The Guardian 21 September, 2005

The bush gets
a taste of Howard’s flexibility

The Federal Government has delivered the bush its first taste of workplace flexibility, paying regional focus group participants half the amount it gives those in the city. Howard Government representatives paid Melbourne residents $100 for commenting on TV ads designed to shore up their faltering workplace campaign, but slashed the handout to $50 in regional NSW.

Participants said the $20 million ad campaign, designed to promote secret individual contracts, unfair sackings and award stripping, was short on specifics.

"They went down like a lead balloon", one focus group member said of the 12 advertising concepts. "People didn’t think they were factual."

Participants in the focus groups were asked to fill out forms giving their views on Canberra’s workplace agenda. They were then subjected to 12 different presentations, via story boards, and asked to comment.

They revealed the government intend to hammer patriotism, under a theme of "Australia we have an opportunity". And they will continue to run arguments that have been discredited by independent research.

The tag line on all presentations will build on the Prime Minister’s higher real wages furphy.

Howard claims real Australian wages have increased by 14 percent since he took office in 1996. Analysis by labour market specialists at Sydney University revealed that figure was nonsense, built on massive increases for the high paid, including business executives and politicians.

After their hikes were subtracted, it was revealed that the real figure was 3.6 percent and that fell with every move down the income scale.

Another ad will say unfair dismissal rights cost the Australian economy $1.3 billion a year.

The figure comes from the same "study" Howard used to claim that denying Australians the right to challenge unfair sackings would deliver another 77,000 jobs.

It was based on a survey of managers’ "opinions" and was undermined by a three-year Australian Research Council-funded study into what 1800 small and medium sized businesses actually did.

It showed the Howard claims was exaggerated by nearly 1300 percent.

Focus group members reported that widespread opposition to the Howard agenda delivered at least one concession, with a pledge to guarantee at least 10 sick days a year.

TV ads are being produced to deal with specific fears over entitlements and unfair dismissal. There will be an over-arching "opportunity" production and a series of "stories" about people who allegedly benefit from AWAs.

One, participants said, featured removalists who worked longer daily hours in return for extra time off but didn’t qualify for overtime until they had worked a 50-hour week.

It would seem to call into doubt Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews’ assurance, that he will enshrine a 38-hour week in legislation.

The Government faces a High Court challenge to the validity of its taxpayer-funded advertising campaign.

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