“FAIR PAY AGREEMENTS” (FPA) are the final proof that Labour is evolving backwards into the Liberal Party. Predictably, National’s ignorance of its own country’s history has rendered it incapable of placing this latest example of Labour milksoppery into its proper context. Scott Simpson can witter-on all he likes about Jim Bolger (of whom more later) taking New Zealand back to the 1970s. A much more accurate historical invocation would be the 1890s. Or, if we’re being precise, 1894. That was the year the Liberal Government of Richard John Seddon passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (ICAA) – the true inspiration for Iain Lees-Galloway’s FPAs.
The ICAA empowered the state to bring employers and workers together for the purpose of establishing minimum rates-of-pay and working conditions across whole industries and occupations. If these could not be arrived at by negotiation, then binding arbitration was available from a special Arbitration Court. Crucially, unions and employer associations who submitted their disputes to the Court were forbidden from engaging in strikes or lockouts. These “awards” of the Arbitration Court spelled out the minimum standards workers could expect and prevented the employers’ competitors from initiating a ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions.
The parallels with Labour’s proposed FPAs are obvious. What has yet to be established, however, is whether or not the advisory group headed by Bolger will incorporate a twenty-first century equivalent of the Arbitration Court into the new FPA machinery. Without such a mechanism, the negotiation of anything resembling a useful FPA will be next-to-impossible. Strikes and lockouts have already been ruled out of the process, so in the absence of a binding arbitration mechanism, negotiations between employers and unions could be prolonged indefinitely. Or, at the very least, until the National Party is re-elected and the legislation enabling FPAs repealed.
This will be the true test of whether Bolger’s ‘road to Damascus’ conversion: from hard-line anti-union promoter of the Employment Contract’s Act, to conscience-stricken repudiator of neoliberalism and all its works; is genuine. With National’s workplace relations spokesperson, Scott Simpson, on record as promising to repeal all FPA-related legislation, any hopes Labour may have entertained of Bolger inspiring an outbreak of constructive bi-partisanship have already been dashed.
The best the Left can hope for now is that the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights will, over the course of the coming months, transform himself into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests.