Interview: The Binds That Tie
Unions: Worth Cycling For
Industrial: The Elephant in the Corner
Legal: A Law Unto Themselves
Politics: Ethically Lonely
History: Women, Unions, Banners and Parades
Women: Relaxed and Comfortable?
International: The Last Social Democrat
Review: The Corpse Bride
Culture: Tony Moore Holds His Own
The Locker Room
A Free Vote
John Bares All
Tom A World Away
And with Professor Mark Wooden, a tried and true free market evangelist, sitting on the panel, you would expect arguments in favour of the federal government's agenda to get some support.
But not one of the corporate types gathered to hear the discussion in the ASX auditorium said anything when the panellists asked for at least one person to argue in favour of the changes.
Nobody took a pot shot at ACTU president Sharron Burrows, fresh from delivering an 85,000 email petition to Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce asking him to block the WorkChoices Act, as she railed against the injustice of Howard's plan.
"These laws meet few, if any, test of ethics," she said before outlining how workers on individual contracts earn less than other workers on average already, once you take out highly paid managers and CEOs, and how many ordinary Australians depend on the penalty rates and overtime that will soon disappear to pay off their mortgages.
An audience filled with expensively coffered hair dos and brief cases listened carefully to Edmund Rice Business Ethics head Dr John Sweeney talk about how the change will allow poor management to flourish.
"When an employee shows signs of no coping, for example taking too many sick days and not being productive when they are there, instead of helping them, an employer might just sack them," he said. "So we have another manager who is learning to manage less, to be less creative in dealing with problems."
He also predicted that under the new law average workers would become subject to the stress and lack of job security that high-level managers currently deal with, but without big executive salaries to compensate for it.
"There is little prospect of those high level remunerations being replicated," he said.
But still not a murmur from the audience, even when he declared the planned IR laws to be immoral.
"I like the free market for cars and fruit, for things that do not have an intrinsic value," said Dr Simon Longstaff, executive director of the St James Ethics Centre, adding that as humans have an intrinsic value the unfettered marketplace is not an appropriate framework to measure their value.
"When we come to vote at the next election we have to ask ourselves do we believe these laws will advance the least advantaged of us?" he said. "I fear the answer is no."
The closest anyone got to supporting, or at least not outright rejecting, Howard's IR laws was Professor Mark Wooden, who stated he was no fan of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission's current role in setting minimum wages.
He liked the idea of a group of economists, such as those who will make up the new Fair Pay Commission, setting them instead, but added that if he was one of the Commissioners he would simply increase minimum wages to match increases in the consumer price index.
"It would save the salaries of a lot of part time Commissioners," he joked.
But having said that, he questioned the logic behind the scrapping of unfair dismissal laws for corporations of up to 100 employees and agreed with Dr Sweeney that John Howard's changes would encourage poor management practices.
"We should not assume the forces of the market will discipline employers to treat their employees well," he said.
Still no reaction from the audience.
"Well I guess I will have to play devil's advocate," said host and well known TV economics commentator Michael Pascoe, throwing forward the argument that an aging population may mean that in years to come employees will have the upper hand in bargaining due to a scarcity of workers.
In reply Sharron Burrows told a story of an employer she recently spoke to who wanted to deal with a current shortage of workers in his industry by bringing in people from South East Asia on a short term basis but paying them half what he would pay Australians "because there is no point sending them back as millionaires to their own country."
"I told him that the union movement would never, ever support such an idea," she said, adding that for some reason the Federal government think Australia is supposed to be ashamed of its decent level of living standards for average workers.
Again, not a word of dissent from the audience.
Scanning the dark suits for a flicker of anger, Dr Simon Longstaff asked if anyone wanted to argue in favour of the new laws.
Eventually a hand went up.
"Well, the purpose of the laws is to gut the union movement because it is a major source of funding for the Opposition," said the man.
Once again, the entire room was in agreement.
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