Features Australia

Albo’s hike along the Appalachian Trail

Labor jettisons the heavy baggage

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

One of my favourite authors is Bill Bryson and one of my favourite books is A Walk in the Woods.  It tells the story of Bryson and his high school buddy, Katz, walking part of the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson hadn’t actually seen Katz for many years and when they meet up, Katz is twice the size he was in high school and has assembled a dizzying array of paraphernalia to take on the trek, including a very large box of doughnuts.

As they commence their journey, Katz quickly realises that he is overloaded and starts to hurl various items off the path to lighten his load.

I was reminded of this story by recent efforts of the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, to jettison as much as possible from Bill Shorten’s policy platform that led the Labor party to electoral defeat in 2019.

Gone is the policy to abolish cash refunds for excess franking credits; gone is the halving of the discount in the capital gains tax; and gone is the decision to eliminate negative gearing.

We’re not sure whether Labor will ditch the 30 per cent minimum tax on discretionary trust beneficiaries or whether the 2 percentage point increase in the top marginal income tax rate will stay. But, like Katz, there’s still plenty of scope for Albo to lighten the backpack.

But here’s the thing: what’s left for Albo to campaign on? Given that no one seems to care much about government debt or budget deficits these days, including the Morrison government, it makes sense for Labor to scrap all those complicated policies to impose higher taxes on the people least likely to vote Labor.

Weirdly, it’s been reported that Albo is directing shadow ministers to come up with savings to cover any ambitious spending plans. My guess is that this rumour was deliberately fed to some sympathetic media figures but we’re unlikely to see any evidence of this commitment in practice.

So what will Albo be able to offer up to entice enough swinging voters to vote for Labor (or the Greens, then preferencing Labor) at the next election?

He thinks he’s on to a winner by highlighting the supposed insecurity of employment and creating a Job Security Plan. Don’t you just love it? Let’s impose a series of new regulations and restrictions and jobs will magically become secure.

Don’t worry about the need for employers to make a buck. Just make job security an object of the Fair Work Act and jobs will instantly become permanent. Or will they?

Of course, Albo doesn’t worry about the facts when it comes to formulating policy. The reality is that casual jobs make up around 20 per cent of the total workforce and have done so for over two decades. And the ‘gig economy’ – the term refers to businesses hiring independent contractors, freelancers, and short-term workers to perform individual tasks, or ‘gigs’ – which concerns Albo and his union mates a great deal, is actually tiny, with fewer than 10 per cent of participants relying on gig employment as their main source of income. The facts that recently arrived migrants are overrepresented in this sector and it is a relatively easy way for them to enter the workforce are pieces of information Albo would prefer to ignore.

Most media commentators are also wilfully ignorant on these issues even though they tend to have first-hand knowledge of freelance work in their sector. It’s also basically impossible to put permanent employment and print media in the same sentence.

Former ABC radio presenter and now Nine Entertainment columnist, Jon Faine, displayed his lack of knowledge on these matters recently. He loudly applauded a recent UK court decision to provide some employee-like benefits to gig economy workers without realising that UK law has been contaminated by European concepts of independent contractors as sort of employees, something that Ken Phillips recently outlined in this magazine.

Rather than the UK decision having any implications for Australia, the reverse is true with the common law definition of independent contractors in Australia having been confirmed by both the Fair Work Commission and Fair Work Ombudsman. By and large, it’s the Australian Taxation Office that determines the employment status of workers, not some woke judge or bureaucrat.

But Albo is clearly attracted to the fanciful notion that gig workers, including ones who work across several platforms, can easily be made employees. These workers should be entitled to minimum wages and other benefits in Labor’s wonderland and there is no risk that the platforms would simply cease to operate in Australia as was the case with Foodara, a food delivery platform.

Check out the words: ‘extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include “employee-like” forms of work, allowing it to better protect people in new forms of work, like app-based gig work, from exploitation and dangerous working conditions’.

How this could actually work hasn’t been determined by Albo and his hapless shadow industrial relations minister, Tony Burke.  Their reply is that the policy will be ‘subject to consultation’.

Talking of consultation, another brain snap was Labor’s idea to make the entitlements of casual workers portable by setting up funds to manage payments made by employers on behalf of their workers.

What isn’t clear is whether casual workers would be expected to give up their 25 per cent wage premium – ACTU secretary, Sally McManus thinks so – in exchange for this scheme.  This is likely to be as popular as tripe with casual workers.

Sensing that the Job Security Plan hasn’t achieved the voter cut-through Albo was seeking, he has flicked the switch to base politics by throwing his weight behind some ill-defined independent inquiry – because the police are not independent? – to investigate the historic rape allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter.

‘The presumption of innocence is a critical part of our legal system. But now that the existing legal processes have been unable to proceed, certainly in terms of the New South Wales police, I think people will be looking for further responses,’ he declared while revealing his complete lack of understanding of the principles involved.

Mind you, should an ill-defined independent inquiry also have to deal with the allegations about former opposition leader, Bill Shorten – the police failed to lay charges in this case as well – would Albo really care?

His position as leader would perhaps be less precarious without Shorten breathing down his neck.

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