Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger has been appointed the chair of a panel tasked with exploring our labour laws and determining what sort of overhaul they need. The panel, which was announced by Minister for Workplace Relations Iain Lees-Galloway, will report back by Christmas on the design on what Labour calls Fair Pay Agreements.
The irony is significant given that Mr Bolger was in office in 1991 when National introduced the Employment Contracts Act to New Zealand. This act had the effect of causing a significant and rapid drop in the number of people who were members of a union. Employees could choose to work under a collective contract or an individual contract. Bargaining was entirely voluntary because unions were sidelined as negotiations were directly between employer and employee.
The irony grows when one considers one of the Ministers working for Mr Bolger in that National-led Government was Ruth Richardson, who introduced the hugely unpopular “Ruthenasia” of social welfare in New Zealand. This had the effect of significantly weakening the Government social welfare. support for all who either through their own hands or circumstances beyond their control
The division over whether the E.C.A. succeeded in making New Zealand more productive is at times bitter. Australian economist Wolfgang Kasper for example said that the level of productivity had improved significantly. as had subsequent economic flexibility.
However there is no concrete evidence to support this. An article by Brian Easton in the New Zealand Listener found that on the contrary, there was only modest growth in productivity. Others pointed out the systematic dismantling of the social welfare net, the absence of significant growth in wages, compared with countries like Australia.
Prior to Mr Bolger’s National-led Government introducing the E.C.A., the 1973 Industrial Relations Act and the much earlier (1894)Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act had been pushed through the New Zealand Parliament. The 1973 legislation was an attempt to consolidate an array of outdated and inefficient Acts of Parliament, and was spurred on by widespread industrial unrest in 1968.
Not surprisingly, there is resistance to the latest round of labour law reforms, coming from business circles. Whilst Business New Zealand have indicated they will be constructive in their involvement with the panel, a spokesperson said that a chilling message was being sent to exporters that competition will be sacrificed in order to advance the interests of unions.
Let us see where the irony of this takes New Zealand. Whilst Mr Bolger will be seen by some as a slap in the face, compared with some of the social conservatives that exist today, his pragmatism will be welcome. I assume it will not be lost on the centre-left voters who have rallied in their thousands across country over the last several years trying to return New Zealand to a state of being where a welfare net was in place This would be a welfare net that can look after our very old, sick, our youngest and anyone else in circumstances beyond their control desperately seek assistance.