Silent partner on the road to recovery

Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlines his recovery plans for Australia without a single mention of exports or China

26 May 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein (Image: Kristina Flour)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has addressed the National Press Club in Canberra, saying, “I’ve got good news. Today I want to talk about that recovery. Because that is what millions of Australians are now relying on.”

As a nation Australia exports more than A$400 billion in goods and services. Yet in a 35-minute speech – the text of which ran 4,700 words – the prime minister did not utter the word ‘export’ nor the name of Australia’s major trading partner ‘China’.

There were two oblique mentions of trade and then only two direct questions about China in the 30 minutes set aside for journalists to question the prime minister.

Whilst not too much can be read into his lack of China mentions in his one-hour appearance in front of the media, it signals that China relations remain a tough issue.

China was not on the agenda

In any major prime ministerial speech, the key issues are always flagged in advance and there is a polite agreement that journalists stick to the topic.

The key platform was a JobMaker scheme to promote greater resources being put into vocational training for tradespeople and skilled workers. That said, international trade accounts for one in every five Australian jobs.

In fairness to the prime minister, his speech was an announcement on employment and industrial relations.

It is understandable that trade with China was not on the agenda, however, as an economy highly reliant on trade, there’s an argument it should have been mentioned.

Equally there’s an argument that too much has been said in front of the Australian media about China; perhaps now it’s up to the diplomats and trade officials to talk.

A new industrial accord

The big announcement to come out of the Prime Minister’s speech was the government’s decision to drop its controversial “Ensuring Integrity Bill” which would have given the courts powers to deregister unions and ban officials from holding offices within unions.

That bill was rejected in the Senate last November by just one vote, with the government vowing to pursue the legislation. Now it will abandon the policy in hopes of reaching compromise amongst both unions and employers for the tough times ahead.    

This has been a very controversial policy with neither side of politics, or the union movement, willing to shift its position. In the “new normal” of the coronavirus world, the prime minister says, “It is not beyond Australians to put aside differences to find cooperative solutions to specific problems, especially at a time like this.”

“The extent of the damage wrought by Covid-19 on the Australian economy, and the enormity of the challenge we now face to get Australians back into jobs, means the policy priorities for recovery will be different to those in place before this crisis.”

Stakeholders on board

Prime Minister Morrison confirmed he’d spoken to industry stakeholders prior to the announcement. They’ve given it support, the Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox saying, “A more flexible and productive workplace relations system can be achieved, without compromising fairness.”

Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott says there’s room for less red tape and higher wages in future employment agreements. While the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) secretary Sally McManus says she is, “glad to see the 20-year ritual of union-bashing stop”.

Considering the Industry Group and Business Council have a raft of multinationals and export-reliant corporate members, it would be reasonable to assume some of them would be also be holding out for some good news on the China trade front.

If there’s a trade lesson to be learned from this initiative it might be: consulting key stakeholders before making major announcements is always a good idea.