The Morrison government is trying to lock in a less equitable economy for years to come | Greg Jericho

Anyone thinking this government will use this crisis to give workers a better say at the bargaining table has a near life-threatening level of gullibility

As the pandemic crisis continues we need to focus not just on the economic recovery but what kind of economy and society we want that recovery to lead to – because the government is using this crisis to push its agenda.

Discovering this week that 2.5 million people are either out of work or underemployed is pretty scary, but add in record low wages growth and you can understand people being fearful of what the future holds.

But we need to remind ourselves that even before the pandemic the economy had weak wages growth and declining shares of full-time work, and the government is seeking to ensure that continues once the pandemic subsides.

Every recession sees a fall in the average hours men work, and any recovery that comes afterwards never fully returns those hours. (The impact on women’s hours of work is less clear given the number of women in the workforce has risen over the decades due to social changes.)

The problem over the past decade is that after the GFC there was no recovery – average hours worked continued to decline, and as a result wages growth has also remained weak.

This is the logical feature of an industrial relations system that preaches the need for more flexibility. Without an abnormal mining boom it inevitably leads to a declining share of men working full time and weak wages growth.

And if you think employers and the government are sad about that have a look at what is being discussed.

Last month the prime minister told reporters: “As we come out of the Covid-19 crisis, what is important is that employers continue to have that flexibility. That’s the real issue ... We will need to continue to have flexibility to keep people in jobs.”

Flexibility is always code for the ability to reduce employees’ hours. And with that comes lower wages growth because workers constantly feel pressure of a trade-off between better wages for fewer hours.

The government is negotiating with employer groups and the ACTU for changes to the IR system, but has threatened to “go it alone” should no agreement be reached by the end of this month.

Among the changes mooted are ones to the enterprise-bargaining system, which has been undermined by employers for years. Employers have taken to terminating agreements in the midst of negotiations for new ones – pushing workers on to award rates.

The enterprise bargaining system requires good faith on both sides – and employers have worked out that acting in bad faith is in their interests.

Anyone thinking this government will use the economic crisis to give workers a better say at the bargaining table has a near life-threatening level of gullibility.

This week as well, the head of Scott Morrison’s Covid advisory commission, former gas company director Nev Power, confirmed to a Senate committee that the commission was pushing for a gas-led recovery rather than one underpinned by a shift towards renewable energy.

The government is clearly using the crisis to favour fossil-fuel energy and sideline renewables as it hopes people’s attention has shifted from the climate-change crisis. (By the way, the first half of this year was the second hottest on record.)

And then this week the government also announced it would seek to remove funding for students who fail half their first-year courses.

Off the back of repeated interventions by the treasurer to ensure universities are unable to access jobkeeper, this is just another in the long line of efforts by conservative governments to keep university education for those they deem deserving.

It is a dumb culture war attack which in all likelihood will serve only to lower academic standards as the pressure not to fail students will rise. But it fits in with the government’s other culture war against the arts sector, which is unlikely to receive any emergency funding before the end of this year.

What will our economy look like when (and if) we are able to move past this pandemic?

The high-income tax cuts will remain, but add in more “flexibility” for employers, fewer students from regions and lower incomes attending university, and a greater emphasis on fossil fuel – all supposedly in the interest of jobs and cutting government spending.

The economic news right now is bad, but the government is using people’s fear of unemployment to lock in a less equitable and clean economy for years to come – making a bad situation worse.

Contributor

Greg Jericho

The GuardianTramp

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