Abbott's 'bad boss' comments do more harm than good


Abbott's 'bad boss' comments do more harm than good

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott has been forced to backtrack on comments he made about bad bosses doing 'more good than harm', and in the process has lost the impact of the actual IR message he was trying to put across to his audience.


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Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott has been forced to backtrack on comments he made about bad bosses doing 'more good than harm', and in the process has lost the impact of the actual IR message he was trying to put across to his audience.

Speaking yesterday at Workforce's enterprise bargaining conference in Sydney, Abbott wound up his comments by telling the audience while he knew there were 'plenty of bad bosses out there' that: 'If we're honest, most of us would accept that a bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband - notwithstanding his faults, you find that he tends to do more good than harm. He may be a bad boss but at least he's employing someone.'

Unions, Labor politicians and women's groups immediately took exception to the analogy. Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow denounced the comments as offensive to abuse victims in the home and workplace.

'Is Mr Abbott suggesting that bosses who sexually harass their staff, dud employees of their entitlements and ignore health and safety laws are really doing more good than harm?'

Federal Labor politicians Carmen Lawrence and Jenny Macklin also questioned whether Abbott expected people to stay in seriously dysfunctional families and workers to stay in their jobs at any cost, and ethics groups hopped on the bandwagon.

This morning, Abbott admitted in a radio interview that he was now 'probably back-pedalling slightly' and while there were a range of behaviours he was not condoning 'completely unforgivable' errors. 'I certainly don't want to cause any needless fuss and I don't believe in making unnecessary enemies,' he said.

Abbott had opened his comments by saying he felt like Moses coming down from the mountain with good and bad news: 'The good news is I've got it down to 10, the bad news is adultery's still in there.'

The good and the bad news

The 'good' news he actually addressed the conference on was the IR landscape after six years of a Howard Government, which he said had brought one million new jobs, 12% growth in wages in real terms, and greatly decreased strikes - 50 days lost per 1000 employees compared with 797 days lost in 1991.

The 'bad' news, Abbott said, was that 'ultra militant' unions had influence in key industries such as the automotive industry (see 173/2002), where three disputes over the past 10 months had cost $400 million in lost production and seen 30,000 workers stood down.

The construction industry was another case in point, he said, 'the last bastion of unreconstructed militancy', accounting for 25% of all strikes. He said some unions had become 'extremely good at using the courts to undermine the intention of the legislature', particularly when it came to the right to strike, what constituted a genuine industrial matter and genuine enterprise bargaining.

Abbott also said that while he was not saying either was 'good or bad', he felt the growth in casual employment and self-employment was being driven by the burdens on employers. It was this comment that ultimately led to his 'bad bosses' remark.

Behind the steel dispute

Shadow IR Minister Robert McClelland also addressed the conference, and took Abbott up on his car industry remarks. While admitting that it was 'fair to say there are elements that may cause problems' he said in terms of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union Holden executives had recently told him the union and workers had been vital to its success.

He said that with awards having been stripped back to only 20 allowable matters under s89a of the federal Workplace Relations Act, a lot had been taken away from workers. What was needed now was to devise a system which brought the workers on board and empowered them, he said.

McClelland said since becoming Shadow Minister he had visited many workplaces, including the BHP Steel plant at Hastings that was the centre of last month's dispute (see 154/2002), and could 'literally feel the intensity of [worker] resentment'.

Hastings had been identified in a 1989 report as being one of the most disadvantaged areas in Australia. 'Any dispute of such significance is regrettable, but you can't ignore the fact that the dispute was about job security,' he said. McClelland said that at the age of 44, he could empathise with workers who over the age of 45 would have great difficulty finding another job.

Workers there had a 'trench mentality' he said, because they had seen what had happened to their friends. One worker told him: 'Mate, the only reason I'm in this job is because they haven't figured out a way of getting rid of me.' The language of conflict would continue to drive or keep people in the trenches, he said, adding that he didn't understand why good faith bargaining provisions had been removed from the WR Act, and saying there needed to be a stronger role for an umpire.

McClelland said work done on empowering workers by both the Clinton administration in the US and the European Union showed a lesson for the BHP dispute - that consultation and information exchange should have happened before changes were implemented. 'That's the way our competitors are meeting the challenge - that's what we must do.'


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