Interview: Crowded Lives
Activists: Life With Brian
Industrial: National Focus
Unions: If These Walls Could Talk
Economics: Beating the Bastards
Media: Three Corners
History: The Brisbane Line
Trade: The Dumping Problem
Review: Frankie's Way
The Locker Room
Spicey and Tart
Tony and Pauline
PNG Bags Plastic
Fighting Words Craig Emerson
Interview with Peter Lewis
Your new book calls for people in politics to think more about the impact of their decisions, not just on the economy but people's individual lives and their relationships. What got you to that point and thinking that politics had to take that next step?
I've been influenced by an organisation called the Relationships Foundation, which operates out of Cambridge in England and pursues a range of issues and analysis building on the theme of relationships and the role in society of our own relationships with each other. Not just marital and sexual relationships but people's relationships formed generally. I did deal with this in a passing way in my previous book Open Australia but I've been increasingly interested in the area as a political form of activities. And I've decided to put together another small book that focuses more directly on these themes.
So what's your essential message?
That we in politics tend to ignore or overlook the impact of decisions on people's relationships. The classic illustration of this is the work and family agenda, where you're seeing the emergence of serious questions about how workplaces are organised and about workers entitlements and about industrial relations regulations. These are not about dollars but are about how people live their lives; about how organisational decisions are made to impact on their lives and how there is a need to reform and change our society in the way that we go about doing things in order to help people have better relationships; not just with spouses or marital partners, but with children, family and friends.
It's a tough one isn't it, because we can very easily model economically the impact of decisions. There isn't really a language of how to model relational impacts of things. Are there things going on to address this deficit?
There are, there are some ideas that the Relationship Foundation has developed some techniques for so called relational development for examining organisations, so they actually do these things called relational audits where they look at large organisations and examine how those organizations work, how they relate to each other internally, but also how they relate to clients, suppliers, customers. They then provide advice about how to rearrange things to allow for better working relationships and therefore ultimately better productivity and outcomes for the organisation. If you think about it major organisation inevitably have a very substantial team element to their activities. There's a hierarchy, but there's also a lot of working together that goes on and the way that people relate to each other within that organisation is going to be absolutely fundamental to how well or how badly it performs. Those relationships are not healthy if there's a lot of internal antagonism, a lot of bottlenecks, a lot of blockages, a lot of inefficient structures in terms of how people connect with each other in pursuit of a common task; the end result is going to be bad for the organisation.
Apply that to one of your portfolio. How would you approach, say, Telstra differently if you were bringing this analysis into place?
I think the key theme that it highlights is some of the crucial issues about telecommunications which are easy for people to take for granted particularly people who are higher income earners, high flyers who take high quality telecommunications for granted. For example, if you're an elderly person who is a little bit immobile and who finds it difficult to move from home easily or if you're an elderly person who's got kids who've grown up and moved interstate then things like the telephone that we all take for granted as just an automatic part of life become pretty fundamental to your life. It becomes central to how you use access some of the most important things in your life. If you can't afford that, if you can't afford to make calls to your only daughter who now lives on the other side of Australia or who now lives in the US then that becomes a fundamental problem. It's not just a minor difficulty, you should not just accept what the market dictates in that sort of situation.
But how would you address something like that. Would you then go the next step and say we're not going to have a blanket rate of calls per person, we're going to look at what the calls are and how important they are in a more sophisticated way?
Using that example I don't think it's realistic to head down that sort of path. But what it does mean is that if you're making decisions about things like line rentals and fees - where we had a big battle with the Government last year and sadly we lost that battle - if you're making those decisions that ultimately affect people's financial ability to have a phone then you have to take into account that broader set of realities and what that means for a pretty substantial number of people in the community. What happened last year, based on a theoretical economic analysis that I think is dubious and full of assumptions, is that the Government formed a view that telephone line rentals charges should be substantially higher to reflect a supposed real cost of the delivery of the phone service into your home and that again in theory that to compensate for increasing those phone line rental fees you would have a lower set of call costs; you would actually have call costs coming down and in theory it would be revenue neutral for individuals for the vast bulk of individuals.
But in practice the amount of money that Testra has taken out of people's pockets as a result of the line rental going up is three times what they put back through lower call costs. So in that instance the only thing that the Government was thinking about was an economic bottom line. All it was thinking about in its own terms trying to get an appropriate charging structure to reflect some economic realties. Now even that was dubious in it's own terms but on top of that they failed to take into account the role of the telephone in people's lives and therefore the question of whether a range of people for whom having a phone was pretty fundamental continue to afford to have a phone when line rentals are going to get up to over $30 a month.
So what I'm keen to do is to pursue sets of ideas so that it's possible to incorporate these kinds of questions into a political debate in a more systematic way. Another classic example of issues of this kind is closure of bank branches and if you look for example at the Bendigo Bank model, that's a case the community itself in effect bouncing back and organising a different way of doing things that was all ultimately built around issues of social relationships - not so much financial assessment but about how people connect with each other and the kinds of needs that people have which are not just about money. So in other words the whole post of economic transactions in fact, probably all economic transactions are built or have built around them human relationships that make them work.
So in a way Bendigo has imagined itself more than just a bank, based on the fact that its taking account of broader relationships people have with money
That's right and the key differentiation is how they connect with each other.
