Newspoll’s 52-48 ALP Lead: Rogue Poll Or Reality?

DESPITE THE FACT only a sycophant would believe the “improvement” scored by the Coalition in yesterday’s Newspoll, some interesting questions arise from a survey showing the government gaining three points on Labor in three weeks at a time some interesting things have been happening. Do voters approve of Turnbull’s plan to expand the Snowy River scheme? Is Bill Shorten finally cooked? Or is this poll — as I suspect it is — a rogue result?

Nine down, 21 to go…

Whatever else anyone might say about the latest Newspoll — carried in The Australian yesterday — the indisputable fact is that not only does it find Malcolm Turnbull 30% the way toward racking up the “30 losing Newspolls” he used to justify a move on predecessor Tony Abbott, but it also shows the government remaining on course to lose an election fairly clearly were one to be held today.

Needless to say, of course, the imminent orgy of propaganda from Malcolm’s people won’t present it quite so starkly.

But yesterday’s Newspoll (and I apologise for the delay: something popped up that diverted my attention elsewhere when I started writing this piece) might simultaneously be both a rogue result and a genuine finding; I will explain what I mean.

First, the increase in the Coalition primary vote (from 34% to 37%) and the corresponding decline in that for the ALP (from 37% to 35%) is in itself unremarkable; in the past 25 years the ALP has only three times outpolled the Coalition on primary votes at an election (in 1993, 1998 and 2007) and has, unless overall opinion sampling indicated a Labor landslide of epic proportions, generally trailed the Coalition ever since the entrenchment of the Greens as a third force over the past 15-20 years.

And on the surface of it, a three-point lift in the Coalition’s two-party vote — reducing the ALP’s lead to (a still election-winning) 52-48 — would seem quite commensurate with that primary vote lift.

But the poll was taken after the government received a battering from the ALP over penalty rates, and appeared clueless as to how to respond; most of the fortnight was also punctuated by leaks from Scott Morrison’s upcoming budget — and most of what has oozed out (such as changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax arrangements on property investments) — are, unwisely, apparent moves to play on Labor’s turf: probably a recipe for more trouble.

In this sense, improvements in Malcolm Turnbull’s standing as “preferred Prime Minister” (from 40% to 43%) and in his personal approve/disapprove numbers (from 29/59 to 30/57) are — aside from being largely within the poll’s margin of error — made to look a little too conveniently positive for my liking by corresponding drops in Bill Shorten’s “preferred PM” number (from 33% to 29%) and his own approve/disapprove ratings (from 30.56 to 29/57).

Just to make it interesting, The Australian‘s comment that this survey represents the fourth straight Newspoll in which Shorten’s leadership approval has gone backwards is a trend that is difficult to dismiss — even if there is a rogue element to some of the other findings.

And to put the cherry on top of the cake, plotting to remove Turnbull from his post by forces aligned with former PM Tony Abbott — which was all but being conducted in the pages of a number of mainstream media publications a fortnight ago — has strangely fallen silent.

There are things in flux on both sides of the political divide at present, and both may be factors at play in the phenomenon I am describing.

On the Labor side, I have long believed that having conducted himself appallingly for three years and failed to win an election on the back of lies, half-truths, exaggerated promises and half-baked slogans, Bill Shorten’s one and only shot at winning an election as Labor “leader” has been and gone; it does not matter how close the ALP got to victory, and it does not matter how few seats (or how small a swing) it needs next time: taking the debased route of “Politics by Bullshit” either works first go or it kills off the practitioner.

Readers have heard me say in the past that a change in the ALP leadership should be interpreted as a sign that Labor is not only serious about reclaiming office, but that it seriously believes it can do so: jettisoning the imbecilic Shorten would remove a very large amount of lead from its saddlebags.

Should Shorten be left where he is, however, the converse is true.

And this might well prove the case, if Turnbull and his acolytes finally and belatedly prove able to get their shit together.

On the Coalition side, I headlined my Newspoll piece last time as a “call to arms” for the Liberals: it seems they are responding.

Malcolm’s plan to expand the Snowy River scheme — at a time of increasing electricity prices and collapsing supply reliability, as the scourge of unviable renewables begins to make its inevitable consequences felt — was and is a great idea, but in the context of this poll, it is hard to ascribe the bounce the Coalition has received to this initiative alone — and not least when everything else continued to go badly for Turnbull, as it almost always has ever since he stole the Liberal leadership from Abbott in a lightning coup in 2015.

Hence my thought that the result is rogue: it makes no sense whatsoever when judged against the three-week period it contrived to measure.

(And we haven’t even touched on the Liberal Party wipeout at the WA state election, which also happened during that period).

But in the past couple of days — after the results were published — there are tentative signs of life emanating from the government.

A more concerted attempt to defend the Productivity Commission ruling on penalty rates is underway; Turnbull and his troops have caught Shorten on the hop in Parliament this week (as opposed to the vapid and frankly pathetic drubbing they received last time it sat) and — rarely, but encouragingly, where the Coalition is concerned — decent memes have begun appearing in social media, highlighting the difference between penalty rates that will apply on Sundays under the Productivity Commission ruling, and those that apply under deals struck by Shorten as a union leader that sold out the pay rates of the workers he claimed to protect (the rates in the Shorten deals are almost always the lower of the two).

Turnbull is taking changes to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act to the Coalition joint party room this morning for final approval; they fall short of the complete repeal of the section, which would be the desirable result, but they nevertheless constitute an improvement on the existing regime.

Simultaneously, Turnbull is announcing a review of the Human Rights Commission, and specifically, the guidelines with which it will handle future complaints under a revamped 18c.

There are moves afoot to hold a plebiscite on the question of gay marriage — in line with the policy that received a mandate at last year’s election — by using a postal ballot (that doesn’t require legislation) to get around the opportunistic and cynical opposition the measure originally foundered against in the Senate.

So whilst it is too early to tell, we may be in the situation that whilst the Newspoll itself was rogue, the improvement in the Coalition’s stocks becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: hence the paradox to which I alluded near the top of today’s piece.

