Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

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Gordon Campbell on National’s industrial relations policy

July 25th, 2008

Image – Lyndon Hood


The surprising thing about the National Party’s industrial relations policy is not that it’s only a bare outline – these days, even a one page summary of anything that National plans to do in government counts as a revelation. Nor is it surprising that its critics in government and trade unions have treated the proposals as Genghis Khan pillaging his way through the nation’s work sites.

No, the more surprising thing is that the policy is so blandly moderate, and hedged with conditions. Behind closed doors, the group that will be most genuinely upset is bound to be the feisty division of the Employers and Manufacturers Association led by Alasdair Thompson. Yesterday, this Auckland-based organisation took the strange step of running in Wellington’s Dominion-Post newspaper a large, screaming attack ad on Trevor Mallard – “Its unfair, its wrong, its discriminatory, it must be stopped ! “ – that was targeted at some fairly mundane measures that Mallard is shepherding through Parliament. Mallard’s measures are meant to ensure that Kiwisaver contributions are retained for retirement purposes, and not cashed up. No big deal. Yet this OTT ad ran on the same day that National released their moderate industrial relations policy. Weird.

What National is proposing is a far cry from re-erecting the Employment Contracts Act. Yes, it does contain the 90 day probationary period without personal grievance safeguards, but this is hedged with conditions – only in firms with fewer than 20 people, and all the good faith, sick leave, holiday, health and safety provisions will still apply.

Mediation will be available in disputes, and the same employee will not be able to be fired and re-hired every 90 days. Conclusion : there’s a discernible difference with Labour here, but not excessively beyond the current probationary measures in the Employment Relations Act. This provision won’t satisfy the ideologues on the right. ‘Boldness” will be demanded !

What else? Under a National government unions will need the employer’s consent to have access to workplaces. Yet this barrier to union activity is hedged with the condition that the employer cannot ‘unreasonably’ – whatever that means – block that access. The other expected ideological rider, that workers being able to bargain collectively without joining a union is also included.

Oddly, there are also a set of quite legalistic measures proposed as well. The resources of the Mediation Service will be boosted, and an earlier role of the Employment Court is envisaged, with wider and more extensive natural justice procedures to be granted to the Employment Relations Authority. Currently this is more of an investigative body but it would be steered, under National, towards acting “ more judicially.”

Amusingly, the attack on this aspect of National’s policy has been led by the National Distribution Union – but n order to protect small employers, who form such an important part of National’s support base. The NDU have a point. More litigation ? A more costly legal framework ? Its hard to see how that squares with these measures, which seem likely to create a goldmine for lawyers, and would turn the Authority into a quasi-judicial body. Hard to see how all that really helps out small employers – or does much for the credibility of a National Party that has otherwise made a fetish out of its devotion to cutting the compliance costs for business.

Beyond that little sideshow, the main provisions that affect workers relate to the ability to cash out the fourth week of annual leave. This, the policy says, “Can be only at the employee’s request, and cannot be raised in negotiations for an agreement. “ Again, while in reality this could devolve into an employee being pressured, the option of a cash out is preferable to the outright abolition of this right, which a more obviously doctrinaire National government could have chosen to put out there. Even on the vexed issue – for employers – of the Holidays Act, the policy offers a working party, not an outright solution.

In private, trade unions will probably be thinking they can live with such an array of policies. As I say, the Auckland EMA branch will huff and puff – just as they did when they came out a few weeks ago and slagged National for not making the 90 day probationary period extend for six months. The signs are, they will be ignored. National’s policy after all, also advocates a closer working relationship between Business New Zealand and the CTU – and that in itself, underlines the fact that the moderate line coming out of Business NZ is more in tune with what a John Key-led government has in mind. There is a widening gulf now between Business NZ and the Auckland EMA.

What wider significance does all this have for the election campaign ? Well, industrial relations – like welfare – is usually a litmus policy area, and a realm where a party plays out its core identity. What it could signal – and obviously this is sheer speculation – is that a National government may not have a hidden extremist agenda in mind, so much as centre-right moderation, with a few ideological trimmings.

Like Labour has done, National could well disappoint its more radical supporters by doing less in government than it seems empowered to do. The value of being in power will be cumulative and spread over several terms, rather than revolutionary. Since MMP is a system that punishes extremism, revolutionary governments in New Zealand will now always run the serious risk under MMP of being one term affairs, or of quickly making themselves highly dependent on small party support

That’s not to say there isn’t a difference between Labour and National governments – but that their style of government may hold more similarities than differences, with only occasional concessions made to identity politics. John Key for Helen Clark, Bill English for Michael Cullen… they could prove more interchangeable than we think. The outcome will really hinge on whether Key – or more to the point, English – is of a mind to resist for tactical reasons, the ageing ideologues ( the Deanes, the Kerrs etc) waiting in the wings.


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