The Howard Government’s planned industrial relations revolution is being touted as one of the main reforms of its fourth-term agenda.

Enthusiastically supported by business groups as essential to building
national prosperity and boosting living standards, the reforms are almost
certain to be passed into law when the Coalition takes control of the Senate in

Yet if the laws are passed, they could pose a political problem for the
Coalition by undermining the Liberal Party’s carefully crafted strategy to wean
Catholic voters from Labor.

The laws have attracted energetic criticism from Bishop Kevin Manning, an
influential Catholic leader in Sydney, where the Liberal Party is competing
fiercely with Labor.

Manning is sending a pre-emptive message to the Government that it has a
responsibility to care for the vulnerable and protect the rights of workers.

He has not yet spoken to the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister,
Kevin Andrews, a staunch Catholic, about his concerns with the legislation, but
that could change if the laws fail to protect workers, he says.

“If the legislation disadvantages workers, I will certainly be speaking with
him, and in dealings I have had in the past with him, I’ve found him very
reasonable,” Manning told the Herald.

Arguing his case, Manning invokes the Bible – both Old and New Testaments –
as well as a landmark proclamation on workers’ rights by Pope Leo XIII in

The papal encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum addressed the “vast
imbalance in power between employers and employees” and has a “remarkably
contemporary” message, Manning said in a recent speech on the anniversary of the
Industrial Relations Commission entitled “Four centenary challenges in
employment relations”.

“Labour market flexibility is not a good in itself. If flexible arrangements
undermine the ability of workers to earn a living wage or to plan a family, then
the state has a responsibility to intervene in favour of the common good,” he
said in the speech.

Manning complains that more and more Australian families are joining the
ranks of the working poor as a result of the industrial relations system. In the
scathing critique he said that many workers feel pressed to accept contracts
that do not deliver a living wage.

“Low wages, insecure short-term contracts, casual work and seasonal work are
frequently the lot of young people, migrants and holders of temporary protection
visas, unskilled and semi-skilled workers. These patterns of employment are
making inroads into white-collar work. At the same time, top executives are
earning preposterous salaries.”

He also criticised the Government’s long-cherished plan to exempt small
business from the unfair dismissal laws. “I can’t imagine Justice Higgins [whose
1907 ruling led to the basic wage] entertaining the idea that a worker’s right
not to be unfairly dismissed depends on the size of the enterprise for which
they work.”

Backing up his speech, Manning refers to “vicious” examples of contemporary
employment practices, referring to a nephew employed by a pizza restaurant as a
home delivery courier who was given preference over adults because he could be
paid lower wages.

Another example was a niece of his who was sacked for refusing to work on
Christmas Day.

He rejects plans by the Government to limit the right of workers to strike
and is concerned by the growing casualisation of the workforce.

The Howard Government has worked hard to persuade Catholic voters that it,
rather than the Labor Party, embraces their concerns, promising huge payments to
low-income families with children, handouts for Catholic education and launching
a post-election debate on abortion.

Promoting closer relations with Catholics is part of a longer-term Coalition
aim to squeeze out Labor from representing many of its traditional

Weeks before he called the October election, the Prime Minister announced
substantial funding to open a new Catholic university in Sydney, and earlier
this year he gave Catholic schools a huge 39 per cent increase in resources.

Manning’s opposition to some industrial relations changes could put a spanner
in the Coalition’s works, although he has serious concerns about the direction
of the Labor Party as well.

“Labor was always traditionally the defender of the poor, but they seem to be
fighting with the Liberal Party for the middle ground and I sometimes fear they
have lost their concern for the poor,” he said.

“I wonder at times whether the Labor Party is really in touch with people on
the ground these days.”

The battle for the Catholic vote is far from over, it would seem.

Louise Dodson is the Herald’s Chief Political Correspondent.

By Louise Dodson
Sydney Morning Herald
December 7, 2004