Australia is caught in a bizarre warp at the moment. We have a national election in September and the incumbent Labor Party is heading for obliteration with the Party conducting an internal power struggle that defies description. The Prime Minister is deeply unpopular and is being poorly advised (as evidenced by the sequence of strategic disasters). The politician she deposed as PM is popular with the people but hated internally and he also proved to be a policy disaster. The current PM should step down to limit the electoral damage that will be wrought on the Party in September (that is, save some seats) but she won’t and the other character won’t challenge because he is behaving as the wrecking ball – bitter, revengeful and, most significantly without sufficient support (just). Its a tragic comedy of epic proportions. The Opposition is gliding into power without coherent policies and will reinstate the agenda it pursued when last in power (1996-2007), which means attacks on welfare and unions and handouts to the rich. Anticipating the change are the employer groups which are increasingly claiming they are being disadvantaged by excessive wage outcomes in Australia. Same old. It doesn’t help when the media produce headlines such as “Labour cost growth hits business hard”, which are not sustained by any coherent analysis that follows. It is a bizarre time.
The Fair Work Commission, the Federal body entrusted with the task of determining Australia’s minimum wage handed down its – 2012-13 decision – today. The news was not good for more than 1.5 million workers (out of some 11.6 million) who are reliant on award wages in Australia (that is, low-paid workers). These workers are typically found in the retail sector, personal care services, hospitality, cleaning services and unskilled labouring. They already earn a pittance and endure poor working conditions. The FWC gave the lowest paid workers an extra $15.80 per week (a rise of just over 2.6 per cent), which will at best maintain the current real minimum wage but denies this cohort access to the fairly robust national productivity growth that has occurred over the last two years. The decision also widens the gap between the low paid workers and other wage and salary recipients. The real story though is that today’s minimum wage outcome is another casualty of the fiscal austerity that the Federal Government has imposed on the nation which is destroying jobs and impacting disproportionately on low-paid workers. The FWC cited rising unemployment as a reason for its mean pay rise.
On Friday (June 3, 2011) Fair Work Australia which is the body that formally sets the minimum wage in Australia handed down its Annual Wage Review 2010-11 decision. The Minimum Wage Panel of FWA released its second Annual Wage Review under the Fair Work Act 2009 and awarded minimum wage workers an additional $19.40 per week which amounted to a 3.5 per cent rise. With inflation running around the same rate or higher, the decision fails to provide for a real wage increase especially given productivity growth is running at around 1.5 per cent at present. The decision will apply over from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012. The decision further cements the real wage losses that low-paid workers have endured over the decade and is not sufficient to arrest the deterioration of low-pay outcomes relative to average earnings in the economy.
Today I have been working with various datasets (labour costs, long-term unemployment) and this blog provides some interesting aspects of what is going on at present. The blog should also be seen in the context of a speech made yesterday by the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), Ric Battellino (a NAIRU devotee) to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in Perth. His presentation was intending to justify the interest rate hikes that the RBA has been pursuing this year. He continued to assert the RBA line that the Australian economy is running out of spare capacity and so interest rate hikes are necessary. This is in the context of a sharp rise in the exchange rate which is deflationary, actual falls in the inflation rate (and well within their “target band”), more than 12.5 per cent of available labour resources remaining idle and long-term unemployment rising because employment growth can barely keep pace with labour force growth. Macroeconomic policy in Australia is severely distorted at the moment because of the dominance of monetary policy and the obsessions about budget surpluses. In summary, the NAIRU mantra is preventing good macroeconomic policy and the growing pool of long-term unemployed are carrying the burden more than most.
There is an election campaign upon us in Australia now and one of the themes the government is developing by way of garnering credit for its policies is that Australia is operating at near full employment thanks to their economic policy framework. Nothing could be further from the truth – both that we are close to full employment and that their policy framework is moving us towards full employment. But this claim, which is repeated often these days and was a catchcry of the former conservative government as well, is a testament as to how successful the neo-liberal orthodoxy has perverted the meaning of signficant concepts (like full employment) and convinced the community that you can be near full employment and therefore there is no real problem to address when you have at least 12.2 per cent of your willing labour resources being wasted. It continually amazes me.
Today, Fair Work Australia, the new body that the incoming Labor government set up to replace the Fair Pay Commission, which the conservatives had crafted to cut real wages, released its first decision. The Minimum Wage Panel of FWA released its first Annual Wage Review under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Fair Work Act) and awarded minimum wage workers an additional $26 per week which amounted to a 4.8 per cent rise. With inflation running around 2.9, the decision provides for a real wage increase barely in line with productivity growth. The decision will apply over from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. The decision does little to restore the real wage losses that low-paid workers have endured over the decade is it sufficient to restore the deterioration of low-pay outcomes relative to average earnings in the economy.
Today the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Labour Price Index, Australia data for the March 2010 quarter and it shows that we are back on the path to suppressing real wages growth while productivity growth has picked up strongly. The ABS results show that the annualised growth to March 2010 was 2.9 per cent which was steady but down on the higher growth achieved during the expansion. This is barely keeping pace with inflation and well below labour productivity growth. In recent months, I have noted that commentators are increasing claiming that a wages breakout will lead to an inflation breakout unless the government quickly tightens fiscal policy. Today’s data provides more evidence that this argument is flawed and reflects ideological fervour rather than being grounded in the facts. Today, we also heard the speech made at the National Press Club by the Opposition Shadow Treasurer in response to last week’s Government’s budget. The conclusion from my analysis of that speech: there is no political choice in Australia. All the parties are lost in deficit hysteria and the rest of us will endure the costs.