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Family Impact Statement - On WorkChoices – the proposed new Industrial Relations Regime

Prepared by Dr. Don Edgar
For Unions NSW, November, 2005


During the 2004 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Howard undertook (as part of his discussions with Family First Senate candidate Steve Fielding, to prepare a Family Impact Statement on every new piece of proposed government legislation. That undertaking has not been met, though a start was made (within the Department of Family and Community Services) on developing a framework for such Family Impact Statements.

In my view, the notion of examining new legislation in terms of its likely impacts on families is an admirable one. It is not an easy thing to do, in part because family policy is by its nature value-laden and politically controversial, and in part because families are so varied and complex in their makeup, their circumstances and their values. But it is a sensible goal, given that governments, at any level, are supposed to govern for the common good, the wider community of families as citizens, not just for an abstract economy or the cause of growth. The underlying question about any change to existing laws is ‘To what end?’ And that end must include the wellbeing of families.

In the absence of any Family Impact Statement on the proposed ‘WorkChoices’ industrial relations legislation, UnionsNSW invited me to write one. Clearly, there is a close link between working conditions and the quality of family life. I have written extensively on the ‘work-family balance’, arguing that we should see work and family not as opposites, but as joint factors contributing to life satisfaction and dignity. The one is not opposed to the other, though they inevitably impact on our capacity to meet changing demands in each domain. Family and community work may not be paid, but they are crucial to the viability of our economy as a whole. It is important to the nation, therefore, to have policies and systems in place that help employees meet both their obligations to employers and to meet their wider family and community responsibilities

The Government’s central claim in proposing to change Australia’s industrial relations system is that ‘choice’ and ‘flexibility’ in the workplace (based on a reduction in fixed Award conditions and ‘negotiation’ between employer and employee) will improve both efficiency and productivity, leading to more jobs for those family members currently unemployed, plus a more prosperous economy that will benefit all families.

The underlying assumption is that a job of any kind - and an income at the minimal level - is enough to meet every family’s needs. Yet family wellbeing results from the quality of relationships, not income alone.

It is my considered view that the IR proposals will damage relationships, inside families, within workplaces, and across the wider community. Without families and the caring work they do - providing mutual support, nurturing and educating children, looking after the aged and disabled, helping others through voluntary community work - there would be no viable economy at all. It is not at all obvious that a prosperous economy equals family wellbeing; indeed a prosperous economy based on inequality and job conditions not designed to help workers meet their family responsibilities is likely to be a divided and unhappy one for many families.

As Dr. Marian Baird puts it, human labour is not just a commodity to be traded in the market: “Unlike the market for wheat, the labour market requires regulation in order for it to deliver efficient outcomes. Without laws preventing unfair dismissal or below-subsistence wages, for example, even good-hearted employers may be forced by competitive pressures to compete on the basis of labour costs, begetting a “race to the bottom” with a low-wage, low-profits equilibrium. Ironically, the natural power imbalance that appears to cripple workers and advantage individual employers, will have drastic effects economy-wide – and thus far-reaching consequences.”

I cannot claim this to be a complete Family Impact Statement, given my time constraints. But it is, I hope, indicative of the value of preparing such statements in general and in particular with this legislation, given that it is a revolutionary change in the nature of future working conditions and their effect on Australian family life.

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