But one swallow does not make a Spring; much will have to go right from here for Turnbull to enact any serious or meaningful recovery: one slip could be all it takes to cast him, and the government, right back to the bottom of the well — and if this occurs, Turnbull’s conservative colleagues are less likely to be forgiving in future.

Or patient.

There is a huge test looming in the form of Scott Morrison’s post-election budget that can arguably make or break Turnbull, Morrison, and the government overall: and just to underline the point, Turnbull was widely regarded as a terminal commodity just a few weeks ago. Certainly, I thought he had passed the point of political no return. Perhaps he had, and perhaps it really is too late. But for the only time in 18 months, the government looks the goods right now.

In a fortnight’s time we will know whether the bounce was genuine, or one best characterised by a dead cat. Either way, the odds of “10 down, 20 to go” sitting atop the next instalment of the Newspoll story must — in good common sense — remain at very short odds indeed.

Time will tell. It always does…

Abbott, Credlin May Be Bitter, Angry, Hypocritical – But They’re Right

MUCH HAS been made this week about “interventions” by Tony Abbott in Turnbull government affairs, including criticism the former PM is bitter, wants to be a wrecker, and that he is damaging the Liberal Party; Abbott doesn’t have to damage the Liberal Party: under its current leader, it is doing that itself. Abbott and perennial sidekick Peta Credlin may be angry and bitter — rear-view mirror hypocrites, even. But like it or not, they are also right.

As I have said time and again, I really don’t like writing articles that are critical of my own party; even so, this column is predicated on candid comment — not churning out sycophantic Liberal Party propaganda — and when the party itself looks well placed to finish the job started at last year’s election, and gift government to Labor in 18 months to two years’ time, there is nothing “loyal” or “on message” about keeping quiet.

Especially when I’m horrified at the thought of what a Shorten government can and would do to Australia. Especially when I desperately want my party to clean up its act and succeed.

I’m in a position that, depending on your outlook, could be seen as either an opportunity or highly compromised; on the one hand, and whilst unaligned within the Liberal Party, my natural inclination is toward the conservative side of the party: not the “far Right,” where people are obsessed with prosecuting anyone connected with abortions, or vilifying even law-abiding moderate Muslims in a campaign to run the whole lot of them out of Australia in order to remove extreme elements who should never have been allowed to enter in the first place, but the mainstream conservative Right — a position reflected over years of successful government and typified by the likes of John Howard, Peter Reith, Alexander Downer, to some extent Peter Costello, and (with an eye to his performance as a minister) Tony Abbott.

But on the other, there are increasing numbers of Turnbull people — moderate Liberals — entering my orbit; they passionately argue that leaving the present Prime Minister in his role is critical, and that he and the people surrounding him — be they ministers, senior advisors, or staff — are “good people,” or “top quality people,” and once again, certainly on a personal basis and with a couple of exceptions, that is also correct.

The problem derives from the fact that not only did Malcolm Turnbull — not really a creature of the Liberal Party at all, weighed against both the complexion of the rank and file membership and the philosophical and policy settings of its 12 successful years in office under Howard — plot and scheme to knife the predecessor who both returned the party to office in a landslide and frittered away the authority of that mandate through misdirected priorities, loyalties, and a policy program aimed squarely at hurting its own constituency, but he has in the 18 months since that event presided over his own government that has been mediocre, timid, and incapable of advocating a cogent comprehensive policy blueprint or exhibiting the bottle to implement one (or virtually anything else).

There is an article appearing today in The Spectator Australia that reads like a carefully detailed itinerary of everything that is wrong with the federal government under Turnbull; it is a surgical — and virtually unrebuttable — itemisation of “75 weeks” of what to the outsider gives every appearance of an almost deliberate strategy to throw away the authority of government (and government itself) through inaction, torpor, mediocrity, directionless, and plain old-fashioned gutlessness.

It echoes the utterances of Abbott himself during the week — which provoked a shitstorm of enraged media activity from the Turnbull loyalists, as well as from conservatives like Matthias Cormann — in which he proclaimed that the Turnbull government risked “drifting to defeat” and observed that attacking Bill Shorten was one thing, but that defeat would inevitably come unless we got “our own policies right:” precisely the sentiment articulated in this column a week ago.

And we now have former Abbott Chief of Staff Peta Credlin (who was demoted from the same role by Turnbull as opposition leader) — continuing to use her media platforms at Sky News and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to try to rehabilitate her own image before a public audience — arguing that the Liberal Party is “in deep trouble” and that Abbott’s interventions amount to nothing more than “trying to help.”

Are Abbott’s renewed outbursts against his successor a case of sniping, undermining and exacting a measure of vengeance? Probably.

Are Abbott’s policy prescriptions — abandoning the Renewable Energy Target, abolishing S18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and a raft of other measures he failed to tackle as Prime Minister — hypocritical when judged against his own performance as leader? Quite possibly.

And is Credlin — seething over Turnbull’s ascension, and driven by a need for retribution at the same time she tries to hoodwink the men and women on the street into believing she was the greatest thing the Coalition under Abbott had going for it — motivated more by vanity and sour grapes than truly accepting her mistakes? Almost certainly.

Yet it is one of those uncomfortable realities that even if you subscribe to all three of those contentions, Abbott and Credlin are also — incredibly — absolutely correct.

When discussing the performance of the Turnbull government (or, particularly, what is wrong with it) it does seem we cover the same ground in almost the same terms; there is a good reason for that — the problems are glaringly obvious, as they were under Abbott himself, albeit for different reasons — and it is a source of tremendous frustration to watch Turnbull and his minions apparently determined to piss away the opportunity to build a lasting, competent administration that might eventually boast some kind of record of achievement.

Columns like mine — and others like them, up to and including some of the mass-circulation regulars in metropolitan dailies — are too easily dismissed as being published by crackpots advancing personal agendas that are “off message” with the official party line: they can be as “off message” as they want to be in my view, for the Liberal Party’s message during this incarnation in government (and it’s a criticism readers know I often levelled at Abbott and Credlin, too) is the wrong message altogether.