In this framework, where do organisations like the unions fit in. I know that there has been a shift from a lot of unions pushing away this agenda to just broader working family agenda. Just recently we've had the NRMA insurance workers saying we'd rather have the 30 minutes extra a day than a seven per cent pay rise. But is there a role of the unions beyond that analysis of yours?
I think that there is a very important role for unions in this, and I think that its very important for the union movement that it makes this change of emphasis. I would add that the trade union movement actually deserves a great deal of credit that it is clearly doing that.
One of the things I think is interesting is that if you look at the history of some of the shorter hours campaigns they've been driven distinctively by a very genuine desire to distribute the benefits and productivity to workers in a particular way, i.e. to work for a shorter period of time. But in practice what often tends to happen is that the change that occurs is that is people tend to get more overtime because if their notional ordinary week limits them to 36 hours, what often can happen is they're still working that extra two hours they're just getting paid a different rate, they're getting paid overtime. So the outcome for a campaign that focussed distinctively about work and family and people's broader lives ends up being a pay increase.
Now the union movements approach on the question of work and family is starting to really gather momentum I think is a much more sophisticated and complex sort of strategy about trying to get genuine rights for people by bargaining around how they live their lives and the relationship between the work and non-work parts of their members' lives. This is a huge issue there that has got numerous components when you look at all the people out in the community who are working really long hours. People who are working very disruptive and anti-social hours, people who are working two and sometimes three jobs. When you actually aggregate all of the different circumstances there is really a substantial proportion of the workforce whose relationships and lives outside of work are under severe pressure because of the way their working life actually functions.
That's a legitimate issue for the trade union movement to target and there's plenty of illustration of why for many people its absolute top of mind issue its not just some peripheral thing. If there are some who would happily work themselves to death for an extra $20 as the NRMA example shows the emotion that a lot of workers want to achieve a better life rather than the narrower more money. I think that's an entirely legitimate reason.
And the impact on individual families of those long hours affect people's ability to participate in the community
And also to do their jobs! That's one of the other things that I think some employers are starting to understand that if you've got, particularly in positions that require either serious decision making or that require the exercise of fairly well developed skills and sometimes skills the safety of other people may depend on it or the overall outcome may depend on it - if you've got people working excessively long hours then obviously there's going to be a bad outcome.
A classic example of where this issues cuts in in a really direct way is the road transport industry where we have still as a community not managed to regulate that industry to ensure that truck drivers are not being forced to literally drive 35 hours out of 40. There are actually horror stories there about the realities of life for people driving Melbourne to Brisbane and back. They run you through what the economic pressures do and the outcomes that they produce and, of course, the outcomes that they produce are appalling for the individual drivers and - in cases where as a result of that gross overwork they end up having an accident - sometimes for other people as well. The overall community gets a benefit from that exploitation by marginally priced cheaper packets of corn flakes or whatever but at a severe cost.
There are some very practical and hard edged questions that our society needs to address and the trade union movement in all sorts of different ways is pursuing these issues. But twhile we've been talking about work and family in isolation. to date there has not been an articulate set of ideas or themes around this whole process to be built. From the union's point of view what its ultimately about can be summed up by saying: there are more things in life that matter; its not just there to get a bigger slice of the economic cake, its there to help people have better lives. Sure, money's a pretty central part to that but it's not the only part.
Finally, you did say that your book is not just about personal and sexual relations but you do write about the broad issue of family law and how we approach that. You also write about the fact that you've actually been through that process yourself. Given the Prime Ministers flagged that he was going to review this area, what do you see the principles (a) that Labor should be taking to this debate and I guess (b) the principles that you would taking to this debate if you were being consistent with the ideas that you put forward in this book?
I think that the thing for me that is most critical is having the set of rules that enhances the relationship between parents and their children, therefore makes it easier for parents to play a role in their children's lives, a positive role in their children's lives, whether they're together or separated. That obviously goes to a whole range of things like the working family agenda, because in part that's about saying to the workers we as a society want to ensure as well as being a productive member of the workforce you are able play a positive role in raising your little bit of the next generation. In the case of what the Prime Minister has put forward about joint custody, I think the initial thought bubble that has triggered that is quite correct. Which is, trying to have a situation where separated parents have a greater role in their children's lives. The idea that he's come up with or that he has adopted, I think is impractical and unlikely to ever be a feasible deal because the notion of rebuttable joint custody sets the bar too high and creates a situation which will be unrealistic for people where what they want is some sharing of custody, but not necessarily 50/50. Therefore it creates in a sense an artificial battle ground that will not suit the circumstances of a very large number of non-custodial parents and therefore will not be particularly useful if it is adopted in achieving worthwhile outcomes. My view of it is that the debate and the parliament inquiry should be treated very seriously with important issues that are very worth ventilating and I have no criticism of John Howard for actually raising the issues, I just think the particular path he appears to want to head down is probably not a very useful one.
Well where is the path in terms of your agenda?
Well to me it's about ensuring that people play some role in their children's lives. That's my personal experience of being a non-custodial parent. But the thing that I think is crucial to this whole debate is whatever systems we run that governs these issues and we've got a system for family law and child support and its unavoidable, you've got to have some kind of regulatory arrangement whether society requires people to take responsibility for their children. Whether or not they're still married or whether or not the children are still living with them that that system should have built into it a set of questions that are all designed to make sure that people not only take financial responsibility but they also take broader responsibilities for being part of their children's lives
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