Making the boat go faster: focus on what we have in common – negotiation, compromise and cooperation

Some may have missed the PM’s use this week of the term ‘doing whatever it takes to make the boat go faster’ – a reference to the un-relenting focus of the New Zealand America’s Cup yachting team in 2000, on their goal of defending their hold on the Cup.

United and focused – as employers, employees and governments have been since commencement of this crisis. Arguably, we’ve seen decades of reform in a matter of weeks, based on the twin mutually held objectives of doing what we can to protect lives and livelihoods.

But can we keep it up? Or will we fall back into our corners and self-interested positions?

The answer will depend on how we answer three key questions:

  1. Do we have ongoing shared objectives?
  2. Can we continue to build trust in each other? And
  3. Are we able to respect each other’s position – perhaps a focus on optimising outcomes, not maximising individual interests?

How have we approached these questions historically?

As a nation, we have cycled through periods of great cooperation and progress, as well as periods of great conflict and hardship.

We were confronted with the bloody battles fought at Ballarat between gold miners and armed forces over protests about unfair laws.

In the grand nation building times in the mid-nineteenth century, we managed some of the highest standards of living in the world, high productivity along with world leading innovation in agriculture. Late in that century however, we also managed one of the country’s greatest confrontations between organised labour and employers, when during the great Shearers strike, the machinery of government was turned against striking workers.

We entered nationhood in the early twentieth century with memories of these battles still fresh and ensured that our constitution granted the Commonwealth Government a power to legislate to resolve industrial disputes between employers and employees, leading to the creation of the first employment tribunal, now known as the Fair Work Commission – tribunals that have over the last 100 years or so, largely struck the right note when looking to get the balance right between the interests of employers and employees.

And 37 years ago we saw the Hawke Government and trade union movement enter into a compact that saw unions refrain from seeking wage increases in exchange for social reform – from Medicare to superannuation. These critical reforms, secured through constructive negotiation and compromise, have made a positive contribution to our quality of life today.

However during the early years of the twenty-first century, we began to lose our ability to maintain this balance and spirit of cooperation, as we’ve argued about job insecurity on the one hand and insufficient flexibility for some workplaces on the other.

So, what about those three key questions?

Firstly, our shared objective can hardly be clearer – a razor sharp focus on creating jobs and rebuilding our economy. Creating great jobs and great businesses.

Secondly, what builds trust? Well, having a bit of it to begin with is a great start! But the faith that has been demonstrated in recent weeks that ‘the other side’ isn’t out to get me, but is instead focused on our shared interests, is critical.

And the last key question? The PM this week gave us a hint. Focus on what we have in common – negotiation, compromise and cooperation, not tribalism, conflict and rigid ideological positions.

In making this point, he went on to set some of the nation’s best industrial relations practitioners some key challenges to resolve that provide a great joint project to make our IR system fit for the post COVID crisis economy:

  • Simplify awards;
  • Improve enterprise agreement making;
  • Find a way to ensure casual and fixed term employment arrangements meet employee and employer needs.
  • Make sure the employment rules are clear and ensure we keep to them.
  • Make sure that if we have rules in place they are complied with. That should also involve at those rules to test if they are fit for purpose given the challenges that confront us.

The COVID-19 crisis represents a re-set in so many ways – in how we live, in how we work and in how we share the task of building a more resilient and sustainable economy and sharing the benefits equitably.


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