Published in The Australian, 11 March 1993, p. 10.
Sure. Unemployment is high and the future uncertain. The way ahead is ambiguously open. But like Nellie in the musical South Pacific:
I could say life is just a bowl of jello.
and appear more intelligent and smart
But I’m stuck like a dope!
With a thing called hope.
And I can’t get it out of my heart.
Hope sums up the attitude of many Australians as economic recovery emerges in an age marked by the end of certainty.
In an important sense no one knows the future or can abruptly predict where we will be in a decade. Ten years ago some of us were predicting that unemployment would continue to rise and, with technological changes, asked where would the new jobs come from?
I once wrote a speech with the line that the factory of the future might be run by a man and a dog: a dog to guard the factory and the man to feed the dog. Such jest now looks foolish. In the 1980s employment surged with the 1.7 million jobs created from 1983 to 1989. The finance, retail and services sectors grew fast. Doomsday did not come.
But why optimism in 1993? The main reasons are the changes occurring in society and industry which are transforming the economy. Australia is poised to enter one of the most solid and sustained periods of economic and employment growth in its history.
Low inflation and historically low interest rates will help. But it is not enough. Optimism is strengthened by the national commitment to significant and continuing micro-economic reform, genuine enterprise bargaining and increasingly competitive marketplaces, and greater emphasis of the development of skills and training.
Nonetheless, many doubt good times will ever return – what about all the promises and conjectures in the 1980s about economic boom time? Such scepticism is justified. Assertions about reform and/or the lack of sensible change in different parts of the economy or society ought to be critically examined. The actions of institutions, individuals and communities can be harmful as well as helpful. Competition, leadership, change, culture and strategy all involve the interaction of human beings who need to do more than just “will” success into reality.
Here are several ideas that may make a difference to what might be our future:
Employee Relations. The contemporary chatter about enterprise bargaining makes it sound so easy. Was the past always as clumsy as the rigid, centralised industrial relations monolith that is usually portrayed? Not everyone is praising the concept of the parties striking a deal that suits their interests.
Even the ACTU in Accord Mark VII proposes that compulsory arbitration be limited to adjustments to minimum award standards. While there are many striking successes, there are also pockets where not much is happening. Why?
The introduction of an independent mediation service, based on some of the experiences in commercial dispute resolution – including the Commercial Dispute Resolution Centre – is an idea worth developing. A mediator, independent of the official system and selected by the parties, could be an honest broker in securing understanding and commitment to change in some areas. The parties would still decide their fate, but sometimes they need to be properly introduced to one another. Industrial mediation could be the midwife between the old and the new system of industrial relations.
Competitive Marketplace. The experience in the past 18 months with the best practice projects in industry is a useful reminder that international benchmarking is essential to sustaining superior economic activity. Governments’ role in this area is probably marginal, even if some recent activities are justified. Efficient marketplaces are more important. Hence governments should encourage a more competitive environment. One of the most significant things governments can do is assist in informing the marketplace (hence improving its efficiency).
The Industry Commission (IC) has an important continuing role. But bodies such as the Australian Manufacturing Council can assist public policy debate by disseminating information, facilitating discussion and comparison and rigorously examining where sectoral competitive performance is poor or outstanding. Combining the Trade Practices Commission, the Prices Surveillance Authority, the Foreign Investment Review Board and possibly, the IC into a streamlined service with the full competitive analysis available at any one time is an idea worth pursuing. There are too many bodies complicating business decision-making and some – such as the FIRB — are floundering.
Training. More attention to the development of skills in individual work places will be an important development in the 1990s. No strategy to improve the performance of companies will succeed if applied learning m real workplaces is not a sigificant part. As Mr Richard Sweet from the Dusseldorp Skills Forum recently argued: “By itself, classroom-based learning does not build up good pathways – learning needs to be applied and experimental for vocational pathways to be credible and of high quality.” This has important implications for schools as well as work places.
Migration. Although all the main political parties are now committed to lower immigration levels and at least rhetorically, in favour of a higher skill base for new migrants, immigration policy is likely to re-emerge as a significant public policy area in the mid 1990s as economic recovery is underway. Australia’s small population and correspondingly low tax base impose long-term economic strains. A larger population may help.
Two surprises in the early 1990s were the sidelining of the Fitzgerald report recommendations about long-term immigration policy and the massacring of the business migration program (and its substitution with a much inferior program). How to gain the best from immigrants – including those capable of generating or bringing wealth and forging trade links – is the key question.
Industry Changes. Two big employment growth areas could be the location of regional headquarters and the whole area of telecommunications. Both will be affected by the regulatory environment. On the former, Australia’s possibility of becoming a more significant business and financial centre in the Asia-Pacific region depends on a more competitive tax environment, sensitive to the competition in the region. In the telecommunications field, the optic fibre industry is a likely kick-starter for this sector, which should be growing strongly by the mid-1990s.
Labour. The union movement’s Accord initiatives and sensitivity to employment consequences of wage inflation won favourable commentary during the last decade. It was not enough to stop the downward slide in union membership. Like everyone else, the union movement is learning that the provision of undifferentiated services for the same uniform price to an “average customer” is a doomed strategy.
The game is about niche and individualised services. Workers no longer join unions for semi-religious reasons. If unions can switch from an industrial relations culture to the business of employee services (a field much wider than award and agreement formulation and policing), the movement may actually grow in the private sector in the rest of the 1990s. Assistance in the traditional bargaining area could be extended to salary packaging and advice about individual work contracts and financial services.
At the end of this decade probably the most interesting discovery will be an old truth – people matter. How to maximise the potential of employees, encourage innovation, experimentation and problem-solving as businesses develop and mature will significantly depend on the creativity of employees. Public policy can help. Most of the story will be about what happens in workplaces.
Although the future is still as uncertain as ever, hope, on this analysis, is more than mindless optimism. It is based on what you hear, the changes unfolding, some success stories and the maturity evident in much of the public policy debate.
How the article appeared in The Australian newspaper: