Wednesday, July 24, 2013

'Reform' just a marketer's word for change

Do you like change? I don't, and I don't know many people who do. And yet when it comes to the economy, people are always demanding change and more change from our politicians, and the pollies almost invariably seek our votes by promising it - better change than whatever their opponents are offering. These are promises they inevitably keep.

Some degree of change is unavoidable, of course. The environment in which we live and work is often changed by factors outside our control - particularly developments in other countries and the introduction of new technology - and we often don't have much choice but to change in response.

But we demand - and are given - a lot more change than the minimum necessary to cope with a changing world. Governments give us more change than we need for fear they'll be judged lazy or ineffective if they don't.

How does this paradoxical situation come about? It's simple: the change people demand of politicians and the change pollies promise isn't called change, it's called "reform". Slap on that label and the change we'd otherwise abhor becomes sanctified as virtuous, much-needed and far-sighted.

The politics and policy game involves thinking of a problem, then proposing a "reform" we fondly imagine will fix it. But our apparent love for reform means surprisingly little effort is put into checking how successful the supposed reform has been in delivering its promised benefits.

When a reform doesn't work this doesn't shake our enthusiasm for change, it just whets our appetite for more. We rush off for another round of "think of a problem and propose a reform". So great is our mania for reform we don't notice the not infrequent occasions when, in our efforts to solve some intractable problem, our efforts at reform keep oscillating from one approach to its opposite.

And it occurs to no one to query the wisdom of this incessant activity and reorganisation. Until now.

On Monday I witnessed the most remarkable speech from an authority figure I've heard in a long time. He was the former Justice Geoff Giudice, long-time president of the Industrial Relations Commission and inaugural president of the Fair Work Commission, speaking at the annual labour law conference in Sydney.

As you're well aware, the nation's been arguing furiously about industrial relations law at least since John Howard proposed his Work Choices "reforms" after the 2004 election. Along with the need for action on climate change, Work Choices is held to be a big part of the reason for Howard's defeat in 2007.

The new Labor government proceeded to introduce its own Fair Work "reforms", which consisted of reversing the most extreme elements of Work Choices while retaining much of its change and Howard's earlier changes in 1996.

Add in the Keating government's move to enterprise bargaining in 1993 and we've had four major changes in the industrial relations rules in just 20 years. But employer groups, chief executives and retired Liberal politicians, whipped up by the national dailies, are demanding an Abbott government implement substantial reform, moving the law back in the direction of Work Choices.

Having learnt the bitter lesson of the Liberals' 2007 defeat, Tony Abbott is promising only limited change, while pledging a major review of the system by the Productivity Commission, with any proposals for "reform" arising out of the review to be taken to the election in 2016.

Giudice argues in his speech that achieving a "stable and predictable industrial relations framework for the benefit of business, both here and overseas, for employees and for other stakeholders" should be a national imperative.

The question most often asked by politicians and their advisers, he says, is: what needs to be changed? "A more important question, which is rarely posed, is: how can greater stability be achieved in our industrial relations system?

"Stability is important from an economic and social viewpoint, although not perhaps from a political one. After two decades of change, much of which has been beneficial, further change is unlikely to lead to a net benefit for our economy unless it is the result of a much improved policy formulation process."

While there are some deep-seated differences in the positions of the major industrial interests, he says, "it is important that many of the fundamental elements of the system are widely accepted. Policy differences tend to be at the margins, or based on special pleading.

"There are some proposals for radical reform, it is true, but extreme positions seldom provide a sound basis for change."

I think Giudice is on to something. I agree we'd be better off with better industrial relations - that is, better relations between bosses and workers. But the path to better relations does not lie via yet another round of legislative change.

It doesn't lie in one side or the other using their political influence to get the rules shifted in their favour. We could go on playing that tit-for-tat game forever. But we have achieved a reasonable - if, inevitably, imperfect - balance, and it's time we gave up the delusion that legislative change is key to better relations in the workplace.

That's a job not for politicians, lobbyists, ideologues or media urgers, but for individual employers, their workers and their workers' unions. The parties on the ground need to focus on achieving greater co-operation in pursuing the business's goals, with fair sharing of the resulting rewards.