Poetry: If I Were a Rich Man
Interview: League of Nations
Industrial: 20/20 Hindsight
Organising: On The Buses
Unions: National Focus
History: The Banner Room
International: The Slaughter Continues
Legal: A Legal Case For War?
Culture: Singing For The People
Review: The Hours
Poetry: I Wanna Bomb Saddam
Satire: Diuretic Makes Warne's Excuses Look Thin
The Locker Room
Re-considering The Accord
Strangers in the House
Nursing Home Concerns
By Neale Towart
This Accord was a centerpiece of the Hawke governments claim to represent unions and to build consensus after what was seen as a "turbulent cycle of wage breakouts and inflation that marked the previous decade. It has been written about, dissected, protested about, seen as a way to end class conflict and promote the role of workers in running the economy and society. Frank Stilwell, Gwynneth Singleton and Shaun Carney wrote books about it.
Frank Stilwell has maintained a watching brief, having written articles as the Accord evolved, and contributed to a conference upon its demise. His book Changing Track (2001) includes the following excellent analysis of the political economy of the Accord.
"For Labor politicians...Only Labor has the realistic possibility of replacing the Liberal-National Coalition as the national government in the foreseeable future. Any political economic alternative, if it is to be implemented in practice rather than merely posited in theory, must be achieved through the use of state power by a future ALP government. Against this is the observation that the ALP, like social democratic parties in other countries, has proved to be more conservative in government than in opposition, and has continually frustrated radical reformist aspirations. According to this latter view, the vehicle for radical reformism must be sought elsewhere."
Balancing these contrasting viewpoints is difficult". Insight can be drawn from analysis of previous experience. The period of ALP government between 1983 and 1996 is the most obvious case in point.
THE ACCORD THROUGH ROSE-TINTED GLASSES
It is possible to construct a positive interpretation of the Accord. A ten point outline goes like this. The Accord
1. provided a focal point for integrating the objectives of the political and industrial wings of the labour movement. So a framework for cooperation was provided
2. A class solidaristic wages policy was able to be pursued. This was embedded in the structure of the original Accord
3. Provided a breathing space for the union movement to pursue a broader range of other goals affecting working conditions. Union officials were able to pursue other issues, such as improvements in OHS, because wages were controlled centrally
4. Improvements in social policy were embedded. Gains to the social wage, such as Medicare, superannuation, child-care, education and environmental policy were significant contributors to improvements in quality of life.
5. Industrial disputation was remarkably reduced.
6. The union movement gained access to government policy formulation.
7. Opened the way for a more interventionist industry policy. There was a commitment to a program of industry development
8. Occupational superannuation was dramatically extended.
9. Flexibility was built in as circumstances changed. This confounded those who felt it couldn't last.
10. Political effectiveness. It was a major factor in enabling the ALP to maintain power federally for 13 years.
Critiques came from the left and the right. The right predictably opposed any involvement of unions in government policy-making processes. However critics also included many of the original supporters who became disillusioned as the raised expectations of what the Accord could deliver were not matched by the outcomes.
Major criticisms here included:
1. 1.The union movement being locked into a relationship with the ALP government which generated more costs than benefits. Wage restraint and the resurgence in economic growth resulted in a significant redistribution of national income in favour of capital.
2. The so-called class solidaristic wages policy did not produce a more equitable distribution of incomes among wage earners. Wage relativities were frozen initially. Then under Accords III and IV the door was opened to establish differential wage structures under structural efficiency principles, with allowance for productivity improvements. Enterprise bargaining further shifted this. Safety-net provisions became the residual equity element.
3. The commitment to social wage ideals were scaled back as the government placed increased emphasis on fiscal austerity.
4. Interventionist industry policy remained poorly developed. The main emphasis was on a market-oriented processes of structural change. Trade liberalization can be efficient in getting rid of "inefficient" industries and jobs, but far less effective in generating new ones.
5. Superannaution schemes became effectively the "privatization of pensions." They extend into old age the economic inequalities amongst the working population.
6. The centralized and top-down character of the Accord processes in practice contributed to the demobilization of the union movement. Rank and file unionists felt distant from the decisions.
7. The Accord failed to provide for the resolution of the nation's major econmic problems: foreign debt, a large current account deficit, vulnerability to economic instability in the international economy, and an unemployment rate persistently over 8%.
We can see that these points mirror each other. A conflicting set of views. So a dialectical approach, where we seek change through conflict, may be useful.
Here we begin with the economic problems that gave rise to the idea of the Accord - stagflation (simultaneous inflation and unemployment). Under Fraser the burden of restraint was pushed heavily onto workers. The ALP and unions saw an opportunity to come up with a constructive alternative.
The implementation of the Accord generated new tensions. Industry leaders were apprehensive about the ALP program and this lead to significant watering down of the reformist character of the Accord. The National Economic Summit was the forum where this was legitimised. Further concession followed such as deregulation of capital markets, a shift away from full indexation, restraint and cuts to government expenditure and the cutting of commitments to the social wage.
So Labor was driven by its quest for consensus to make compromises with the owners of capital, whose power it had enhanced by deregulating markets, and used unemployment as a tool of economic policy. It was both the creator and victim of difficult political economic conditions, seeking to grapple with the tensions of structural change, managing a capitalist economy in which it had less effective policy instruments. Along the way it diluted the more reformist elements of the Accord. So when it failed to deliver impressive economic outcomes - most particularly during the years of the recession - its rationale and basis of support was insufficiently robust.
So we see three underlying tensions below the surface appearances of the Accord, each of which become sources of instability within the Accord process and, more generally, in the relationships between capital, labour and the state:
· The contradictory relationship between the Accord and the neo-liberal aspects of Labor policies
· The tension between sectional interest, class-solidaristic and class-collaborationist elements in the Accord
· The tension between the Accord as an instrument of social reform and its role as an instrument for the management of Australian capitalism.
Frank's 1986 book (The Accord and Beyond) advocated the Accord as a potential vehicle for a real alternative economic strategy for Australia. Peter Beilharz has since "argued that the historical and institutional characteristics of the Australian labour movement make it effectively unable to take the radical road. The labourist tradition which pervades both its political and industrial wings constrains the possibilities more narrowly. With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to disagree. Certainly, once the economic rationalist policy agenda had been introduced alongside the Accord, the progressive potential of the latter was severely constrained.
For more analysis, and arguments for real progressive economic and social policies and ideas to "Change Track" and transform the political economic landscape of Australia see Frank Stilwell Changing Track: a new political economic direction for Australia. (Pluto Press 2001)
This article is drawn from chapter 11 pages137-152
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