Bolger’s critics lost in the past
These days, elder statesmen like Jim Bolger and Sir Michael Cullen get called on so regularly to lead reviews and task forces that Parliament can feel like that famous hotel you can check out of, but which you can never leave.
Last week, the coalition government invited Bolger to head a team of business lobbyists, unionists and academics investigating the reform of workplace relations. Wrongfooted, the National Party chose to attack its own former leader for accepting the job.
The bad blood goes back decades. The neo-liberal wing of the National Party has never really felt that Bolger was one of them, and the feeling has been entirely mutual.
Back in October, 1980 when the ideologues wanted Bolger to topple Robert Muldoon (in the so-called ‘‘colonels coup’’) he declined to be their agent, largely because he thought the cure they were offering would be worse than the disease. Tactically, Bolger then outflanked his right-wing critics by bringing in voluntary unionism in 1983.
Those ancient battles were one factor behind last week’s criticism by National MPScott Simpson, who claimed that Bolger would be ideal for ‘‘taking us back to the 1970s’’. Yet if anyone seemed to be living in the past during last week’s exchanges, it wasn’t Jim Bolger.
Currently, Bolger told RNZ, both major parties are working constructively together on the mycoplasma bovis crisis. A similar bipartisan effort was also needed, he suggested, to meet the workplace challenges facing New Zealand.
The status quo, Bolger indicated, would no longer suffice. Our productivity rates and wage levels are falling further behind other developed countries – including Australia – and major challenges are looming from robotics and Artificial Intelligence.
‘‘It’s not about the 70s, is what I’d be saying to the Scott Simpsons of the world,’’ Bolger said.
‘‘This is actually about the 21st century where the world of work is going to change dramatically – and a fair-minded government and a fair-minded opposition will not want the workers of New Zealand to be missing out, and be pushed aside.’’
By year’s end, the 10-person team will have assessed the potential role of collective agreements, and practical ways to set minimum wages and conditions across industries.
In particular, the working group will consider how to implement so-called Fair Pay Agreements, between unions and employers. As the PSA has pointed out, last year’s $2 billion care and support settlement was, in effect, a Fair Pay Agreement, and it has enjoyed huge public support. Conceptually, the FPA concept seems little different to the minimum wage, which also establishes a remuneration floor, for the benefit of employers and workers alike.
There seems little to fear. Across the European Union, two-thirds of workers are covered by some form of collective agreement.
Previously, Bolger summed up our experience with the neoliberal model, and the privatisation, labour deregulation, welfare cuts and tax reductions that accompanied it: ‘‘They [neo-liberal policies] failed to produce economic growth, and what growth there has been has gone to the few at the top …That model needs to change.’’
Hopefully, some of this country’s brighter, more dynamic business leaders may be able to embrace the need for change, too.