Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Productivity Commission and the Waterfront Dispute: A Cautionary Tale

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Productivity Commission and the Waterfront Dispute: A Cautionary Tale

Article excerpt

'No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other', wrote Hannah Arendt (1977: 227) in a famous essay, 'and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues'. Arendt's words remind us that the tension between veracity and politics was not created by the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. On the contrary, as Arendt observed in tracing the tension from antiquity, the relationship is so fraught, and has been so widely acknowledged as fraught, that the political realm 'has recognised that it has a stake in the existence of men and institutions over which it has no power' (p. 261). Arendt cited the judiciary and universities as examples of institutions that were 'established and supported by the powers that be, in which, contrary to all political rules, truth and truthfulness have always constituted the highest criterion of speech and endeavour' (p. 260). These places are refuges from political power, where unwelcome decisions can be handed down and unwelcome truths can emerge. Implicitly, Arendt would have also included the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), for she recognised that, if the media belonged to government, 'it would have to be protected against government power and social pressure even more carefully than the judiciary' (p. 261).

The question pursued in this article is whether the Productivity Commission can be placed in this company. Can it be fairly described as independent of executive government, as outside the political realm? Questioning the commission's independence is inherently controversial for, according to the commission itself, there is no question. Its website states that 'The Productivity Commission is the Australian Government's independent research and advisory body on a range of economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians', and that statement appears in all its reports. Its (PC, 2003: 1) in-house history lists 'independence' as the first of three embodied principles that make it 'unusual, if not unique, among public sector institutions around the world' (the other two being 'transparency' and a 'community-wide focus'). Officially, the executive can tell the Productivity Commission what to advise on, 'but not what to say' (Argy, 2000: 119; see also Banks, 2011; Harris, 2013).

The issue warrants critical analysis because of the cachet that the perception of independence carries in public debate. The effect is illustrated by the recent inquiry into Australia's labour laws, which paved the way for this year's decision by the Fair Work Commission to reduce penalty pay rates on Sundays and public holidays for retail and hospitality workers. In May 2013, the then opposition Liberal-National Party (LNP) announced a pre-election promise to conduct 'an independent review by the respected Productivity Commission' (Liberal Party, 2013). In explaining the review process, the keyword reappeared in three of the first four sentences:

   The Productivity Commission is independent and has previously
   conducted reviews, such as in relation to the [National Disability
   Insurance Scheme], that have been adopted by Labor. This will be an
   important development and everyone will be given an opportunity to
   have a say. The review will give independent consideration to the
   problems raised by business and workers. These will be analysed in
   an independent and impartial way (p. 13; emphasis added).

Following the LNP's victory in the federal election of September 2013, the terms of reference were released in December 2014, describing the review as 'an opportunity for independent consideration' (Abetz and Hockey, 2014). 'The verdict of an impartial analyst such as the Productivity Commission', editorialised the Sydney Morning Herald (2015), 'will be valuable when future policy is formulated.' When the Labor opposition leader, Bill Shorten (2015), warned that the aim was to cut pay and conditions, a journalist fired back: 'So are you saying that the independence of the Productivity Commission isn't independent of the Government? …

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