Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gerard Henderson, Jobs, Tax Concessions, the Harvester case and rampant dullness at large

Gerard Henderson contributes such an arcane, dull, impenetrable column to the pond today that a few loons were caught nodding off before the 'reading the newspaper out loud' session was completed.

In Cash wins voters, but higher labour costs won't work, Henderson sets himself up for a win win scenario. There will be higher unemployment, no doubt about that, and now that the Fair Work legislation has been introduced, any such increase can be blamed on it rather than economic conditions.

So Henderson fights an endless rearguard action against the recent legislation, no doubt in honor of his hero John Howard, revisiting all the old saws in his valiant struggle - including a gloss of Julia Gillard's past as a highly skilled political operator, and the wrongness of the famous Harvester judgment, as shown by changing government policy during the great depression.

You almost get the sense that Henderson would love to go back in time and remove from the record such oppressive to business conditions as a minimum wage, an eight hour day, weekends, extra pay for shift work, holidays or other fringe benefits.

Instead at the end of his column he settles for a few pieties:

At the moment wage restraint all round makes sense - from top executives to the lowly paid.

Well yes, but we know how the lowly paid are restrained. It would have been an impressive intellectual display, a veritable tour de force if Henderson had set out mechanisms explaining how we might persuade top executives to exercise restraint, especially when getting paid to export manufacturing jobs to China (all in the name of efficiency of course, and keeping the business alive).

The living standards of the latter group (the lowly paid) are best preserved by additional tax concessions - which do not place an added cost on employing labour.

Additional tax concessions? Meaning? Tax cuts? But whenever tax cuts come along, they never seem to focus on the lowly paid. They seem to run up and down the scale, and the well paid gain a disproportionate slice of the cake.

In fact, between Henderson's crocodile tears about the lowly paid, and an ostensible concern to keep the lowly paid in employment, and the unrestrained desire of employers to have an absolutely flexible labor market, and the government's bid to introduce their election promise, it's easy to see why the lowly paid might still side with the government.

You see, here's the funny thing. Henderson is blaming business for getting into bed with Labor and its industrial relations agenda, and encouraging Rudd and Gillard to implement their election promise in this area, irrespective of the prevailing economic circumstances.

That's right, the government's to blame for actually implementing an election promise, when the current economic circumstances suggest a return to the proper Darwinian employment policies of the past, namely in the land of fuck it's fuck or be fucked, and forget about any regulation.

What's more Henderson has the cheek to suggest that Anna Bligh's win in Queensland was simply on the basis that Bligh promised to spend more and create more jobs than the Opposition. 

Actually it might have had something to do with opposition leader Lawrence Springborg's complete ineptness on the economic and jobs front, and his gifting of some delightful quotes to the Labor machine, which gratefully deployed them in a series of attack ads which deftly suggested Springborg was away with the pixies on the jobs front and the GFC. 

Making positions de-necessary. Hideous English but even more fatal political gobbledegook.

The funny thing is, the more Henderson and the old guard yearn for a return to the old days and John Howard and Work Choices, the more likely the punters are to get startled and vote in the Rudd government for a second term. The convoluted nonsense that Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals went through trying to deny that the legislation fulfilled an election promise did them much more harm, and much more good to Labor, than should reasonably have been expected in the current economic circumstances.

In a realpolitik world, it's time to let the past go, and to move on. Unfortunately Henderson, roaming back over the Harvester judgment, doesn't help anyone on the Liberal side of the game. If H. B. Higgins decision in 1907 lives on in anyone's memory these ays, it's because it created the idea of a basic wage - that which would guarantee employees a standard of living which was reasonable for a human being in a civilized community.

In short, Australia, with its mateship and fair go mythology, rejected the American approach, and hared off in a different direction. Henderson has long had a thing about the Harvester case, and his current ramblings reinforce the notion that the right has lost its direction, and wants to fight the old wars all over again.

Henderson might not want to say it. But returning to the free market jungle that existed before the Harvester case doesn't protect the lowly paid, and doesn't protect jobs. And rabbiting on endlessly about the injustice of pushing up labour costs carries with it the corollary that the right is really only interested in pushing down labour costs. 

Tell that to someone employed in a fast food chain on the minimum wage, and tell them exactly how additional tax concessions will benefit them without benefiting the rich. Then these voters might actually take an interest in what Henderson has to say.

When Henderson says that the new unfair dismissal legislation would not have saved one job at Pacific Brands, or one employee whose job has been lost as a result of the economic downturn, he's actually proposing a good argument for why the new legislation is watered down and toothless. Business will go on being business and making labor related decisions on the basis of business needs and economic activity.

So what's he fussing about? The concept of fairness? Or just being a prattling Polonius, anxious to ensure we know we're all doomed employment wise for the foreseeable future?

Henderson might not want to say it, but the voters tried John Howard's way and got a taste of what giving employers exceptional power and easy contractual negotiations could mean. And they didn't like it. Henderson can argue pushing old labor laws might create new jobs, but he's actually pushing the proverbial uphill.

And if he thinks blaming the Great Recession and subsequent unemployment on the new Fair Work legislation is going to work, then he probably thinks the mug punters in the land have shorter memories than Peter Garrett ...

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