||Issue No. 220||14 May 2004|
Interview: Machine Man
Unions: Testing Times
Bad Boss: Freespirit Haunts Internet
Unions: Badge of Honour
National Focus: Noel's World
Economics: Safe Refuge
International: Global Abuse
History: The Honeypot
Review: Death And The Barbarians
Poetry: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
They are called 'motherhood' statements: in deference to the one universal virtue that no one would dare attack. Politicians kiss babies because no one can object to babies. And babies come from mothers and mothers are good. Always.
It is the treatment of mothers in the labour market - and the role of fathers for that matter - that has given rise to the most contemporary of motherhood statements - the bipartisan acceptance that 'work and family' is the key issue for contemporary Australians.
The Prime Minister's barbeque stopper is indeed a hot topic - but in the white light of a federal budget and in the run up to a Federal election, it is in danger of losing its original - and indeed - any meaning whatsoever.
The squeeze of work and family has not just appeared on the political landscape - it is the direct consequence of a series of policy decisions over the past decade. At its heart, it is a product of the process of industrial relations deregulation that both political parties pursued through the 80s and 90s.
The Howard Government's approach to Work and Family betrays a mindset that has reduced all public policy to budget line items, an accountants view of the world, where the only things of value are those that can be quantified.
As this week's Federal Budget shows, to the Prime Minister a family friendly policy is a tax cut, a baby bonus and an extra dollar to childcare.
While no one would deny these measures, they speak to a world defined by the fiscal bottom line a position that totally misses the point for most working families.
Yes, we work for the money to live our lives but at the end the day the desire to balance work and family is really about the need to balance the pursuit of salary with the time to meet our family responsibilities.
It is a choice between two competing objectives: money and time. More money helps - but it rarely brings you time. It is a dilemma, which by its very nature cannot be resolved solely on a balance sheet.
At its essence, Work and Family is the challenge of quality of life on the financial bottom line, for both workers and their employers. It is about is building non-economic considerations into the employment relationship. Measures like maternity leave for working mums, the right to return to work part-time, job-sharing are all important. So too are rights like carers leave being built into the employment relationship.
But even where these measures are in place, they can not - in and of themselves - untie the work-family knot.
How, for instance, do we define our working life when we live a life when our working day is defined by the time we turn our mobile phone on in the morning and then turn it off at the end of the day?
How does one quantify the cost of a stressed mother or father on the business's bottom line? How do we gauge how someone whose life is in balance performs better? What is the cost of divorce on productivity? Of depression? Of suicide?
For the Prime Minister and his ilk it's all about preaching the virtues of 'flexibility', a nice little euphemism for deregulation. To Mr. Howard it is the greatest thing for workers since sliced bread.
It is true that "flexible hours" work in some settings but they don't work in jobs that are location specific - teaching, nursing, retail (where most women work) likewise working from home is not an option for many workers, particularly those engaged to deliver specific services face to face.
"Flexible" is a word used a lot in this debate but what most workers want is predictability and more say over their hours and rosters. That's why, despite employer bleating, there is broad community support for the Labor Council's Secure Employment Test Case.
The Test Case is such a challenge to employers - including, sadly, the State Labor Government, because it recognises that the solutions to the work/family imbalance lie in reversing labour market deregulation and actually putting in universal obligations that all employers must comply with.
Far from requiring Motherhood Statements, this issue requires tough, considered intervention in the labour market. And you'll never find that in a Peter Costello budget.
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