If Australian people want commitments to high renewable energy targets, carbon taxes (of whatever description), fealty with climate change alarmism that can’t conclusively prove whether the “change” is cyclical or man-made, international conventions to cut emissions, unquestioning tolerance of Muslim immigration (with a head-up-the-arse denial of the creeping effects of militant Islam), a refusal to abolish 18c, a refusal to make meaningful attempts at achieving widespread economic reform, smaller government or lower overall taxes, they can and will vote for the ALP or the Communist Party Greens.

This we know as fact: the ALP under Bill Shorten campaigned unapologetically on all of those things, and more, and the overall vote for the Left rose by a couple of percentage points at last year’s election as a result.

But what we also know as fact is that a considerable majority of the Australian public do not actually want these things at all; the overwhelming movement away from the Liberal Party at last year’s election was to the assortment of fringe parties springing up to its Right, not to Labor or the Greens: the so-called “million lost votes” that went directly to One Nation, the ALA, the Liberal Democrats, Family First and others, which might next time partially flow to Cory Bernardi’s hard Right outfit, and which transferred almost as a bloc to Labor on preferences — not from any willingness or inclination to endorse Shorten, but from a total refusal to endorse Turnbull in any way, shape or form, and to attempt to ensure he lost the election as “punishment” for his overthrow of Abbott.

This distinction sits at the very heart of what is wrong with the government in its current configuration, and is why Turnbull is spectacularly and singularly unsuited to leading it: his initial burst of public support in reputable opinion polls was only ever going to translate into votes and seats if he went to an election immediately, before the hardened lefties who spent the Abbott years cheering him on woke up to themselves, remembered they’d prefer to vote for Labor or the Greens than a caricature-like imitation hailing from Point Piper and armed with tens of millions of dollars — and jumped off the Turnbull cart as enthusiastically as they had leapt upon it as a way of “sticking it” to Abbott.

Whenever I say to any of the Turnbull adherents in my midst that I have a high personal opinion of Malcolm, I’m met with deep scepticism and doubt: if I truly believed that, the story goes, I’d be enthusiastically rooting for his success.

Which I periodically do of course, the rare times he kicks a goal, or lands a blow against the repellant Shorten: regular readers know I give credit where it is due. In Turnbull’s case, it is warranted all too infrequently.

But just as I like some Labor figures personally (Joel Fitzgibbon and Mark McGowan spring quickly to mind), I’d never vote for them in a pink fit: the principle is identical.

And if Turnbull really is the greatest Liberal leader of all time, but has simply failed to hit his straps and carry the country with him, what does that say about the hand-picked cabal of people guiding, advising and strategising for him?

That’s not a question any of them want to answer. At such a juncture, it all becomes the fault of Abbott, Credlin, and the press.

Of course it is.

And of people like me who refuse to blindly toe the line, or get “on message,” or refuse to parrot the propaganda of a ship that is sailing on a one-way ticket to nowhere.

Of course it is.

Whether Turnbull’s group likes it or not, or admits it or not, the vast bulk of the electorate (to say nothing of a probable majority of the Liberal rank and file) despise Turnbull, and it doesn’t matter what those who have worked with him, or those of us who have otherwise had dealings with him and like him, think otherwise: Malcolm is a widely disliked figure who most people do not want as their Prime Minister.

This is no endorsement of Shorten (who, with more than a single IQ point, would ever give one of those?) and it does not automatically follow that such a position is a call for Abbott to be restored as Prime Minister.

Indeed, I have never advocated an Abbott return either publicly or in private, and it would take more than a few accurate comments in the press on his (or Credlin’s) behalf to convince me otherwise.

But the Coalition right now is beset, in no particular order, with a leader who will never win another election; a “policy” program (for want of any better description) that is very thin, very narrow, and hardly a comprehensive template for governance; is saddled with a Turnbull/Labor/Greens formulation on social issues and climate change that is complete anathema to voters who would ordinarily incline to vote Liberal; exhibits no idea, inclination or ability to contemplate broad-brush, sweeping reforms that are desperately overdue (for example, a company tax cut — whilst necessary to stimulate employment — is not “tax reform,” and is just another band-aid to look like it stands for anything at all).

It is lumbered with people responsible for mass communications, political strategy and parliamentary tactics who are clearly completely and utterly clueless: for if they weren’t, and especially with the likes of Shorten to contend with as an opponent, the government would be 10-15 points ahead of the ALP in the polls and generating a deep reservoir of public goodwill for itself.

It isn’t.

Even this week’s decision by the Fair Work Commission — an ALP-created entity stacked with Labor appointees — to modestly cut Sunday penalty rates has been squandered as an opportunity to ram home the benefits to the Coalition’s core small business constituency, and to hang Shorten out to dry for opposing them as a union puppet who would prefer to see jobs destroyed rather than created.

To Credlin, I say that whilst my trenchant opposition to her as Chief of Staff may have softened, a better approach might be to gather those like-minded, able folk who are desperate for the Liberal Party to succeed (be they inside or outside the Canberra bubble) to forge and set out comprehensive plans for government, a comprehensive strategy to implement them, and a realistic strategy to get rid of Turnbull and replace him with someone who might be up to delivering on it: to this extent, my door is open.

To the Turnbullites, my suggestion would be to forget about trying to drive conservatives out of the party — for what that is doing is already destroying it — and to rule a line under 18 wasted months by moving to incorporate the same solutions in office as those any putative replacement might be inclined to enact if they are able to dislodge Malcolm and again, my door is open.

There are plenty of good, astute people in and around the Liberal Party who simply want it to succeed; they want it fixed, they want it to function, and (distinctions about conservatives or moderates aside) they don’t really care who does it, so long as the job is done. Those people are largely shut out of the party’s inner sanctums — often for petty, adolescent, and/or ancient reasons that defy common sense and sanity today.

