Former Fair Work Commission Vice-President Graeme Watson Appointed Partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth – An Opinion
Volume 19, Issue 5
Margaret Thatcher once said that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. While Thatcher’s credentials as a sociologist might be doubted, former vice-president of the Fair Work Commission Graeme Watson seems to have taken her specious aphorism to heart in his crusade against collective bargaining in the Australian industrial relations system. The Australian Financial Review last week spruiked Watson’s recent appointment as a partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, with his stated purpose to “lead a push by business into agreements with staff that go around the failing enterprise bargaining system” – a move symptomatic of the Right’s increasing willingness to once again make industrial relations ‘reform’ a hot topic on the political and economic agenda, and break what remains of the already vastly reduced influence of unions and collective worker power in Australia.
Before landing partner at Corrs, Watson was a partner in crime of the erstwhile Minister for Industrial Relations and Attorney-General, Christian Porter, as his senior industrial relations advisor. Before making the news for being an absolute scumbag in other regards, Watson’s old boss had seemingly fancied himself the next John Howard and had had big dreams of masterminding the next greatest attack on worker protections since WorkChoices, being a driving force behind the government’s recent raft of (luckily largely unsuccessful) industrial relations bills. In this, he no doubt had Watson’s eager and willing help. Now obviously out of a job, Watson has pivoted blindingly fast from government to the private sector, albeit with the same mission statement of tearing down enterprise bargaining and the Fair Work Commission, which he resigned as Vice-President from in 2017 with an amusing letter to Michaela Cash (who has coincidentally taken over his old boss’s role as Industrial Relations Minister and Attorney-General) in which he complains of the Commission being “partisan” and “divided” – despite he himself being an obviously politically-motivated appointment. Indeed, if Watson’s tone in the letter is to be believed, the whole Australian economy must be teetering on the edge of collapse every time a group of employees manage to negotiate a pay rise above the minimum wage.
Watson’s criticisms of the Enterprise Bargaining system are founded in exactly the same kind of ideological smokescreen that Thatcher’s comments on society sprung from. Waging a campaign on their true aims of worker disenfranchisement and the total ascendancy of business interests over all aspects of society would be a bit far even for the likes of Watson and Porter, so the Coalition dresses up their agenda with attractive ideas like ‘individual autonomy’, and consistently attempts to establish in the public mind that what is good for business is, without exception, good for the rest us. Collective action is good when done by big businesses and their lobbyists, but it is a market inefficiency and union corruption when done by their employees. It might have been true that a rising tide lifts all boats if wages were increasing and living costs were reasonable, but it is patently not when most of us are set to work a lot harder than our parents did for a lot less, all the while as business profits continue to grow even through the worst pandemic and economic disruption seen in generations.
Individual autonomy means very little when there is such a disparity in information and coercive power between most employers and the average worker. Watson, in his cushy new partner position, can only be wilfully ignoring this reality as he calls for businesses to bypass the collective bargaining mechanisms of our industrial relations system in favour of individual, direct agreements between employers and workers.
Part of the allure of reforms like those encouraged by Watson is that they are not entirely baseless. Even if he completely misses the mark on the specifics, the general sentiment that our industrial relations system is deeply flawed, and failing most of those it is supposed to protect, is correct. But the arguments Watson throws forth in favour of further atomising the worker as an economic actor and removing unions from the equation are so disingenuously framed that they can only be deeply ideologically motivated.
He cites the example of the Fair Work Commission rejecting agreements between employers like McDonald’s and Bunnings and their employees as examples of the system’s unworkability. What he conspicuously does not mention is that those agreements were negotiated by a particular union, the SDA (Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, covering most retail and fast-food workers), which is notorious for writing agreements favourable to employers in return for better access to potential members. In fact, the Fair Work Commission ripped up those agreements because they paid below the Industry Award (an instrument which sets out the minimum rates of pay and entitlements for workers in an industry not covered by an enterprise agreement). These agreements actually allowed the employers to pay workers less than they would have been owed had there been no agreement at all, and the Commission was bound to tear them up under the “better off overall test”, which mandates that enterprise agreements cannot leave workers worse off than they would have been under the industry minimum award. Watson is essentially arguing that the system is inefficient and inoperable because, on this one rare occasion, it actually operated to protect workers from exploitation.
A whole case could be presented on the various ways in which Watson’s agenda is unsound and blatantly partisan, but suffice it for me to offer here that an alternative solution to the failings of the enterprise bargaining system is that collective bargaining in this country needs to be strengthened, not done away with altogether. The cunning strategy of the Right has been all along to manoeuvre the system into such a compromised and crippled position that it cannot help but fail, and then to point to this failure as evidence of the whole system’s inherent unworkability. If unions like the SDA could rely on better guaranteed access to potential members, and their casual workers were put in a position where they could safely take industrial action when needed, then they would not be encouraged by the structure of the system into a position where they must cosy up to employers in order to retain a semblance of power, leaving them to get on with the actual job of representing workers’ interests.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but few other areas of policy and law have as big an impact in our working lives (and by extension our entire lives) as industrial relations, and it is absolutely crucial that we all take an interest in it. Your employer and men like Graeme Watson certainly have, and I am sure none of us want to live in a world where there is nobody left to oppose them.
Read the AFR article here.
Matt Harper is a second-year JD student.
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The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of De Minimis or its Editors.