John Menadue. Penalty rates and Liberal lobbyists.

May 8, 2014

There is a campaign underway to cut weekend and holiday penalty rates particularly in the restaurant and hospitality industries. True to form the Australian Financial Review says that weekend penalty rates are a relic of times past.

A report leaked to the ABC indicates that the government will ask the Productivity Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of workplace laws. This will include penalty rates, pay and conditions, unfair dismissal, enterprise bargaining flexibility and union activities. It is proposed that this review by the Productivity Commission will consider the performance of the Fair Work Act. The Commission is expected to report to Joe Hockey by April 2015. He is ministerially responsible for the Commission. He makes the references to the Commission.

What is of concern is the political relationship between Joe Hockey and John Hart, the CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia who is pressing for a review of penalty rates by the government. John Hart is also the Chair of Joe Hockey’s North Sydney Forum which has featured prominently in Fairfax media in recent days.

According to the SMH of May 5, 2014, membership fees are paid to the North Sydney Forum, chaired by John Hart, as part of the North Sydney Federal Electorate Conference. Joe Hockey is the Member for North Sydney. A full member pays $5,500, a corporate business member $11,000 and a private patron $22,000. Depending on the package, there are membership benefits which include board room events, end-of-year receptions, private VIP board room functions and policy forums and receptions. There is also provision for memberships of “Friends of Joe”.

John Hart is clearly a key man for Joe Hockey and John Hart wants action by the government on penalty rates.

Most of us would agree that we would rather not work at weekends, but if there is a need for such work, people should be fairly compensated for loss of time away from friends, family, recreation or church. Even God rested on the seventh day. Having forced governments to extend shopping hours and arguing that penalty rates were necessary compensation we now see a campaign by the same vested interests to wind back penalty rates.

Restaurants and catering businesses say that many are going out of business because of weekend penalty rates. But how much of the problem of those businesses is due to bad business decisions rather than penalty rates? John Hart, Joe Hockey’s fund raiser tells us that there is a 20% annual turnover of restaurant businesses.  I suspect that many of them close because they have made bad business decisions and not because of penalty rates. It is tempting to blame the “system” rather than admit a business mistake.

With changes in lifestyle, higher incomes and with two working parents, we do eat out more. Statistics from the industry reveal that restaurant business income has grown at a rate of 5.6% annually over the last five years. The Bureau of Statistics has just told us that while total retail sales were up by only 0.1% in the March quarter, restaurant sales were up by 1.8% It is an industry that is growing rapidly despite the alarm about penalty rates. There seems to be a lot of special pleading when John Hart says that we should freeze minimum wages or restaurants will shut down.

As Ross Gittins has pointed out, many of us see the benefits of living in a market economy, but we don’t want to live in a market society. There must be limits to anti-social intrusions by markets. We should reject any suggestion that market are supreme and can invade our private lives on a 24/7 basis. Do we really need to have so many businesses open all weekend? Clearly we need people like nurses to cover for illness seven days a week, but do we need the same access to restaurants and shops?  And if we do, employees should be properly compensated.

If the last twenty years has taught us anything about industrial relations, it is that continual change is costly for all concerned.  In 1993 the Keating Government abandoned our centralised IR system. In 1996 Peter Reith downgraded the role of IR tribunals. In 2005 John Howard gave us Work Choices. Then in 2009 Julia Gillard gave us the Fair Work legislation. Now Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and John Hart want more change. We need more stability in our industrial relations framework because in the end good relations at the work level depend on effective local management and employee participation.

Industry leaders tell us that we need to lift productivity. And we need to do this. But a lot of the productivity slow-down is a statistical mirage reflecting the massive mining investment which is just now beginning to show results in increased mining production.

The vested interests that want to cut penalty rates claim that we have an inflexible labour market which results in high wage costs. Yet at present, the annual pace of wages growth has slowed from about 4% p.a. three years ago to a record low of 2.6% in recent months. Our labour market is showing considerable flexibility.

Clearly we need to review penalty rates and all industrial relations from time to time, but we seem fixated with the problem, mainly for ideological reasons. . We don’t want the market to intrude into all aspects of private life. Markets are to serve people and society, not the other way around.

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