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Employment Relations Bill Surreal Politics - Dunne

Employment Relations Bill Surreal Politics At Its Best

Peter Dunne Opinion Piece

Politics is often a surreal occupation, where issues are dealt with as symbols more than realities. Sometimes it is because the realities are too complex; other times, it is because the symbols are all that is need to address an issue. What it often means, though, is that the apparent resolution of an issue in favour of the majority for the time being, is not the solution but only the start of the next round of the debate.

The Employment Relations Bill is a classic example. Depending on where one sits it is either the wholesale restoration of a bygone era in industrial relations - the return to Jurassic Park as Jenny Shipley styled it - or the dawn of a bold and positive new era in industrial where balance and justice have been restored. As always, in ideologically divided arguments, neither side is right. Truth resides somewhere in the middle, and the real issue is not what environment this particular legislation ushers in, but rather, what happens next.

United New Zealand opposes the Employment Relations Bill, not for the hard-line reasons advanced by the Parties of the Right, but for the more pragmatic reason that no case has been advanced why the extreme cases of bad employment practice that everyone is appalled by could not have been dealt with by specific amendments to the Employment contracts Act. The baby did not need to be thrown out with the bathwater in our view.

The fear is that having adopted such an extreme reaction to the Employment Contracts Act the Labour/Alliance Government has ensured that uncertainty in employment law will now become endemic. The National Party, egged on by ACT, has already pledged to repeal the Employment Relations Act whenever it next takes office. That is just as extreme a position as Labour and the Alliance adopted with the Employment Contracts Act before the last election. We simply cannot go on treating employment law as a political applecart to be upset every time there is a change of government. If all the sentiments about sound law contributing to stable economic growth mean anything, then surely we need to have law that is consistent and certain. The last thing we need is the assurance that every time the government changes, so will employment law.

Once the Employment Relations Bill becomes law, as it inevitably will, everyone has a responsibility to make it work as best as possible. The challenge for political parties will be to caste aside their prejudices and look honestly at how the new environment is operating and what changes if any might be required in the future to deal with problems that have arisen. That is certainly the position United New Zealand will adopt.

But in the surreal world of politics where symbols are more important than reality, the chances of political parties laying aside their prejudices long enough to look at what is actually happening, rather than what they think ought to be happening are probably not that great. Therefore, the Employment Relations Bill is not the end of the old era, and the dawn of a bold new future, but merely one more stage in the continuing game of political ping pong which industrial relations and employment law have been in New Zealand since the events of 1951.

Ends

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