last week.
Rather than include mainstream Australians from the outer suburbs who work as mechanics, tradesmen, or own a small business, the government instead invited an ACTU that at most speaks on behalf of just 14 per cent of Australian workers. The Prime Minister didn’t mention who would speak on behalf of the other 86 per cent.
The ACTU increasingly represents older public servants who have been shielded from job losses and pay cuts resulting from the COVID-19 lockdown measures, unlike workers in the productive, private sectors of the economy.
The government also left small businesses –— the heart and soul of mainstream Australia — out of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission; it includes four commissioners from big business, one from the public service, and one from both the trade union movement and the Labor Party.
An early indication of how the development of a new consensus might evolve was revealed the day after the Prime Minister’s speech. Unions representing public sector workers in NSW immediately opposed the NSW government’s relatively timid proposal to freeze NSW public sector pay for 12 months.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil said the pay freeze was “a terrible decision” that would be “bad for the economy and for small business”, a claim on which she did not expand.
If unions can’t agree to delaying pay rises to often well-remunerated public servants for a year there is little hope they’ll agree to anything else that will help small businesses such as reforming unfair dismissal laws, dealing with the issue of rising minimum wages, and industry-wide awards.
The way to create jobs and higher wages for Australians is not to have a narrow group of unionists trying to rewrite laws about who can work and how much they are to be paid, but to have governments cut red and green tape, reduce taxes and secure reliable electricity at affordable prices.
But none of these issues, all of which could be quickly dealt with without the need for wide-ranging talks, was specifically mentioned by the Prime Minister last week.
On this page last Thursday Niki Savva wrote that “Morrison’s lack of ideology, his policy flexibility … is not shared by sections of his party, particularly the capital-C conservatives. So when he reaches the crunch points, he will come under pressure to throw out red meat to satisfy the bloodlust of the base and those who cater for it”.
But it is less about ideology than belief about what is right for the country and how best to achieve that.
Mainstream Australians may remain mostly quiet. But they are not quitters. They firmly believe in the importance of having a job, being independent and not reliant on taxpayer handouts, the dignity of owning and running a small business, owning their own home, the Australian way of life, freedom of speech and religion, and our egalitarian democratic institutions.
And if Morrison listened more closely to the mainstream Australians who voted for him, he might come to the conclusion he doesn’t need the permission of the ACTU to make it easier for businesses and employers to create jobs and get Australians back into work.
Daniel Wild is director of research with the Institute of Public Affairs.