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Issue #1545      2 May 2012

Council of Australian Governments

Part 1: Deregulation and privatisation agenda

Anna Pha

Last month’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting saw considerable unity between state, federal and local governments – Liberal, National and Labor Party – and big business. The main focus of the meeting was on training, privatisation and deregulation to serve the interests of big business.

Harmonisation of regulations and standards will continue on occupational health and safety, licensing of trades people, registration and accreditation of health professionals, product safety, food standards, and in a number of other areas. Harmonisation of state legislation has the potential to bring a number of benefits and makes a great deal of sense, but in some areas such as OH&S where standards are being lowered, the outcomes could be quite serious.

OH&S was one of the few areas where agreement was not reached. The Liberal Party premiers of Western Australia (Colin Barnett) and Victoria (Ted Baillieu) held out on what is already an inadequate document. One of their main points of disagreement is over the right of entry of trade unions regarding OH&S issues. They fear that it might be used to shut down workplaces where there are OH&S issues!

The question of trade union rights and their role in halting work in unsafe conditions is vital to the health and safety of workers and should be a central component of OH&S legislation.

Employers dictate agenda

The deregulatory moves were a direct response to an employer offensive for greater freedom of operation. The inaugural COAG Business Advisory forum of leading employer organisations and government leaders was held the day before the formal COAG meeting. It was a great success as far as business was concerned, with COAG adopting their demands for competition and regulatory reforms.

While there might be some benefit from trying to eliminate genuine “duplication” in development and mining approval processes between the three levels of government, the agreed reforms go far further than that. There is a real danger that under the agreements reached at COAG, local and federal government will be removed from the equation. The power would be consolidated at the state level and developers, mining corporations and other corporates would be given greater licence to “self-regulate” themselves.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) had lobbied the government with a set of six priority areas for reform. All six were adopted as priorities by COAG with just minor rewording of a few items. They adopted a plan described as a “national productivity compact” between big business and the government. Unlike the Bob Hawke days of “social compact” there was no attempt to co-opt or involve the trade union movement or pretence to be serving the interests of workers.

The emphasis was on reducing costs to the private sector by such means as removing or weakening regulatory “barriers”. These include environmental and development regulations, local government planning and zoning, and accountability such as obligations on business to report on their activities. It is about fast tracking and removing barriers to the unrestricted mining, construction and other big business operations.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard called for a business partnership.

She went to great lengths to prove she was a supporter of big business, ever ready to cut “red tape” and improve “productivity”, the latter being code for reducing the cost of labour and undermining working conditions. She basically went along with anything that would make business in Australia more “internationally competitive” by reducing business costs and obligations.

The power of big business is evident in the government’s approach to training. The government’s blueprint for training, the Skills for All Australians report, which was publicly released on March 19, was quite adamant in its support of the public sector and TAFE in particular.

However, the COAG decision puts TAFE on an equal footing with shonky private, for-profit operators. It is a neo-liberal recipe for privatisation and undermining the quality of TAFE courses, attacking the working conditions, job security and salaries of TAFE staff and deunionisation.

Funding for TAFE will be based on a deregulated “contestable training market” model in the name of competition. The states will take responsibility for allocating funds.

The BCA and the Victorian government have been pushing for a Productivity Commission inquiry into construction costs and processes for approving major projects and the removal of “green tape” (read environmental protection). At last year’s COAG meeting Gillard refused their request for such an inquiry. At this year’s meeting, agreement was reached for the heads of treasury in the states to do a preliminary analysis of building industry costs and productivity. They will report in a month, with the way open for a Productivity Commission inquiry to follow.

The references to productivity are code for trade unions and industrial relations legislation. As already noted above, big business made considerable gains at this meeting in the “streamlining” of development approvals but it is clearly seeking further deregulation.

Deregulation is a key component of neo-liberal economics, along with privatisation and competition policy. Successive governments, dating back to the Whitlam Labor government in the mid-1970s have blindly pursued deregulation as a tenet of faith with disastrous consequences for working people and the economy. Trade, financial markets, foreign investment, and a host of other regulations governing customs, licensing, food, occupational health and safety, planning and development and many other areas have been or are still in the process of deregulation.

Tariff reductions and the removal of other protectionist measures saw the manufacturing sector take a hammering, with the production of textiles, clothing, footwear, furniture, cars, trucks, white goods, toys and many other products being hit hard. Australia’s highly skilled manufacturing base which employed more than one third of the population is a shadow of its former self, and what remains is struggling for survival.

The manufacturing sector now employs a little over 10 percent of the workforce.

Big business left COAG delighted with the outcomes. The one area where employers have not fulfilled their wish list is the labour market. They are still pursuing the outlawing of all industrial action, the absolute right to exclude trade unions from the workplace and the complete deregulation for employers of the labour market with restoration of individual employment contracts.

Next week: TAFE undermined  


Next article – Exhibition – Humour from my Pen

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