But to ignore the reality of the predicament Turnbull and his mates have spent 18 months steering the Coalition into is every bit as destructive as their increasingly strident denunciations of the man he replaced — the merits or otherwise of that action aside — and one thing that can be stated with brutal, and deadly, candour is that if left merrily to their own devices, Turnbull and his crowd will engineer the mother of all election defeats that will hit the Liberal Party like an atom bomb when next it ventures out to face the people.

It will make 2007 look like a blip. It will make 1983 look mild.

And the most damning aspect of that is that most of the carnage will have been inflicted not through an embrace of Shorten and Labor, but by fucked-off Coalition voters determined to punish Turnbull heavily by the only means available to them: the ballot box.

The motives of Abbott and Credlin this week may be dubious, questionable, their arguments hypocritical, and their actions selfish in the extreme.

Like it or not, for once both of them are absolutely right.

It remains to be seen how those positioned to do something about the problems they have identified respond: whether this takes the form of the Right manoeuvring to replace Turnbull, or the Turnbull crowd finally waking up to itself and realising it has almost pissed the entire game away.

But the clock is ticking, and with almost a third of what was always going to be a truncated parliamentary term gone, the time for any of them to do something concrete to fix the problem has almost passed: if, that is, Turnbull hasn’t already pushed the Coalition beyond the point of no return in the estimation of the voting public and, most importantly, the Liberal-inclined voters without whom the government is finished.

Time will tell. It always does.

The only certainty is that if nothing changes, defeat at the next election is guaranteed. On that count at least, Abbott is dead right.

Modest Penalty Rate Reform Is Common Sense

WHILST it will enrage many as too aggressive or too conservative, a proposal by the Productivity Commission to cut Sunday penalty rates to the time-and-a-half Saturday rate is modest, sensible, and balanced. Typically, Labor and unions are readying to spill blood; the government is ducking and procrastinating. Trades Hall and the ALP must grow up; the Coalition should show some spine. Meanwhile, both workers and business are compromised.

First things first: since it was released late yesterday afternoon, the recommendation by the Productivity Commission that Sunday penalty rates be lowered to the Saturday rate to create a standard weekend penalty rate has already sparked the kind of outrage among unions and the ALP that spewed forth at the height of the WorkChoices debacle, sealing the defeat of the Howard government; in typically gutless form, the Turnbull government has gone scurrying for cover at the very first sign of this resistance, invoking the Fair Work Commission as its go-to patsy as a pretext for dodging an issue that really needs to be sorted out.

It’s great to know conservative parties in Australia can grasp and prosecute a case for change.

Readers — depending on preference — can access some coverage from the mainstream press from Fairfax or Murdoch publications, although to my mind, none of what has emerged in the past 18 hours matters one jot: terrified of meaningful reform of any kind, the Turnbull government — mindful of the similarly abject and pathetic precedent created by its predecessor — is deferring consideration of the measure until after an election (if ever), but that won’t prevent the ALP and the unions causing it as much grief as possible, up to and including a vicious (and mostly baseless) scare campaign that will cost an unquantifiable number of votes.

It would be better to legislate the Productivity Commission’s recommendation, for as it stands the coming avalanche of bullshit from Trades Hall won’t even be directed at a change that will even occur: and the loss of votes from swinging voters erroneously scared witless over literally nothing will be just another avoidable and foreseeable political error by the Coalition.

In truth, I don’t see that arguments for or against penalty rate change are any different to what they were the three previous times we explicitly discussed them (see here, here and here): the third of those posts is telling, however, for it relates to an abortive attempt by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard to enshrine penalty rates in legislation — and that sets up a stark counterpoint with the Liberal Party’s newfound position that the Fair Work Commission sets rates of pay whilst the government sits on its hands at arms’ length.

This column — for the record — believes that creating a set “weekend rate” of time-and-a-half based on the ordinary hourly rate for retail and hospitality workers, applicable to Saturday and Sunday earnings, represents a sensible, common sense outcome that is responsible, and hands all sides of the issue a win: it takes some of the burden off small businesses virtually obliged to open and trade on a Sunday but which often lose money in doing so, but leaves the vast bulk of the overall penalty rate regime intact.

Yet the toxic and counterproductive culture that has sprung up around what passes for debate in this country — ever since Kevin ’07 rode his vacuous “Cool Brittania”-inspired slogans into government in 2007 — means that any change that produces so much as a single loser will be screamed down by a hostile political Left hellbent on nothing less than the destruction of a Liberal government, whilst that same government (led by the purported messiah of the green Left, Malcolm Turnbull) will run off and hide in the toilet until the storm passes.

What a sham.

Particular criticism, at this early stage, must be levelled at Employment minister Michaelia Cash, who — having shown great promise as a reformer on her appointment, for which this column wholeheartedly endorsed her — is now claiming the government “does not set penalty rates” and that to do so would be as absurd as the government setting interest rates (which it did, until the mid 1990s).

Apparently, the small matter of a government’s ability to legislate measures is of no consequence, the roadblock of the present Senate notwithstanding.

Yet changing the penalty rate regime as the Productivity Commission recommends stands to benefit both workers and businesses, not that anyone seems to care to draw the distinction; and rather than bog down in the minutiae of who said what yesterday and what specifics might apply to whom, I thought I’d just point a few examples of workers being disadvantaged by the present system out that unions and Labor don’t just ignore, but tacitly sanction.

First, Sunday penalty rates — as anyone who works in a retail or hospitality business with more than half a dozen casuals knows — are not some across-the-board universal “entitlement:” the playing of favourites, the use of hours on days that are subject to penalty rates to make internal political points through selective rostering, and the presence of staff members of different ages (thus magnifying the cost differential to employers to schedule them) all conspire the ensure some staff get them and some don’t. By standardising pay rates across the weekend, the prospect of all affected workers being given some access to penalty loadings is increased simply on account of the reduced scope to exclude some staff.

Secondly, the insidious practice of making some casual staff full-time employees — often with minor titles such as “shift supervisor” as a sop to their vanity — and placing them on salaries at or fractionally above the minimum wage means that employers can then work them on whatever day they like, as hard as they like, and avoid paying penalty rates altogether (I know — it was done to me a little over 20 years ago). By the letter of the law, the practice is legal; against the spirit of the law, it’s just an old-fashioned cost cutting exercise. Standardising penalty rates over a weekend at least reduces the incentive for employers to do this.

