Fire at will - again!

The lines are drawn. Labour attacks National’s “outrageous arrogance” in ramming through an Employment Probation Bill introduced – in 2006. The old ritual begins once more.

At first, it seemed like Phil Goff was suffering a short-term memory lapse.

The new Opposition leader opened his address in reply to the speech from the Throne with a long recital of government promises – National-led government promises.

  • Close the wage gap with Australia
  • Reduce serious crime
  • Cut waiting times for elective surgery
  • 20 new operating theatres
  • Lower greenhouse gas emissions
  • Increase investment in infrastructure
  • A police officer for every 500 people…

Wow! But there’s more!

The Labour-led Coalition, Goff said, has left the economy well placed to survive the international crisis – and, implicitly, the new Government well placed to deliver those bold promises. That brought the House down.

When the laughter subsided, Goff got serious. His opposition is going to hold the new Government to account for delivering its promises – except the ones that Labour opposes.

Most specifically, Labour opposes National’s plan to pass legislation under urgency providing for employer-employee agreements on a 90-day trial period for new employees in businesses with fewer than 20 staff.

Goff tried to represent the new employees’ probation provision as a sneaky bolt out of the blue, pointing out that it had not been mentioned in the Speech from the Throne, or National’s First 100 Days plan.

The public has been “blindsided”, he huffed, and the people should have their say on a piece of law that removes basic rights and will be rammed through Parliament with no opportunity for public input.

“This 90-day hire and fire bill will place even more stress on workers at a time of rising unemployment and uncertainty,” he puffed.

Goff’s themes are echoed in a series of supporting statements from trade union leaders.

“The National-Act Government’s move to take rights from vulnerable workers by ramming through its fire at will policy under urgency is a betrayal of working Kiwis,” choruses Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union national secretary [and Labour Party president-designate] Andrew Little.

Other critical comments have come from the Council of Trade Unions, Finsec [the bank workers’ union], the New Zealand Educational Institute and the Tertiary Education Union.

In fact, National’s new employee probation provision comes as no surprise at all.

During the last election campaign, it was the first item on National’s labour policy agenda, and the policy was based on a private member’s bill considered [and rejected] by Parliament’s Transport and Industrial Relations Committee in 2006.

The reasoning behind National’s decision not to take its new employee probation legislation through the select committee process is that has been through it already, and the flaws that were identified then have subsequently been addressed.

The 90-day work trial process is implemented by agreement between an employer and the new employee. Good faith provisions of the Employment Act and rules of natural justice and human rights legislation will all continue to apply. Mediation will be available in disputes. Employers will not be able to hire and fire the same employee every 90 days.

Furthermore, this is not an unprecedented change. New Zealand and Denmark are the only nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development not to have a new employee probation provision.

The introduction of the change under urgency should also be no surprise – given the current level of economic uncertainty, the longer term projections for rising unemployment, and the significant decline in hiring intentions among New Zealand businesses as we go into the New Year when new workforce entrants are looking for jobs.

Having the probation provision in place by April – at the time when the tax cuts that are currently being addressed by Parliament under urgency also come into effect – makes sense in terms of confidence building.

Goff’s declaration of war on National’s probation plan needs to be seen for what it is – a signal of Labour’s intent to realign itself with its traditional worker-union support base, more than a principled statement of opposition to any inequity in the new employee probation provision.

He has obviously read the depressing details of the election results in South Auckland – the Labour-voting fortress that delivered his predecessor’s skin-thin victory in 2005. In 2008, the fortress locked Labour out.

This is a time for Goff-led Labour to dust off the old Workers’ Flag and fire at will – again.