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The jobs summit could go one of two ways: Hawke or Rudd

Albanese told the National Press Club on July 1 last year that his proposed summit would fuel the development of a “full employment white paper” with the aim of reducing both unemployment and underemployment.

Business leaders are already saying privately that the summit cannot afford to drift into a battle of competing wishlists.

The goalposts may have shifted slightly since, in that headline unemployment, at 3.5 per cent, is hardly a crisis, but the problems it masks such as skills and labor shortages, insecure work, flat (but growing) wages and low productivity still linger.

In that sense, the summit is worth having. So long as it achieves something.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers said somewhat pointedly this week that he was determined it would not be just a “talkfest” and, in all reality, given his political prudence and that of Albanese, he probably already knows what he will announce at the end of it.

Chalmers wants ideas for the October 25 budget (most likely migration measures to address the immediate labor crisis), as well as more durable policies to feed into the white paper that will help develop an agenda for the 2025 election.

Still, he will need to corral the exercise because consensus is invaluable.

Business leaders are already saying privately that the summit cannot afford to drift into a battle of competing wishlists and arrive at nothing. It needs to generate a consensus around fixing the industrial relations system and the skills and labor crises, the two most pressing issues.

Some are advocating that the summit gets straight down to business on day one and that pleasantries such as giving everyone the opportunity to make opening statements, be dispensed with.

Consensus over unanimity

Chalmers agrees it has to be kept tight. This week he donged on the head, albeit politely, a rather radical, 1970s-style list of inflation cures to be proposed by the ACTU.

He was also smart enough to declare in advance that a “general consensus” about “the directions we need to take” will be endorsement enough. That’s because unanimous support for anything will be impossible given the range of views held by the 100 invitees representing unions, business, the states, community groups and so forth.

Even so, Labor knows first-hand that a consensus may not be enough.

The last meaningful attempt at solving the very industrial relations problems the jobs summit will examine was in May 2020.

Scott Morrison called together the ACTU, business and employer groups to fix five areas of IR which all parties agreed were broken or warranted examination – award simplification, the enterprise bargaining system, casuals and fixed-term employees, compliance and enforcement to ensure people are paid properly, and the establishment of greenfields agreements.

Morrison, who upset the Liberal establishment by engaging with the ACTU, said all sides, including his own, were to blame for the IR impasses of the past.

“It is a system that has to date retreated to tribalism, conflict and ideological posturing,” he said.

“No side of that debate has been immune from those maladies.

“I think everybody’s got to put their weapons down on this.”

He, too, went for consensus rather than unanimity and at the end of six months of meetings, which even achieved agreement in key areas between the ACTU and the Business Council of Australia, an omnibus bill was presented to Parliament.

Not everyone would get what they wanted, the government said, but it was prepared to be flexible in negotiations to ensure as much of the bill as possible passed.

Instead, Labor, seeking relevance because of the pandemic, came back from the Christmas holidays opting to oppose the entire bill, even the bits it supported, on the basis that the bill did not reflect the outcome of the discussions.

It embarked on a faux Workchoices campaign and Morrison responded in kind. To the chagrin of conservatives, he junked the whole bill rather than fight.

The Coalition has not forgotten this episode and this week, Peter Dutton gave notice that he was not going to facilitate the jobs summit.

He knocked back his invitation, claiming the summit would be a “stunt” and a “talkfest” with the aim of enshrining the trade union agenda.

Degree of suspicion

Chalmers’ swift dismissal this week of the ACTU’s proposals suggests that’s not entirely the case, but in terms of fostering goodwill with business and conservatives, Labor’s haste in fulfilling its promises to the union movement since the election has created a degree of suspicion.

The most egregious was the expedited abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the building code it administers, a move which is a standing demand of the CFMEU.

Given the reputation of the CFMEU, it was a strange signal to send business in the lead-up to the summit, more so given one of Albanese’s first acts as Labor leader in 2019 was to expel John Setka from the ALP.

Setka has recently taken control of the South Australian division of the union and this week, Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas ordered the state branch of the party to return a $125,000 CFMEU donation after some cars belonging to the Master Builders Association were vandalized and had CFMEU stickers placed is them.

This created an awkward moment for Albanese when Dutton demanded he follow the example of Malinauskas and stop taking CFMEU money and keep the ABCC.

Albanese will do neither, but it gives Dutton the excuse not to attend the summit with people whom he described as “grubs and thugs”. More importantly, it makes the prospect of a parliamentary consensus – the one that really matters – less likely, if and when any agreed IR changes are put in legislation.

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