Thirdly, increasing numbers of smaller operators — particularly in the restaurant industry — are choosing to simply remain closed on Sundays and avoid the expense altogether; these business owners are between a rock and a hard place: open on a Sunday and lose money, or stay close and lose what unprofitable trade might have been generated to rival operators, damaging the reputation of the business in the process. I spent some time consulting to hospitality businesses in exactly this situation a few years ago, and there’s no easy answer, although staying shut, and preventing the red ink flowing on Sundays, was almost invariably the lesser of the two evils.

And finally, the point has to be made that the existing penalty rate regime — fashioned in the 1920s and 1930s, when Sunday was almost universally a day to spend with family at church — is an anachronism; the contention that Saturdays and Sundays are virtually identical today where work is concerned is sound, and the only groups who are trenchantly and implacably opposed to acknowledging it are the ALP and the unions.

In today’s modern, open, 24-hour society, it beggars belief that whole cities like Sydney and Melbourne would effectively close every Sunday, as they did until about 20 years or so ago.

Big businesses like supermarket chains have the weight of market power behind them not to feel the effects of having to pay existing Sunday penalty rates (although if you buy takeaway alcohol from a certain large national liquor retailer, pay attention to who serves you between Monday and Saturday, and who serves you on a Sunday: I’ll bet you don’t see many of the uni students on casual wages on a Sunday that you see at other times).

But smaller operators — often mum-and-dad enterprises — simply can’t afford it. Every time the headline hourly rates for their employees increases, those increases are magnified disproportionately when it comes to penalty rates. In the early 1990s, the wait staff at the restaurant chain I worked at were paid $10 per hour to serve tables; double-time-and-a-half was $25. Today, the same staff member earning $20 per hour costs $50 at the higher rate. Australia has had more than 20 years of low inflation growth and, whilst it has slowed now, wage growth that has consistently outpaced inflation. To compound this, retail prices have not been the primary drivers of what inflation has occurred over this period; housing, rents, energy and fuel costs have done that job. In some cases, small businesses are selling goods and services at prices that (in real terms) are the same or less than they were 20 years ago. But the wage bill has, by comparison, exploded.

There is little point trying to make these arguments to people in the union movement or the ALP, whose only real experience of small business has been to either extort it into bolstering union claims of delivering the best wage rises for workers in Australia, or to drive it to the wall: and similarly, I am yet to find an employee who encountered a pay rise they didn’t like, although the end destination of this particular ship is far fewer jobs and far fewer people to benefit from them.

So the Turnbull government, after obfuscating and procrastinating and blaming someone else, will “take the recommendations to an election” after which they will be quietly abandoned; the unions and Labor, as usual, will do all they have to in order to shut this latest eruption of sanity down, safe in the knowledge that irrespective of who it hurts out in the real world, their own cosy sinecures, paid for at public expense, mean they will never be disadvantaged either way.

Maybe, as I suggested not so long ago, the simplest solution would be to abolish Sunday trading altogether, although when the ALP and its thuggy cohorts at Trades Hall jump all over that as “anti-jobs” and “anti-worker,” perhaps everyone else might give some thought to the fact that small businesspeople are not obliged to continue trading if it isn’t profitable to do so, and that unless something is done to restore a bit of balance to an equation that has been overwhelmingly dictated by unions for the best part of a decade, an awful lot of jobs will end up being lost anyway.

And that’s one hell of a price to pay for gutlessness from the Liberal Party and the flat-Earth, scorched-Earth approach to getting what they want from the unions and the ALP.


Simple “Solutions” To The Penalty Rates Debate

WITH THE TURNBULL government set to attempt penalty rate reforms its predecessor squibbed at the first sign of hostility from Labor and the unions, the same paleolithic arguments are being trotted out by the same anti-business troglodytes to defend “workers’ rights” fashioned generations ago and which belong in the past. The availability of simple solutions might temper the “rigour” of a flat Earth approach to screwing small businesses.

I’m not going to say too much this morning, as yet another very heavy week beckons (although hopefully things will ease off a little once it is out of the way); I have been tracking the resurgent debate about legislating changes to penalty rates to take some of the burden off small businesses in sections of the economy that typically ceased trading at weekends — and especially on Sundays — and with yet more fatuous pro-union, anti-small business propaganda seeping from the Fairfax Media stable today, some comment is warranted.

One of the standout promotions made by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his recent reshuffle, new Employment minister Michaelia Cash, sees a very capable young minister (and a female, for those obsessed with gender) take on a portfolio that was singularly botched under Tony Abbott.

Already decried by the Left in friendly media tomes as “shrill,” a “fanatic” and “talentless” — perversely enough, excellent pointers to her likely effectiveness in her new post, albeit an indictment on those in the Left purporting to support the advancement of women in politics — it does rather seem that if anyone in Liberal ranks is capable of dragging the archaic regime of penalty rates during reasonable working hours (in the modern sense) into the 21st century, Cash may be just the lady to do so.

She is said to idolise former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: it is to be fervently hoped she shows the same disciplined commitment to reasonable and necessary reform that that great leader exhibited in the United Kingdom during a substantial career in public life over more than 30 years.

Her first test — the Senate in its current anarchic and counter-democratic configuration notwithstanding — is fashioning a regime for work and pay in industries that to some degree didn’t exist in their current shape just 20 years ago.

A criticism that has been sporadically made of Australia’s unions throughout the lifespan of this column is that in the most literal sense of the word, they are the most conservative institutions in the country; the world has evolved around them and so has Australian society, but the unions — in all their ugly malevolence — have remained rooted in the past.

In fact, a credible argument exists that they have regressed to the 1970s, when industrial sabotage and the economic vandalism inherent in bringing industries and cities to a standstill to enforce their will were their stock tools of trade; the litany of lawless thuggery being uncovered through the trade union royal commission is a good pointer to what I am talking about; the string of referrals of the bastards responsible for it to law enforcement agencies to be charged and prosecuted is another.

