Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger risks straining his relationship even further with his old party now he has agreed to chair a Labour Government Committee Committee looking at industrial relations law changes.
Bolger himself recognised the sensitivity of the appointment and briefed National Leader Simon Bridges before it was publicly announced.
Nevertheless, Bridges has been highly critical of Labour’s proposal to set up the Bolger Committee which has been charged with developing the way in which fair pay agreements will work.
The agreements were proposed by Labour in opposition, and its election manifesto said they would “set fair, basic employment conditions across an industry based on the employment standards that apply in that industry.”
The manifesto says: “Fair pay agreements will cover all employees and workplaces within the relevant industry.
“Negotiations on fair pay agreements will begin once a sufficient percentage of employers or employees within an industry call for one.
“This threshold and the precise implementation of Fair pay agreements will be developed in government in consultation with all stakeholders.”
Bridges has called Labour’s proposal a return to “1970s-style union-dominated collective bargaining”.
But, told of Bridges’ comments, Bolger said we should “just take some things as a bit of political grandstanding.”
What surprises Bolgers’ former colleagues is that when National was developing the employment contracts act, which effectively ended collective bargaining and industry-wide agreements such as the proposed fair pay agreements, Bolger was considered to be a hardliner.
The chair of the Select Committee which dealt with the legislation at the time, Max Bradford, said Bolger, Finance Minister Ruth Richardson and Labour Minister Bill Birch wanted an even more hardline act than what Parliament eventually passed.
“Birch and Bolger and Richardson wanted to impose things which I didn’t think would ever work,” Bradford told POLITIK.
“For example, they wanted a requirement that all disagreements between the parties had to go through the district courts rather than through a separate employment court.
“They wanted all personal grievances to be settled in a district court.
“The Select Committee said no, those proposals wouldn’t work, so we kept the employment court, and we ended up with a much softer version of what they were looking for which was a very hard-edged idea that industrial relations issues are just contract law issues.”
Bolger had also had Parliament pass a voluntary unionism law in 1984 which was subsequently repealed by the Lange Government.
So why has Bolger changed his views?
For a start, he says he primarily saw the Employment Contracts Act as a way of avoiding the large-scale industrial disputes which had dominated his time as Labour Minister in the 1970s.
Bradford concedes those disputes had had a powerful effect on Bolger.
“Most of my time as Minister of Labour was resolving disputes between employers and employees,” Bolger told POLITIK.
“I wanted to make certain that we changed all that and we did.
“And we’ve virtually been without strikes since the Act happened.
“But what is happening now is that more groups feel they have been unfairly treated; their contribution not sufficiently appreciated in the wage packet.
“We’ve had more possible strikes proposed than we have had for a decade or more.
“We can sit back and let our political scene go the way many Europeans have gone where the far right or the far left take over or we can step up and analyse this with considerable care, which the panel will do, and then suggest what remedies might be available.”
But strikes will not be a feature of fairy pay agreements.
The terms of reference for Bolger’s Committee say that “Industrial action is not permitted as part of bargaining over a Fair Pay Agreement.”
Bradford sees dangers in this.
“It sounds to me like the re-establishment of the old conciliation service which was really the Government sending in arbitrators and mediators to keep the warring parties apart.”
The possible re-introduction of compulsory arbitration worries employer groups, most of whom have close links with the National Party, and are unlikely to be impressed with Bolger playing a pivotal role in crafting the legislation.
The largest of the employer organisations, the Auckland-based EMA, is chaired by Andrew Hunt who also chairs the Auckland region of the National Party.
Hunt has already been lobbying caucus members over Labour’s proposed industrial law changes.
Scott Simpson, National’s workplace relaitons spokesperson, gave a taste of the way the party and caucus regard Labour’s prposals in a statement yesterday afternoon.
“Today’s announcement by Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway sends a chilling message to employers and exporters that competition will be sacrificed in order to advantage unions,” he said.
“The Government fails to explain why these changes are needed.
“In an environment of record job growth, they make no sense for the New Zealand economy, employers, or the 82 per cent of workers who do not belong to a union.
“This appears to be a simple payoff for Labour’s union supporters at the expense of everyone else.”
National have tolerated Bolger’s previous dealings with the Clark Government who made him chair of both Kiwirail and NZ Post and his comments on the failure of neo-liberalism were shrugged off last year by then-leader Bill English.
But this time he is playing an active part in developing a Labour policy which strikes at the heart of National’s core beliefs.
The caucus and party are unlikely to be quite so forgiving this time around.