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Liberty Belle: Times Are A Changin'

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle
Times Are A Changin'

How times have changed. This week I, along with Andrew Little from the Engineers' Union, delivered a speech to HRH Princess Anne when she visited Auckland.

When I was little, any royal tour was big news. Today, the media are not interested, unless there's an illicit sexual liaison which leaves behind a little New Zealand child.

But I was nervous. Not so much because I was meeting a real Princess, but I felt a responsibility that as an MP (and as far as I know, I was the only MP to give a speech to HRH during this visit) I should be professional and prepared.

The topic chosen was "The Unions in New Zealand" and I was asked to be provocative and provide "divergent views" for the members of the Commonwealth Study Group touring with the Princess.

Judging by the wry smile on her face during my presentation, and her chuckles at some of my chosen language, I think HRH was amused. Even if, as she left, she made the comment; "That was pretty tame". Perhaps she was expecting Little and me to trade verbal blows instead of listening in silent agony to each other's position.

I started by stating that I am not ideologically opposed to trade unions, but speaking as an individual who promotes freedom, choice and personal responsibility, I am strongly opposed to the collectivist nature, and the desire for compulsory membership, which trade unions have come to represent.

The position of labour unions has changed drastically in New Zealand since the beginning of the 1990s - as it has around the world. The key trend we are seeing is the decline of trade union representation as a share of the total labour force.

Between 1985 and 2002, the percentage of wage and salary workers belonging to a union in New Zealand fell from 53.1% to 21.7%. There has been some increase in the number of union members in recent years, no doubt due to the ERA and wider factors such as strong job growth following on from the successful market reforms of the 1990s.

The Minister of Labour, Margaret Wilson, has a stated aim of getting union membership up to 30% and as we know, the national interest comes a distant second when the government's union friends call.

The Employment Relations Act, let's be frank, was nothing more than a way for the Labour Party to say thank you to union leaders for their support during the party's days in the political wilderness. Flowers would have been cheaper - and more tasteful.

We got a taste of what is to come out of the ERA review when, almost two months ago, I was able to reveal that Cabinet had signed off on a number of amendments to the ERA that will take New Zealand back to the dark old days of national awards, compulsory unionism (by stealth), multi-employer contracts and the Margaret Wilson slavery clause, which will require employers to maintain pay and conditions or pay redundancy when a business is sold.

On the one hand, this may herald the onset of another employment relations Ice Age. On the other hand, it may simply represent a last - futile but desperate - attempt by unions and their puppet government to stave off the inevitable. Wilson's Last Stand, you might say.

It won't work. The long decline of unions is here to stay. As a recent Victoria University report said: "the legacy of the Employment Contracts Act is proving to be a powerful one such that for unions any significant renewal in the current environment will be extremely difficult". And that's just what their friends say!

We have to ask ourselves why this is happening. The reality is that unions have not kept pace with the changes to the economy or to society, nor have they responded to the fact that workers - like consumers - value choice and freedom. Ultimately, that will be the unions' undoing.

Yet, in New Zealand, we see little recognition from the government or unions that they need to change. And so they fall further behind and further out of step with world best practice in education policy. Out of step with the Labour government under Tony Blair, out of step with the Clinton Democrats, out of step with teacher unions in the Netherlands, all of whom, favour choice. On Friday, the Melbourne Age reported that the Bracks government in Victoria was supporting performance pay for teachers.

I look forward to the day we see such progressive views from this government and from union leaders here, but I won't hold my breath. We need regime change if we want to move ahead.

It comes down to a simple question of what unions want - a better New Zealand for its entire people with increased productivity, higher wages and a growing economy? Or a bigger proportion of workers forced to conform to the collective mentality, have union dues deducted from their fortnightly payrolls, and employers refusing to take on more staff? You can't have both.

Yours in liberty,
Deborah Coddington

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