At the time, many of these “reforms” seemed sensible. What we didn’t realise then was the way globalisation (“Why don’t I move my factory to Asia where wages are lower?”) and the digital revolution (“Why employ a worker when you can farm stuff out to some unknown slave on the internet?”) would undercut the unions without any help from reforming legislators.

The result is, unions are now a shadow of their former selves, clinging to their role in industry super funds to keep themselves relevant. The proportion of workers who belong to unions has gone from half to 15 per cent and falling.

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On the other hand, one unintended consequence of the now-ended era of neoliberalism has been to convince our manager class they have a divine right to be given whatever they think necessary to their greater success.

Which brings us to the latest batch of “reforms” being proposed by Scott Morrison and his Attorney-General, the misleadingly advertised Christian Porter. With Parliament now off on Christmas holidays, the much-debated bill has gone to a parliamentary committee, and won’t resurface until March.

If you listen to some people, the proposed reforms are nothing more than an employers’ wish list. Fortunately, they’re not that bad. With one notable exception, the changes are the product of Porter’s extensive joint discussions with the unions and employer groups.

No Liberal government is capable of doing other than making changes that lean in favour of the employers, but the measures are the result of those discussions – so no surprise to the unions – and include some wins for the union side.

Illustration: Letch

Illustration: LetchCredit:SMH

The big, undiscussed surprise is the plan to suspend – temporarily, of course; take my word for it – the requirement that enterprise agreements leave workers “better off overall” despite any reduction in particular benefits.

The unions aren’t buying that one. But, in any case, Porter has already signalled his willingness to drop it. This is no WorkChoices 2.0. The Libs are still smarting over the real WorkChoices’ role in the Howard government’s defeat in 2007. Whatever else he may be, Morrison is no crazy brave when it comes to pushing through controversial economic reforms.

No, the other changes are more modest and less objectionable. One is to include in the legislation the first-ever (weak) definition of what it means to be a “casual”. Another is a sunset provision to kill off enterprise agreements that are decades old and out of date.

Truth is, the changes we need to our labour laws are much more sweeping. Although you need to dip deep into the official statistics to find evidence, the unions and labour economists are right to say we have a growing problem with precarious employment, of which the “gig economy” is just the tip.

Outfits such as Uber are a strange combination of highly beneficial innovation (a more efficient way of bringing riders and drivers together) and an arrogant attempt to sidestep the labour laws that give much-needed protection to employees (and the taxman).

Then there’s the proliferation of franchising and labour hire companies. And the epidemic of wage theft – prompted by business people’s belief that, whatever some law may say, as God’s gift to the economy they are protected from prosecution.

I think we’re getting muddled between means and ends. The business proposition is: if only you’ll let me give my workers a hard time, my business will be more successful and everyone will benefit. If only you’ll accept an insecure job with hours that change from one week to the next according to my needs, the economy will be much better off.

But if you take the workers and their dependents out of the economy, you don’t have much left. People rightly crave job security. Make their working lives a misery and a pay rise is poor consolation. (And right now, of course, we can’t afford the pay rise either.)

We’re getting the horse before the cart, turning the people who are supposed to be the chief beneficiaries of a good economy into the people who, we’re told, must suffer to bring the good economy about. That’s what needs reform.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

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