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Liberty Belle: The Govt. As An Obedient Canine

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

The Govt. As An Obedient Canine

First, my apologies for the drastic error in last week's Liberty Belle. I was having a blonde day. I wrote "$4 billion deficit" instead of $4 billion surplus. I now know only three of you read my Liberty Belle, because only three people came back and pointed out my mistake.

So, bad marks to me for last week's effort. I must try harder.

This Government must try harder to resist rolling over on its back every time a union boss walks into a Cabinet Minister's office. The cabinet, on 11 August, agreed to union demands that will take the labour market back to the bad old days of union control, national awards, compulsory unionism, multi-employer contracts, and a requirement for employers to maintain pay and conditions or pay redundancy when a business is sold.

The latter - which I call the "Margaret Wilson Slavery Clause" - was dropped from the 2000 Bill after the 'winter of discontent'. But like the would-be Governor of California, it will be back. Hasta la vista free enterprise.

This won't, like Rachel Hunter's haircare, happen overnight. But it will happen, and will move the labour market from collectivisation to unionisation. The rights of workers will be sold off for the rights of union bosses.

Only three Ministers balked at these changes - Hon Jim Anderton, Paul Swain, and John Tamihere - the three responsible for economic growth.

Things have come to a pretty pass when our liberty rests with Jim Anderton.

So what does the government have in store for workers and firms? According to my source, the government's package of retrograde reforms includes:

1. Union dues will be deducted from all employees, whether union members or not, if their bosses and unions agree. What say will individual workers have? None. They won't be asked. Welcome to the new corporatist state.

2. "Unjustified dismissal" will be redefined to mean "unfair dismissal". At present, this clause is a headache for bosses, but it's about to get worse. Under new proposals, even if you've followed the legal procedural requirements to the letter, if the person you're dismissing is a chronic alcoholic, problem gambler, has six sick kids and a broken down van, it's unfair to dismiss him/her so therefore it's unjustified.

3. Multi-employer contracts, or national awards, will be much more feasible and more difficult to block. So say hello to Cook Strait ferry strikes every school holidays, 'no room at the inn' signs in the hospitality industry, and higher prices for clothing - especially kids' clothes.

4. Transfer of undertakings clause, or aforementioned legalised slavery. If you buy a business you will be forced to hire existing staff on the same terms and conditions, or pay redundancy. This will put a stop to new owners taking over a struggling business, and securing its long-term viability. Why would any firm want to take over another firm when its hands will be tied because wage rates and conditions are fixed by government fiat?

5. Compulsory arbitration will be in, but it won't be binding. Sounds crazy, I know, but the threat of someone else making an arbitrary decision will force employers to settle anyway. And if they don't, the extra red tape and compliance involved in arbitration mean higher costs and less focus on the business proper.

6. A new 30-day rule which means classes of workers, instead of individuals, will be named as starting on a collective contract then switching to an individual. For example, the PSA might negotiate with Treasury for all clerks to be included in the collective for 30 days - whether they want to or not. These people would have to remove themselves from the collective at the end of 30 days if they wanted an individual contract - a blatant infringement of their right to choose their employment arrangements.

On their own, these changes won't mean the end for New Zealand business. But kicking in on top of changes to the Holidays Act, Matt Robson's Four Weeks Annual Leave Bill, and the new OSH laws, the new ERA Bill makes further mockery of the Government's stated aim to get back to the top half of the OECD.

This is 'death by 1000 cuts' and a further move toward the 'Germanification' of our labour market policies - at the very time that Germany is abandoning such policies to combat its 10.4% unemployment rate.

The Prime Minister sees herself as a strong leader. Unfortunately, when it comes to standing up to union bosses, she acts more like a 90-pound weakling. No price is too high when it comes to keeping the peace with union bosses - not even trading away the long-term interests of New Zealand workers and firms.

There is more to come, with pay equity next off the blocks. Now, more than ever before, it is crucial for New Zealand business to speak with one voice and oppose union-led demands to re-regulate the labour market.

Yours in Liberty,

Deborah Coddington


Liberty Belle is a column from Deborah Coddington, Member of Parliament for ACT New Zealand.

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