NOTHING is more central to Labor’s view of what makes Australia such a great place to live in than our long tradition of having an independent umpire to stop employers exploiting workers. Former Liberal prime minister Sir Robert Menzies shared that view; like others in the centre-left and centre-right, he argued that it was a key to Australia’s relative harmony and social equality compared to Britain or the United States.
The independent umpire was one of the original demands of the union movement in the 1890s. Labor supported Alfred Deakin when he introduced it at federal level, and it soon led to the groundbreaking Harvester judgement, which set minimum pay rates at levels that would allow a worker to support a family.
In recent decades, Labor has been the greatest supporter of arbitration, with the Liberals much more ambivalent. True, one of the Keating government’s great reforms was to open up an alternative path through enterprise bargaining, but even those outcomes had to be run past the umpire.
When John Howard’s WorkChoices allowed employers to ignore the commission and effectively impose rates and conditions on workers, Labor was loud and fervent in its support for keeping the umpire. Bill Shorten has referred to it as one of the key reasons why workers are much better off in Australia than in the United States…
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