As Scott Morrison eyes consensus-based industrial relations reform, he must not commit the ultimate sin for any Liberal leader and forget Sir Robert Menzies’ forgotten people.
As part of his carefully branded ‘jobmaker’ plan, the prime minister has called on big business and unions to come together at the negotiating table for the sake of our shared economic future. The idea is to emulate the Accords of Bob Hawke, which were similarly drawn up with the input of union leader Bill Kelty to help Australia out of a tough economic spot.
Political parties court the support of particular sets of people and naturally the centre-right leader has extended a seat at the table to business. However, that invitation has been limited to big business in a manner that threatens to silence smaller voices and reward powerful corporate interests.
Ever since the Liberal party’s formation in 1943, the business community has been one of the party’s core constituencies. Business had been even more central to the party’s predecessor the United Australia Party, which had been founded in the midst of the Great Depression based on an appeal to national unity similar to the one that the prime minister is currently making.
At first it made sense that the business community should be so heavily involved in a government that was primarily focused on economic recovery, but over time that presence became an electoral handicap. People began to feel that business was using its influence to have the game rigged in its favour, much as Labor more openly supported union interests when they were in charge of the industrial relations system.
When founding the Liberal party, Robert Menzies had been keen to distance himself from this UAP legacy. In a famous series of speeches pondering Australia’s post-war future, he defined a new constituency sitting in between those rich enough to look after themselves and those protected by the powerful unions that had come to dominate the heavily regulated industrial relations system. His people were to be the ‘salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on’; the forgotten people.
‘They are envied by those whose benefits are largely obtained by taxing them. They are not rich enough to have individual power. They are taken for granted by each political party in turn. They are not sufficiently lacking in individualism to be organised for what in these days we call “pressure politics”. And yet, as I have said, they are the backbone of the nation.’
It is this same unprotected class of the modestly independent that are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus’s economic impact. The people who took risks in starting a restaurant or a hair salon not out of the hope of making it rich, but to have something they could call their own. In contrast to corporate stultification, they inject innovation and enthusiasm, adding value to the economy and to the community far beyond what is immediately visible.
These people need a voice and the Liberal party was founded to give them one, yet Scott Morrison is so detached from his own ideology that he has not even granted them a tokenistic presence.
Big businesses often benefit from regulations and tax systems that create barriers to entry and lock out potential competitors. They also often support costly renewables targets that drive up electricity prices and hurt the economy, but which nevertheless help the corporate brand. Big business simply does not have the same interests as their smaller counterparts.
The corporatist approach that Hawke took with the Accords is not all that it is lauded to be. It involves sordid deal-making that tends to produce results beneficial to those in power and detrimental to those without it. But even if it had been successful, it is not an approach a Liberal prime minister should ever make because it is fundamentally illiberal.
The very idea of a negotiating table grants the figures involved the ability to speak for whole classes of people, in a significant swipe at individualism. Corporations might have a uniform view on things but small businesses do not; their diversity and pluralism are defining characteristics.
During the nineteenth century, Australian liberals had deliberately rejected the idea of having ‘interests’ like the squatters represented in parliament. When later on Labor tried to win seats for the union movement, liberals reacted negatively based on the same premise that parliament must rule in favour of the entire community and represent every citizen as individuals. Indeed, there is some irony in the Liberal’s present coalition with a Nationals party that claims a sectional right to speak for farmers and the like.
These liberals could see that if politics was simply a negotiation between the greatest interests, a huge proportion of the population might thus be disenfranchised. This was at a time when there had been great campaigns to end plural voting; the slogan ‘one man, one vote’ had popularised the importance of getting an equal input to the political system.
There is a desperate need for industrial relations reform. The current legislation was written after the Coalition rout of 2007, and therefore faced little scrutiny for its cumbersome and job-destroying nature. However, this reform should be made on sound principles completely independent from vested interests. Any system weighted in favour of a shrewd negotiator is going to be imbalanced and inefficient. Worse still, we know how easily the Coalition might get spooked by any failed attempt and avoid the issue for another decade.
What we want is variety and innovation and this comes from getting the government, the unions and the corporations out of the road and letting individuals pursue their dreams unhindered by unnecessary taxation and regulation. Thanks to what government intervention has already gone on, there are plenty of dreams that require rebuilding.