I hope readers have perused the article I have linked this morning from The Age; if they haven’t, here it is again — and it all sounds very reasonable, subtly emotive, and seemingly sober until it is pointed out that until the early 1990s, Australian cities more or less closed by 6pm. On Sundays, they were ghost towns.

Certainly, the intervening period has seen a gradual liberalising of trade laws, and consumer demand for retail, recreation and hospitality services has grown quickly to fill the extended hours during which businesses in those verticals are permitted to operate and do operate.

But it is worth remembering that weekend penalty rates were originally fashioned, explicitly, to provide recompense for work during “unsociable” hours: and by “unsociable,” this was explicitly aimed at those who were unable to attend church on Sundays — and framed in the sense that “work” took place between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Friday, in an era when anything outside those hours was very much the exception.

How many of those clamouring for the retention of penalty rates in full — and not least unionists happy to see small family businesses forced to pay up to $80 per hour for casual staff on Sundays with neither reserve nor compunction — also run around wearing the proud badge of atheism on their sleeve?

How many of those who pocket those wages are happy to put their hand out for the entitlement, with an utter disregard (or contempt) for the church-based social structures that in large part are the reason they even exist?

And how many people on both sides of the penalty rate debate accept, at every time other than when this exact subject is in prospect, that modern lifestyles and work requirements have effectively rendered redundant the notion of a 40-hour week that runs during daylight hours on weekdays only?

As ever, there is more political posturing by power-mad unions driven by unreasoning hatred of businesses and political conservatives to these questions than there is any real concern for “workers’ rights.”

Happily, however, there are two very simple solutions to the question of penalty rates; if the unions, the ALP, and their pliant mouthpieces that are the Fairfax press and the ABC are determined to be intransigent on the question, then it’s one that can be easily resolved.

After all — as the Fairfax piece today posits rhetorically — why should retail, hospitality and entertainment workers be “singled out for wage cuts?”

One, businesses in those industries could be exempted from trade practice and competition laws governing price gouging, abuse of market power and racketeering, and given the discretion to increase the prices of their goods, services and other offerings by 150% at all times such a loading is payable to staff.

Maybe if the $80 per hour waiter is serving a $100 main meal that usually costs $40 — or if the $60 usher at the cinema is checking a $50 movie ticket that usually costs $20 — the average idiot taking his family out on “unsociable” Sundays, or at times outside the obsolete 9 to 5 weekday stereotype, or (shock, horror) on a Saturday night outing that happens to tick past midnight, will cheerily fork out knowing he’s protecting “workers’ rights” and happy to become a fully owned subsidiary in the unions’ campaign to destroy business and hit “the rich:” proving the point that people have too much money if they can pay, and that seeing to it that some of it is shanghaied in the name of “the worker” is an impost everyone will laughingly and civic-mindedly accept.

Does anyone believe that?

Or two, if this is such an irreconcilable problem (and remember, trade hours were only really liberalised over the last 20 years), maybe it would just be easier to abolish Sunday trading altogether, and to reinstitute curbs on after-hours trading as well: and to dispense with the problem at a stroke.

I don’t think people would accept that either.

People who are paid by the hour who are working more than eight hours at a time, or more than 40 hours per week, or between the hours of midnight and 6am deserve some kind of loading: I don’t suggest for a second that they don’t, and indeed these are the people for whom there may be a case to pay even more than they are receiving right now.

But the point here is that the entire concept of “unsociable hours” as currently enshrined is based on social norms and in terms of community standards that no longer exist — and the structures that govern who can earn what, and when, either need to be overhauled to reflect the movement of the times or the (praiseworthy, common sense, natural) liberalisation of trade that has enriched Australian society and expanded choice must regrettably be wound back.

In the end, knuckle-dragging troglodytes from the unions are less concerned with the “rights” of those they claim to represent than they are with the perpetuation of their own feather-bedded sinecures: and if their role in a modern society is so crucial, some explanation based in fact as to why the union movement continues to lose members in both real and absolute terms is long overdue.

Spare us the propaganda of this being a call to enslave workers and exploit them; the revolution may not start today, and in any case the vapid bullshit the unions and their chums advance to that effect is, by present-day standards, puerile, immature, and childish.

No-one is advocating anything less than fair recompense for fair work (and yes, I am mindful I’ve used the F word twice there).

The problem is that we now live in a 24 hour world which once operated, in the main, for just eight to ten hours per day; working on a Saturday or a Sunday is normal now, and so is the proliferation of evening jobs for students, second income seekers and the otherwise unemployable that was nowhere near as extensive two decades ago as it is today.

Hypocritically sticking with obsolete and antiquated definitional arguments to oppose reform to what constitutes “ordinary hours of work” is an indictment on unions and a betrayal of the people they masquerade — when it suits them, and when they’re not extorting business even further — as the champions of.

A more sensible discussion would be how a restructuring of pay scales might translate into extra shifts in a restaurant, or more frequent tours at a theme park, or some other formulation for increasing the overall amount of work on offer in exchange for some relief for small businesses from the punitive (and increasingly prohibitive) real costs of weekend penalty rates.

If the unions are so wedded to their flat Earth positions, there are alternatives. They might not be popular and they might be undesirable.

But in the end, if the cost of labour and the framework that defines it are the only ingredient of the industrial equation that refuses, forcibly, to evolve — despite the world around it having quite literally moved on — then perhaps the only solution is to shut the whole thing down.

Maybe the question unions should ask themselves is whether some quite reasonably paid work — for those, according to their own propaganda, who most need it — is better than no work at all.

The unions could quite feasibly play a constructive role in helping to fashion a modern and constructive solution to what not so long ago was an unforeseen consequence of the evolution of the way we work and live; it doesn’t have to rip anyone off, but it has to ensure the jobs they so viciously claim to safeguard are actually affordable to businesses to provide in the first place.

