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News News Hockey goes over the top in Work Choices dogfight
KEVIN RUDD claims the Howard Government is prepared to say anything, do anything or spend anything in its desperate struggle to stay in office. In his wild defence of Work Choices, Joe Hockey is single-handedly justifying that allegation.

Admittedly, Hockey was handed an unenviable job, required to defend the indefensible. That the original version of Work Choices was unfair has been tacitly admitted by the Government, first by its repeated refusal to promise that no worker would be worse off and then by its belated introduction of a "fairness test" over the protests of the employer groups.

The need for such a test is demonstrated by the fact the newly constituted Workplace Authority has queried or failed such a high proportion of the Australian Workplace Agreements employers submitted for approval.

Hockey's problem is that the Government hasn't been able to bring itself to speak the unvarnished truth: Yes, Work Choices was unfair, but it is not as unfair as it was now we've backed down and modified it so heavily.

Rather, Hockey has been required to maintain the pretence that Work Choices is and always has been beyond criticism, against a plethora of academic studies - many of them sponsored by Labor state governments - pointing out the many low-income workers disadvantaged by the original scheme. (The modified scheme has come too late to be reflected in the studies' findings.)

In our adversarial two-party democracy, Hockey is, of course, entitled to vigorously defend his side against its critics. And no doubt each of those studies contains statements of fact or interpretation with which he could legitimately take issue.

But Hockey's defence has hardly been at the level of contesting facts and figures. Rather, he has too easily resorted to bluster and abusiveness, seeking to dismiss the studies' findings by attacking the character of their authors.

If they've ever had any association with the unions - which, unsurprisingly, the great majority of labour-market economists and industrial relations academics have - their findings are instantly dismissed as biased and without credibility.

In persisting with this crude and unintelligent tactic last week, however, Hockey blundered over the top. In response to a study by academics at Sydney University's Workplace Research Centre which found that workers on AWAs tended to be paid significantly less than workers on collective agreements - wow, what a shocker - he let fly. It was "the same old flawed research from the same old union academics". It had been prepared by "former trade union officials who are parading as academics". (This last was factually wrong.)

Even Peter Costello opted for abuse rather than argument. The study was "contaminated" because Unions NSW had contributed to its cost. It had been prepared by "union hacks".

Now, as I've argued myself, it is perfectly reasonable to contend that research paid for by vested interests can't be regarded as "independent". But Hockey and his fellow ministers use that argument only when it suits them - that is, only when the research findings don't suit them.

Ministers have been happy to embrace the questionable findings of the econometric modelling on the economic cost of reregulating the labour market commissioned by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for those Business Coalition TV ads.

John Howard even referred to the modeller as "one of the most respected independent economists in Canberra".

But in the case of last week's report from the Workplace Research Centre, there was an additional consideration that leaves Hockey and Costello looking foolish.

This wasn't just another quickie, union-funded hatchet job on Work Choices, as they implied. It was a major, peer-reviewed research program that, against the stiffest competition and close scrutiny, had won funding as an Australian Research Council "linkage project".

Linkage projects are specifically designed to encourage collaborations between university and industry. In other words, half the project's funding is coming from the Federal Government, with the very terms of the scheme requiring the academics to find the other half from one vested interest or another.

Last October, the Education Minister, Julie Bishop, said: "When an independent organisation invests in an ARC-supported research program, it can be confident that it is committing its hard-earned dollars not only to a worthwhile project, but to a project undertaken by some of Australia's best researchers." Oh.

It must offend every academic in the land to see Government ministers idly traducing the reputation of the winners of a much-coveted research council grant. Little wonder the academics involved have threatened to call in their lawyers.

But that's not all. The Australia@Work research project Hockey and Costello so unthinkingly trashed is a big deal. It's a valuable and all-too-rare longitudinal study, tracking the work experience of more than 8000 workers for five years, at an estimated total cost of $2.4 million.

Hockey has repeatedly accused his union opponents of lying, but his own standards of truthfulness leave much to be desired. He routinely misrepresents the findings of a particular Bureau of Statistics survey and his department's recent report Agreement Making in Australia was a shameful document, calculated to mislead the public and the Parliament.

Frankly, Hockey is out of control, allowing his clumsy tongue to run well ahead of his brain. He needs to calm down and behave more like a leader commanding public respect.

I hardly think looking desperate enough to say anything and abuse anyone is a smart way for the Howard Government to regain the electorate's confidence.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's Economics Editor.

 

 
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