Alan Kohler: Among its outcomes, the jobs summit underlined irrelevance of Opposition

Ross Garnaut’s message to the summit was, ‘It’s time to stop kidding ourselves’.

Ross Garnaut’s message to the summit was, ‘It’s time to stop kidding ourselves’. Photo: AAP

Last week’s jobs summit, like all summits, was a gathering of vested interests, so it was a nice moment when Ross Garnaut told them over dinner that reform happens when vested interests are defeated.

“The reform era (of the 1980s and ’90s) defeated deeply entrenched business and trade union interests that stood against the national interest,” he told the deeply entrenched business and trade union interests.

As expected, the Jobs and Skills Summit was a public negotiation in which business was given more migrants and pensioners in return for unions getting back the ability to go on strike.

Most business summiteers didn’t agree to that, some did, but the government announced that multi-employer bargaining will be legislated anyway.

Negotiations in public can’t be real, only theatre, but with that in mind the summit was a well-organised, off-site conference and served, among other things, to underline the irrelevance of the Opposition.

Apart from that – and getting 100 or so vested interests in a room to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country (to quote John F Kennedy) – the summit seems to have had two underlying purposes:

  1. Begin the process of bringing unions back to the national policy table, and
  2. Make a statement that women are now equally running the country.

Half the delegates were women, the opening keynote was delivered by Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute and a clear majority of speakers and panellists over the two days were women.

It was quite a contrast with Bob Hawke’s summit 39 years ago, graced as it was by only one woman – Susan Ryan.

There’s still a long way to go for gender equality to leak out of the summit room and into workplaces, but the femaleness of the summit will give that some momentum.

As for the place of unions, one of the first jobs of all newly elected Labor governments is to bring trade unions blinking into the light and reintroduce them to the Australian people after the Coalition bricked them into the fireplace.

Union reps outnumbered those from business organisations 33 to 23, although there were 19 individual business people as well, plus 57 from government, community groups, think tanks and universities watching the show and assisting the discussion.

The Coalition’s irrelevance

Amusingly, the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Sussan Ley, explained why she didn’t go to the summit: “I refuse to share a room with union thugs”.

That about sums up the stupidity of the Liberals, considering that exactly half of the thugs were women, including the two leaders of the union movement, Sally McManus and Michele O’Neill. Oh, and the leader of the National Party, David Littleproud, was sharing a room with them, apparently unharmed.

The best speeches were the opener from Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood, about productivity, and Professor Ross Garnaut’s dinner speech in which he told everyone to stop kidding themselves and talked about the problem of vested interests to a room full of vested interests.

Garnaut discussed Australia’s two great reform eras – the one following the 1945 white paper on full employment and the more well-known one after the election of the Hawke government in 1983.

The 1945 white paper, Garnaut said, “was premised on the radical idea that governments should accept responsibility for stimulating spending on goods and services to the extent necessary to sustain full employment”.

The ’80s and ’90s delivered wage restraint, expansion of health, education and superannuation, reduced preferential taxation of capital income while lowering marginal income tax rates, and removing most industry protection.

Since then two alternative ideas have dominated: That a pool of unemployed people is needed to keep wages and inflation under control, and governments cannot take responsibility for anything beyond defence and should leave it all to the markets instead.

But a consensus seems to be building that the pendulum has swung too far on both of those matters. Real wages need to rise and government must do more.

Garnaut said: “Rising standards of living will rely less on regulated wages and more on fiscal transfers than in the past.”

And for that, he continued, the government isn’t raising enough taxes: “Total federal and state taxation revenue as a share of GDP is 5.7 percentage points lower than the developed country average. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.” (Garnaut said we should ‘‘stop kidding ourselves’’ a total of seven times).

Competence and consultation

The best thing about the summit was that it was both an exercise in humility – of listening – and a statement that governing is not a venture in ideology, but in competence and consultation.

As for the specific outcomes, Labor was always going to increase the potential supply of labour by lifting the immigration cap and loosening the pension means test, among other things. And it was always going to legislate reforms to the Fair Work Act to fix the bargaining system, which everyone agrees is broken.

But not everyone agrees, of course, that unions should have more power or that there should be more strikes, but big business was stitched up.

The deal with which they were presented is not symmetrical: Measures to increase labour supply are long term, uncertain and marginal while the return of multi-employer bargaining will be an immediate and decisive change in the fortunes of trade unions.

While big businesses agree that the enterprise bargain system is broken, they simply wanted some more flexibility in the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), so that sometimes a deal could be approved even if some staff are worse off.

As with corporate off-site conferences, Australia’s senior executives didn’t need a two-day meeting to make the decisions they had already made, but they wanted to get other layers of national management on the same page.

This was an event to publicly welcome women and unions into national governance. It was also a welcome statement that we are entering a new era of non-ideological government.

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also editor in chief of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news

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