And that’s another thing — businesses are not charities. They exist to turn a profit. There is no entitlement to a job any more than there is an indissoluble obligation on the entrepreneur to remain in business to provide one. There may be competing and sometimes conflicting forces at work in the relationship between labour and capital, but the end destination of total intransigence* on the part of one side of that equation is the collapse of the relationship altogether.

Cash has her work cut out, and it is to be hoped she won’t flinch as the Abbott government did the instant Labor and the unions signalled they would block any change whatsoever in the Senate that involved fixing the outdated regime of penalty rates.

It was an abject and pathetic surrender. But then again, the Left in this country is so hostile to any outcome other than its own collective arse in the seat of power — for power’s sake alone — that meaningful reform on an economy-wide basis has, on the face of it, become virtually impossible.

The Employment minister will need to channel every fibre of the Thatcher spirit if she is to prevail, but for the sake of sustainable employment outcomes and to the long-term advantage of those who depend on them, it is critical that she does.


*…and by intransigence (or moves to avoid it) I don’t mean half-arsed “solutions” like the unions made — involving people working 14 minutes extra per week — to try to save the inefficient car manufacturing industry that was simply a black hole for the unions to suck government subsidies into through successively greedier “enterprise” agreements: and the fact such a disclaimer needs to be made at all in the context of any discussion around labour market flexibility merely illustrates just how intellectually bankrupt and cavalier the union movement really is about “workers’ rights” in Australia today.


Union’s Penalty Rates Deal A Smoke And Mirrors Trick

THE DEAL ON PENALTY RATES announced yesterday between Business SA and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association may be a rare and welcome shred of labour market flexibility, and it may even constitute a step in the right direction. But robbing Peter to pay Paul is a fraught pursuit, and this smoke and mirrors trick simply cloaks the underlying burden of wage costs to businesses in a veil of “consultation” and “consensus.”

I have been reading about the “historic” template agreement signed yesterday between the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDAEA) and Business SA — which is said to “slash” penalty rates — and I have to wonder if I’m the only one who hasn’t been conned by what can only be described as a hoax; The Australian‘s Grace Collier tears strips from it in a complementary argument to mine, although stablemate Judith Sloan takes a gentler view of it.

The whole point to any debate over penalty rates (at least, where the poor bastards in small business lumbered with paying them is concerned) is that these archaic, obsolete relics from a bygone era as “compensation” for “unsociable hours of work” have in fact become a millstone around the figurative necks of many small and medium-sized enterprises, forcing them to restrict the times they trade, the number of staff they can hire, or both.

But this deal is simply a conjuring trick; everyone with a stake in it professes to have had “a win” — even the employers, their industry representatives, and the supposedly pro-business Liberal government — yet the only winner out of this is the union involved, which has hoodwinked the business interests concerned by a breathtaking sleight of hand.

First, the positives as I see them.

One, the abandoning of penalty rates on a Saturday is an absolute no-brainer, and this indefensible impost on businesses ought to be removed across the board: Saturday has become a day just like any other over the past few decades, and there is nothing unsociable about working on it.

Two, and similarly, the reduction of penalty rates from 100% to 50% on Sundays and from 150% to 100% on public holidays is at least a step in the right direction, reducing at face value as it does further imposts on small enterprises that — with a tiny number of exceptions, such as Christmas — simply fail to stack up against the ancient criteria still wheeled out by Labor and the unions to justify them.

The “right” — set to be enshrined as part of the agreement at hand — not to work on Sundays and/or public holidays is one I can find no fault with; after all, if people don’t want to work on given days they shouldn’t be forced to do so, although I reiterate that with a very small number of exceptions they shouldn’t have their hand out for multiples of their ordinary time earnings if they do work at those times.

And anything that helps flatten out and simplify a ridiculously complex regime of penalty allowances, loadings, and other wage components for hourly employees can only be a good thing.

But the positives are instantly neutralised with one very big negative: the 8% increase in base pay rates the agreement enshrines for its workers in return for surrendering a portion (not all, mind, just a portion) of their entitlement to be paid penalty rates at certain times, and the guaranteed 3% annual increases it includes will simply compound this.

On the one hand, this agreement takes some penalty rates away — some — from the hourly employees it will cover.

But on the other, it will mostly give them straight back in the form of a higher hourly rate.

The proof is that the template calls for the workers it covers for it to be no worse off under its terms for the agreement to be binding.

And the employers, desperate for relief from the punitive burden of paying penalty rates, will still pay out the same amount of money in wages — but broken down and accounted for a little differently.

The higher hourly rates will mean the employer effectively pays current penalty rates at any time of the day or night on any day an employee is working in their business.

What an absolute farce.

It’s unsurprising Labor and the unions are gushing over this; the SDAEA has probably uncovered an exciting new mechanism, compliant with the Fair Work Act, with which to continue to shaft small businesses whilst preserving their self-designated status as the “champions” of Australian workers.

It’s unsurprising the union, even a right-wing union like the Shoppies, would strike such a deal (despite any illusion otherwise) because it enables it to diminish a contentious area of industrial policy — penalty rates — by hiding part of it in an area of wage entitlements that it will never be held to account or challenged over; the penalty rate problem becomes smaller, more manageable and easier to fend off, whilst the unmitigated overall pressures on business are maintained.

But it is a surprise, distastefully enough, that various employer and industry bodies are hailing this as some kind of breakthrough when it is nothing of the sort; a red herring like this should have been easy to spot, and apparently it wasn’t.

And it’s just obscene that various figures in the Abbott government have seen fit to crow about this deal as “a constructive approach” and a “vindication” of its thoroughly gutless position that setting penalty rates should be left to the Fair Work Commission — which Labor in government set up as part of its sop to unions for their role in destroying the Howard government over its WorkChoices legislation.

About the only one of the key players quoted in the articles I’ve included today who has it right is Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who described South Australia as an “economic basket case” and correctly observed that those who want to work on weekends had been priced out of the market by penalty rates.

And crucially, when the dust settles and the businesses affected reconcile their outgoings on labour — and find nothing has changed — this deal will not make it easier for a single new job to be created, despite the loose rhetoric being tossed around to that effect.

