Trade union participation in public policy-making: the rise and demise of Australia's national retirement income regime


Australia's Federal Labor Government was elected in 1983 on a social democratic platform, promising Swedish and West German style social and industrial reforms. New relations developed between government and unions in which the latter became an increasingly powerful participant in neo-corporatist arrangements. Through reform of the national retirement income regime, unions gained new power together with some control of large occupational superannuation funds, occasioning a major shift in the ownership of capital in Australia. These are unique developments in this country's history with far-reaching political, economic and social consequences. Empirical research undertaken during the progress of these changes, and the researcher's own professional involvement in the field, provide the basis for this first detailed sociological analysis of both the social forces and political dimensions involved, and of the resultant re-alignments of social power and political authority in contemporary Australian society. Three propositions were explored — direct union participation in public policy-making benefits the wage-dependent; union participation in neo-corporatist arrangements socialises the processes of national economic planning and public policy-making; incorporation of unions in neo-corporatist arrangements demobilises the unions and their members. The main findings do not support any simplistic or optimistic view of these developments. While unions were the instigators of these policy changes, the dynamic processes of strategic neo-corporatist policy formation, political and industrial expediency, enduring economic vulnerability and a new political rationality intervened to produce policy patterns and institutional arrangements that diminished the benefits of these changes for the wage-dependent. There has been no socialisation of the processes of national economic planning or policy-making. Rather, Australia’s emerging neocorporatist arrangements are unrepresentative, undemocratic, and biased towards the interests of capital, particularly finance capital. Class mobilisation, direct industrial action, demands for job protection, industrial democracy and radical social change have all become marginal issues for the unions. Moreover, union leaders' commitment to electoral and economic priorities have increased their alienation from their members, and the general lack of participatory democracy in neo-corporatist arrangements has further demobilised unions and their members alike. Even so, a 'window of opportunity' can still be identified that may yet permit progress towards economic democracy

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This paper was published in UNSWorks.

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