The Battle of Qantas

The premise of the Fair Work Act is the same as the premise of the Occupy Everything in Sight movement: capitalism and capitalists are the greatest problem with which governments must deal. If only we could find some solution to the problems associated with profit making, all would be right with the world. 

This is an ideological stupidity that seems to have permanently captured approximately half the population. However powerful the evidence might be that we are made better off by profit seeking businesses creating growth and prosperity, while also paying their employees an amount near to the value of their contribution to total output, we still have governments who can see nothing other than a need to protect the community from the actions of business. 

So the more left oriented a government is, the more inclined it is to tie itself in knots to protect the community from the one group least likely to cause it any harm, which also happens to be the one group most likely to do it serious good. The owners and managers of our businesses – our entrepreneurial class – are the producers of our wealth and the employers of our labour. They are also the source of most of the wages paid and the largest part of a government’s tax revenue, either directly through taxes paid on profits or via the income tax payments of their employees. 

A sensible government knows what really matters for its own political and economic success. As much as one worries about workers specifically and the population more generally, governments, if they know what’s good for them, recognise that they must surround their entrepreneurial class with enough of a buffer to allow them to retain a sufficiently large surplus to invest and enough flexibility to get on with necessary adjustments. 

Only governments so ideologically blinded by their own shallow understanding of how things actually work set up structures based on the opposite premise, that it is workers who are more likely to need protections from employers who, as in some Marxist fantasy, are seen merely as exploiters of the working class. It is only the workers, in their view, who are vulnerable in such a relationship, with all of the cards in the hands of the owners of business. 

So far is this from any kind of reality that it can only be ideological blindness that has allowed any such idea to take hold and retain its grip. There is no question there are provisions that should be built into the law that do protect workers and there has never been a shortage of such protections. They have continued to grow over the two and more centuries since the beginning of the industrial revolution, to the point where these regulations are now choking off the very source of our own prosperity. 

Qantas is now at death’s door. This is in no small part due to the incoming Labor government, in framing its new Fair Work Act to replace the supposedly hated Work Choices, so stacked the deck that in most of the dealings between a business and its unions the presumption is that the union view ought to prevail. To our government, which has former union leaders and officials lined up across its front and back bench, there is an almost total incapacity to see things in any other way. 

If you would like to see greed and selfish disregard for others, the union movement is the place to look. I spent a quarter of a century in the middle of the industrial relations system working for Australia’s national employer association and the one certain takeaway I had from how an industrial relations system must work was that it must be designed to protect employers from some of the most rapacious people you are ever likely to meet. It is not easy to do, let me tell you, but that must be the base framework of an industrial relations system if an economy is ever to flourish. 

Not every union or union official is like that, of course, but fortified as they in most cases are with some kind of ideological view that employers are by nature exploiters of the working class, stealing the surplus value from employees as they are ground into the dust, there was seldom an ounce of compassion either for the employers on the other side of the table, or for the workers who might lose their jobs or be harmed in other ways because of some union extravagance, of which there were many. 

He may not say so out loud, but Bob Hawke certainly knew better. Having been the President of the ACTU before becoming Prime Minister, when it came to opposing industrial action he would accept none at all. I cannot believe it has been 22 years since the last pilots’ strike in 1989 but when it came to the showdown there was no sentimentality from the Hawke government. It was not a dispute he was prepared to see the pilots win which would have ruined his “accord” with the trade unions in general. 

The Fair Work Act will have to go. It is a colossal failure even in an economy with a private sector that is almost entirely flat on its back. Union activity across industry is already at a high and demoralising level. Between the threat of rent resources tax and the changes in the industrial relations system, even an industry that by nature cannot shift off shore is nevertheless starting to abandon Australia. 

But the Qantas dispute will be iconic. With one of the oldest and certainly one of the most internationally recognised Australian brand names under threat by a band of know-nothing unions, we shall see where we are heading. 

The one thing no one should count on is some kind of good sense and fair play by the unions involved. It will come down to what they think they can get away with and nothing else. Here you see the true selfishness and greed of a class who knows nothing other than its own self interest. The public be damned is the only principle unions have ever known.



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