Gordon Campbell On National's 'Failure To Communicate'

Gordon Campbell on the 90 day employment Bill of Wrongs

Any honeymoon the new government might have hoped to enjoy has been blown away by its pre-Christmas blitz on taxation, industrial relations, bail, and education issues. Bills have been put into urgency before they even had proper names, or before the drafting process on them had been finished. Debates were begun before MPs even had time to read the Bills they were discussing, let alone analyse them adequately, None of which has unduly bothered the NZ Herald, that fierce champion of due process when it came to the Electoral Finance Act.

The print media operating in the provincial heartland of the National Party have done a far better job. Out there, the new government’s trashing of proper parliamentary processes of scrutiny has not gone unnoticed. The Timaru Herald for instance, has plainly been upset by the way the 90 day “fire at will” bill was rammed though into law :

The one piece of legislation that does struggle to stand scrutiny relates to the proposed 90-day probation period for small businesses, meaning those with fewer than 20 employees could sack new staff without fear of a personal grievance during the 90-day period.

This is hardly a big issue, with no administrative reason for taking it under urgency, but rushing it through risks turning it into a big issue…. It does leave a taste of National looking after its business mates, even if they’re small business mates in this instance.
The only possible justification is that in a time of growing unemployment, it will enhance the chances of some who might otherwise have struggled getting a job and the opportunity to prove themselves, but one is left with the feeling National didn’t have to do this

.The Manawatu Standard was more forthright. Under a headline “Rushing labour bill an act of arrogance” the editorial began with a rush of pique, and then got progressively more annoyed as it tabulated the reasons for public outrage :

The National Party rose to power on the back of, among other things, scathing accusations that a supremely arrogant Labour party had “lost touch” with the people.

The criticisms were well-founded, or at least voters thought they were, and John Key rode a wave of disaffection to power.

How startlingly it is, then, for this new humble, inclusive government to decide to pass into law a 90-day probation period for new workers before Christmas, avoiding public hearings that would allow public discussion and debate.

The legislation, which would give small businesses the right to sack new staff without fear of a personal grievance, was not on the list of legislation National said during the election campaign it would pass in its first 100 days.

Mr Key also neglected to mention the proposed law when questioned on Monday about what would be included in the Government’s urgency motion before Christmas.

The Manawatu Standard then concluded with this :

That National would sell the policy as being driven by anything other than business interests further tarnishes the halo Mr Key has had hovering above his head since moving into the Beehive.

It is the kind of insult to the public’s intelligence that Helen Clark regularly made in her last years as prime minister.

If that sort of response is already being expressed among the provincial newspapers that were the cheerleaders for change during the election, then National should be concerned. For now though, there is little to stop it from having its way. The 90 day ‘fire at will’ bill is now the law of the land, despite a bit of conscience salving opposition from the Maori Party – who incidentally, had a terrible introduction this week to the lapdog role they have chosen for themselves, in return for a few parliamentary treats. Hone Harawira in particular, looks as though this role is going to take quite a psychological toll on him over the next three years.

True, in its time, the Clark government did take urgency and rush through legislation as well – yet not to this extent. Even the Electoral Finance Bill and the legislative framework for the Emissions Trading Scheme were sent to select committee for scrutiny, and public submissions. The current measures are not getting any democratic inputs at all – and as a result, even the parliamentarians seem unsure of the full meaning and potential impact of what they have done.

Take that 90 day industrial relations bill for instance. Have bosses in small businesses now been given greater license by the new legislation to sexually harass their young staff ? Nominally, the position is this : under 67B(2) of the new amendment Act an employee can be fired at will if the employer doesn’t feel things are working out. The person fired will still have the rights listed at 103 (1) of the Employement Relations Act to take action for sexual or racial harassment etc.

But what if the boss chooses to disguise the refusal to sexually comply as ‘things are just not working out? ‘ and fires the employee for holding out? At the very least, the person being harassed will now have a harder task, and be in a weaker position, from which to press a personal grievance case. Once utter license is given in one context, it is very hard to stop it from being used for other purposes.

Another point of concern is one raised by Green MP Sue Bradford in her speech on the Bill.

Namely, will the young person who takes a job in good faith, and yet is still fired at will because the employer decides for whatever reason that things didn’t work out – the range of employer whim is now extensive– then face a compulsory stand down period before they qualify for the dole ? The situation is unclear. In addition, Bradford also raises the stigmatising impact on job seekers of the ‘fire at will’ situation, in small towns or provincial cities with limited employment prospects :

Because of the lack of legal protection there will be no way for workers to clear their name if they have been dismissed for reasons they see as unfair or prejudicial.
And to add an even worse dimension to all this, workers who are dismissed during the first 90 days on the job will be subject to the 13 week stand down from Work and Income if Work and Income chooses to impose it.
In responding to media the other day the Minister Kate Wilkinson indicated that this new Bill differed from Wayne Mapp’s in a number of ways, including that it would remove the benefit stand down period for those who are let go during the 90 day period.
However, in the short time I’ve had to study this Bill I can see no sign of the amending clauses necessary to make this happen.

National has rammed through this legislation without proper scrutiny of its ripple effects. In doing so, the Key government is displaying in its first week in office, the arrogance that it took the Clark government two terms in office to germinate. Not a happy beginning.