Interview: Fortress NSW
Unions: Fashions Afield
Industrial: Pay Dirt
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Big Day Out
International: Making History
Economics: The Fear Factor
Review: The Robots Revolt
Poetry: The Corporation's Power
The Locker Room
Rights and Wrongs
Interview with Peter Lewis
This the first time you've been confronted with a hostile takeover of state powers. Is there any road map for defending these state rights?
We're not looking at this as an industrial relations takeover, this drive for a unitary system is not simply a states' rights issue. This is a workers' rights issue, a family living standards issue. This is about the kind of decent labour relations that are the basis for a decent society. We think this goes beyond a narrow argument about states' rights. We think this takeover, this drive for a unitary system is something that we're fundamentally more concerned about than we would be about the run of the mill common garden argument over commonwealth state financial relationships or anything else. This is much more serious.
I have to say I don't think there is a road map for this particular defence because the particular attack is unprecedented. In 100 years we have not seen a government so determined to get its own way in imposing a particular vision of industrial relations. Particularly from the conservative point view the last one failed at the polls. We had the brief Greiner experiment in the states but we haven't seen anything of this scope.
Where we think we can win this, where we think we can stop them or slow them down to a slow walk is in the court of public opinion. I think there's a common front between the state governments, the union movement and various other organisations interested in social justice. We've already seen some very favourable kind of developments when we see the commonwealth ministers prevaricating on the issue of minimum wage. If you're thinking of it from the market based view of the labour market, a liberal democratic perspective if you like, then unless you have a minimum wage that is determined by the market then you've lost a fair bit of your argument. So the early shift in the ground by the federal minister I take is a credit to union movement and the state governments running a very effective rebuttal of that aspect of their proposal - and we're going to continue with that sort of pressure.
How do you see the grab for industrial relations powers in the context of the federal government plays on taxation, education and even health. Do you see a strategy or are they just drunk on power?
Look I think it's a conscious strategy on their part. I think getting control of the Senate has added a degree of intoxication to the government. The idea that they can now make some permanent changes to the political culture and there's no break on them anymore. I wouldn't say they're drunk on power but they're certainly intoxicated by that possibility.
I think it is a result of a vision of Australia that they have. It's not a very attractive vision, it's not the sort of Australia that I think that is Australian tradition, the sort of civilized capitalism, social democratic economy, that underpins our society. They are trying to bear down on the States. By doing that they are also bearing down on the living standards of people and meanwhile they're cutting industrial conditions which jeopardize the traditional labour market. So I think it is a conscious vision. We have one vision of Australia. They have a different one and their one is a very retrograde one.
We know that a High Court challenge has been mooted, what's your gut on the chances of success?
Look, a lot of experts keep telling me there's not much of a chance of success, but I'm a bit sceptical about this. Every barrister in Phillip Street, conservative and left of centre is basically suggesting the High Court would have some problems with giving them what they want, bear in mind we haven't actually seen the legislation yet.
That scepticism is tempered by the conservative nature of the appointments it has made to the High Court. From a constructionists kind of view of the constitution, why would there be a separate trade and commerce power; a separate industrial relations power; and a separate corporations power if it was always intended that the constitution as a whole document was meant to give the commonwealth a gateway to a monopoly on employment regulation by the corporations power. In other words, I think there is a legal argument against what they want to do. It's a strong one, but there's an anxiety that the current High Court is likely to make a political call and give them what they want.
Beyond these legal arguments there are some economists who have argued a nation with diverse industrial system is good for competition between the states. What's your take on that?
In simple terms, I agree with that view. There is no indication that there's going to be any greater productivity as a result of a unitary system. The fact that there is a choice of systems is good for business and good for competition. In New South Wales you have a choice. You can go to the state system or use the federal system. The same in QLD, SA and WA. In Victoria there is a federal monopoly - and in Victoria there's a much less favourable industrial climate for, frankly, not only for workers but for employers. So I think we've got to suggest that the evidence from Australia is, that in the last 100 years there is no particular barrier to productivity or prosperity for people by having more than one industrial relations system.
The New South Wales system that we've got at the moment looks after workers like nurses, teachers and police. How useful has this strong industrial relations system been in the broader delivery of public service?
First of all our public sector is the highest paid in Australia and there are a number of reasons for that. If you like market based reasons, Sydney is the most expensive city to live in it is also the basis of the most competitive parts of the private economy and so therefore people are in a community of workers who are doing relatively better than much of the rest of the country. So there is a need to have that reflected in the industrial settlements. Although our nurses, teachers and police generally choose to be organised, we've had comparatively very little industrial disputation or disruption because of that. In others words, we've had quite hotly argued points and industrial matters about nurses' salaries, teachers' conditions all sorts of other issues but they've been resolved by a very good industrial relations framework. So all I can say is that I think having nurses, teachers, police and other central service workers and other key public sector state workers covered by our state system has been enhancement not only to them, but they seem to have got good conditions and good wages out of that.
We've also New South Wales got guarantees like gender pay equity. What would happen to these sorts of rights if the state system went by the way side?
They'd simply disappear. The federal proposals doesn't recognise any of these key social issues as allowable matters, as matters for industrial tribunals or matters that can be legally prosecuted by collective bargaining. So I think you have to be fearful of the fact that many of these sort of key rights will disappear if the commonwealth get their way.
Obviously the union movement is planning a big campaign around the changes. What contribution do you see your government making for the effort?
Well, I think first of all we're trying to help the union movement, work parallel to the union movement on the key issues. I think there's been a fair bit of attention to some of the comments that the Premier has been able to make and I've been able to make in relation to this grab for power.
The second thing is that I suspect that we need to actively promote and I think we'll find opportunities to do that, the areas of the system, which are less well recognised as giving value to workers and to families. Things like the common rule award system, which is basically a free service provided by the union movement and the state industrial courts for the unorganised, or mainly unorganised workers of New South Wales. They get that as a free service. We need to make them aware of that. We might be looking at ways to promote the award service and its impact on workers but also to the service it provides to small business. These are some of the ways we can look at promoting our system, promoting its benefits as distinct from the federal system but I think a lot of it's got to be won on the political argument.
Finally, under the workplace scenario we see a hostile takeover up to 85% of New South Wales workers roped into federal system. Can you guarantee the Carr Government will keep a system in place to preserve a model industrial relations system in this state not matter what?
I'll answer that in a hierarchy of three ways. The first is that my view would remain that the states should be preserved, almost no matter what. But I think this is a fight to the death, to the last drop of blood and we have to do whatever we can. That's always been my view.
I think secondly though we ought not be distracted by this argument about what will eventually happen when and if John Howard is successful. If we get distracted by that we lose focus of the fact that we've got fight the Howard Government and its proposals and make sure the state systems can prosper and exist the private and public sector and thereby be a fully fledged proper industrial system. So I think the idea politically and tactically is that you prosecute the argument in relation to the Howard Government.
Last, but not least, of course in practical terms: Whatever guarantees the Carr Government, myself or anyone else gives regardless, if they were to be given, and as I said it's beyond me to give a specific guarantee to that question other than my own view as Minister, the most important thing is that we need to make sure that all those people that might currently think they are protected by a state system, nurses, police, public sector workers need to understand that by a stroke of a pen any future Premier can undo that if Howard gets his way on this occasion. So we've got to fight the whole package. We've got to fight the main game.
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