Page 4811 - Week 15 - Wednesday, 14 December 2005

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The Brotherhood of St Laurence’s executive director, Tony Nicholson, suggested when launching Anti-Poverty Week earlier this year that up to 1.5 million Australians already living under the poverty line were at risk of being left behind by the federal government’s industrial relations reforms. He suggested that already far too many have been left behind by the modern economy, despite the unprecedented prosperity many have enjoyed.

The Salvation Army rightly pointed out that the reform’s exploitation of the disadvantaged meant that these changes could only be described as unethical. A Salvos spokesman, Mr Dalziel, said:

People such as the homeless, those who have suffered abuse and young people with a poor education would not be able to bargain for decent wages and conditions.

The highly respected Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, an agency of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, examined the proposed changes within the context of the body of Catholic social teaching and the church’s collective and diverse experience as an employer. As the Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, is a prominent Catholic, he would be expected to pay particular attention to these comments. In a letter to the minister, the organisation’s executive officer, John Ryan, said:

A fundamental principle of Catholic Social Teaching is that work affirms, enhances and expresses the dignity of those who undertake it. The church’s teaching on work does not permit the worker to be treated as a commodity in the marketplace. A worker should be able to establish and maintain a family and provide for its future security.

In his letter, Mr Ryan questioned the minister as to the reasons for pushing through many of these changes, particularly why the government wants to take minimum wage setting away from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, what empirical evidence the government has to support the need to exempt workers from unfair dismissal laws, and what savings provisions will be available for award employees in a situation where the current award standard is greater than the proposed legislative standards. ACCER’s briefing paper goes into even greater detail, systematically examining the government’s proposed changes and applying laudable Catholic teachings such as social justice, the nature and dignity of humanity and work.

This is an unprecedented level of opposition. Here we have religious and community groups of virtually all persuasions speaking out against these reforms. Even those leaders close to Minister Andrews are opposed to the reforms. However, it has not been just church and community groups that have been questioning the need for changes. The Sensis small business survey for November found that only three of every 10 Australian small businesses believed the changes would have a positive impact on business. Ten per cent thought the changes would have a negative impact and the majority believed that the changes would make no impact at all. Further, 70 per cent of those surveyed thought that the current system was fine and did not need any change at all.

After 1,200 pages of legislation and explanatory material, guillotined debate, the slashing of workers’ rights, $55 million of taxpayers’ funds being spent on advertising and a total

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