Some super stuff actually happens in Parliament
I sometimes think there are two kinds of politics in Australia. The stuff that gets reported, and the stuff that actually affects people’s lives.
The 24-hour news cycle has created constant demand for new content, no matter how trivial. Much of the demand has been fuelled by punditry, pontificating and poll-analysis, rather than actual news.
While the political journos are obsessed with the state of Craig Thomson’s stomach, Peter Costello’s Future Fund dummy spit, and Wayne Swan’s Three Stooges jokes, you could be forgiven for thinking that is all Parliament ever does. Conflict, not matter how confected, is the fuel that drives media coverage.
As an outsider to Canberra, it often bemuses me how disconnected the reporting from the Press Gallery is from the reality of the rest of Australia. Probably the most bizarre moment this week was Clive Palmers’ intervention in the national debate, with his astonishing claim that the CIA is funding the Greens to destabilise Australias coal industry. I don’t want to give Clive too much more publicity but I can’t resist quoting the old Irish saying: If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to.
So much media space is filled with these stories, but they are frequently so irrelevant to the concerns of Australian families. That’s not to blame media and let politicians off the hook. Too many of them relish playing the man and not the ball, and have given in to the temptation of planning media stunts, than on working with their electorates. Sometimes there really is not a lot of substance behind the surface.
But on other occasions Parliament and the unwieldy process of government actually delivers, often without too fuss being made.
There could be no more vivid example of this disconnect than the past week. Four significant pieces of legislation were passed by Parliament, but blink and you might have missed a couple.
The mining tax and the increase in superannuation linked to it have got some media coverage but most readers would struggle to understand exactly what is happening. The mining tax is long overdue. Strong mining companies create jobs, but when 80 per cent of mining profits end up flowing out of Australia, I think the Australian people are entitled to get a better deal for their minerals.
The mining tax will allow cuts in company tax for other industries, which are struggling with the mining-driven high dollar. That is good news for anyone working or running a business in manufacturing or tourism. The superannuation guarantee will increase from 9 per cent to 12 per cent, phased in over eight years, giving employers plenty of time to plan for it. There is no reason for this increase in super to be deducted from workers’ pay rises.
The mining tax will help pay for the increase in super, and will also pay for the cost of removing all income tax on the super contributions of people earning under $37,000 a year.
When superannuation was introduced - and every time the rate has been increased since - there has been a spate of doom-mongering about the effect on jobs. In every case business has adapted and shouldered their share of the cost of a decent retirement for their workers. I have no doubt this will continue. A few other measures passed through Parliament last week which will have a major impact on some vulnerable workers.
Truck drivers, particularly those on short-term contracts, do a dangerous and often poorly-paid job. There is huge pressure on them to work unpaid overtime or push themselves to the limit to meet unrealistic schedules. The Road Safety Remuneration Bill will put limits on hours and help improve safety. When I’m driving I want to know that the trucks in the lane next to me are being driven by someone who has had enough sleep to function.
Just as importantly, for truck drivers, the new laws provide a floor to their income, a guarantee of a rate of pay so they are not dangerously pushing themselves beyond the limit.
Clothing outworkers are some of the lowest paid, most powerless workers in our economy. Many are currently working 12-hour days, at as little as $5 per hour, sewing the clothes for high fashion labels. Their pay and conditions have been strengthened by the passage of the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill.
By providing better protection and improved entitlements for vulnerable workers, both these new laws are important steps on the way to secure jobs for all Australians. This is what we mean we talk about secure jobs - a decent wage, good conditions and protected rights at work. That doesn’t mean permanent employment, but it does mean security.
A final, crucial piece of legislation to pass through Parliament last week was the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. This hangover from WorkChoices was a shameful stain on Australia’s proud reputation as a country which respects the rights of unions and workers - especially the almost a million hard-working people in the building and construction industry who make a massive contribution to the national economy. While we would still like to see the coercive powers of the new regulator removed, the abolition of the ABCC removes a final vestige from John Howard’s unfair workplace laws.
Now, some of these new laws may not have satisfied the Press Gallery’s litmus test for a yarn, but they will make a real difference to real people. Real people like the people who transport the food to your supermarket, make the clothes you wear, and build the offices you work in. Real people with real concerns, who live a long way from the privileged corridors of Parliament House.
Political change is complicated, it’s often not as fast as the media would like, or as spectacular. That doesnt mean its not happening, or the efforts that people put in to create a better world won’t bear fruit. Media coverage of politics tends to under-estimate the intelligence of the average Australian, but over-estimate their knowledge of politics. It also has a bias in favour of stories with conflict and personalities, and against many of the stories that would give people information that is relevant to their lives.
The result is often superficial coverage of the horse-race element of politics and of who said what to whom when. No wonder people think it’s irrelevant to them and tune out.