In the final analysis, the union has insulated the earnings of its members by permanently entrenching the cost burden of penalty rates on the affected employers under a different guise.

It can hardly be described as a reform. The parties to this silly agreement might as well have not bothered in the first place.

Political Stink Bomb: Gillard To (Attempt To) Legislate Penalty Rates

PERHAPS eyeing the likely Liberal landslide at the coming election, or perhaps to shore up support for her leadership of the ALP among the unions that effectively control it, Julia Gillard today pledged to legislate penalty rates. It is economic vandalism, and a flagrant act of political hypocrisy.

The Prime Minister has seemingly capitulated to the union thugs at the helm of the Labor Party; the Murdoch press reports today that as recently as last month, there was little support within the ALP for this change to be made.

Yet being a leader under siege, and at risk of the metaphorical bullet, can sharpen and focus a politician’s mind to an astonishing degree; for this reason it comes as little surprise that Gillard is giving the union movement a prize item from its wish list.

There is a direct correlation between Labor-affiliated unions and Labor Party leadership votes, and when the message to the poll-obsessed ALP is that seven in ten voters want somebody else* to lead it, and if you’re Gillard, there’s probably a need to keep all the friends you can on side.

But I think there’s something a bit more basic — and nastier — behind this too: just as Wayne Swan has tried to do with the issue of election costings (the self-important one thinking he is far cleverer than he actually is), Gillard too is laying in a stink bomb she thinks will explode in the face of Tony Abbott and his Liberal government.

It has nothing to do with “workers’ rights,” either. God forbid.

The purpose of the legislative change is to guarantee higher pay for penalty rates, overtime, shift work loading and public holiday pay, enshrining these into the Fair Work Act to effectively make them a right for anyone working long or irregular hours.

The problem (and this is an old story) is that the small businesses who would mostly be required to pay them are financially strained enough as it is; the rate of business closures since Labor came to power in 2007 has skyrocketed, and many of those still in business might still be standing, but only just.

I have to ask a very simple question: where do Gillard, and her union buddies, think the money is coming from?

Not so long ago, prominent restaurateur George Calombaris campaigned to have penalty rates abolished; his rationale was that to open his upmarket restaurant on a Sunday, for example — paying staff double the rate it would cost on a Saturday or a Monday — was simply not commercially viable.

It’s a fair point, and one I’d add to by simply pointing out that your average diner at Calombaris’ trendy Melbourne restaurant might be willing to pay $135 for one of his eight course degustation dinners, but would they pay $270?

And the reason it’s a fair question is because unless someone like a Calombaris can double the asking price for their goods or services, their business cannot operate at a profit whilst attempting to absorb double the costs.

(Especially not in restaurants — trust me. I spent a few years operating restaurants in the early 1990s, the margins are a lot tighter than you might think).

This is an isolated example, but similar stories can be found in hundreds of thousands of small businesses across Australia who already struggle with the cost imposition of penalty rates and the like.

It’s certainly true that Gillard isn’t seeking to legislate something that doesn’t already exist.

But it is also true that real wages in Australia have grown strongly and almost without interruption for several decades now, and under governments run by both of the major political parties.

And for that reason, if there is to be any movement on the issue of penalty rates it ought to be toward getting rid of them, not trying to extend them in perpetuity.

One of the reasons jobs in so many industries in Australia are disappearing to places like India, or Thailand, or the Philippines, is precisely because of the high real wages in this country: in many areas, our labour costs price us out of the market.

Now, I don’t advocate a wholesale slashing of real wages (which is what I will nonetheless be accused of in some quarters).

But the fact is that penalty rates (of whichever variety) are an archaic relic from times when wages across the board were far lower, poverty was widespread, and checks that now exist on unscrupulous employers did not exist.

They were the times of mainstream union relevance, indeed!

So in case anyone think I’m making light of the issue, I’m not; but what I am saying is that whilst real wages in Australia may have rocketed over the past 40 years, the profits of small business as a whole certainly haven’t.

If there are no businesses to employ people, there are no jobs. It’s really very simple.

And the unions would do well to keep that in mind, as their ongoing struggle to bend the hated employer over a barrel eventually prices the worker out of a job, and the employer out of existence.

Like I said, there is no concern for workers’ rights and entitlements underpinning this latest policy of Gillard’s: they won’t have any rights or entitlements if they don’t have jobs.

All that said, I come back to the stink bomb this announcement by Gillard pretty clearly seeks to leave on the doormat of The Lodge as a welcome present for the Abbotts.

I’ve already hinted at its intent: those ghastly, hated Liberals, in their rush to bring back WorkChoices, will abolish penalty rates for hard-working folk and drive hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people below the breadline.

What an absolute load of twaddle.

Gillard probably thinks she’s being oh-so clever; it’s likely she believes she is setting up for an “Abbott Attacks Workers” campaign destined to render him unelectable.

Firstly, this will be the third consecutive election Labor has attempted to fight on the back of WorkChoices, and the second at which the Coalition has pledged to never reintroduce that Howard-era industrial policy.

Second, Gillard’s promise of legislated industrial change — less than five months before the dissolution of Parliament for the election — is unlikely to be passed whilst Labor is in government, and the bills will be thrown out very early in the order of business of the incoming Liberal administration. The point, in practical terms, is moot.

But third, people don’t really believe Gillard any more, and no longer take her seriously; she is widely and rightly perceived as a manipulative, dishonest hypocrite who will say and do anything in the name of short-term expediency, and whose promises are as durable as ice in the desert.

Don’t believe it? “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”

It took six months to openly break that promise, and Gillard’s word to the unions need only hold good until or unless she secures re-election in September: an extremely dubious prospect indeed.

I think people will see through this, as they increasingly see through all of Gillard’s “initiatives” these days, and recognise it for what it is.

And that, my friends, is a slavering pledge to her trade union masters to save her arse as Prime Minister, and an absolute disregard — even contempt — for the very workers she professes to be acting for, and for the hard-working business people who employ them.

Bring on 14 September. There is still six months of this to endure.



*I want Julia Gillard to remain Labor leader, right up to to 6pm on election day.