Between Federation in 1901 and 1983, social justice guided how we managed our economy and workplace relations. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) acted as an independent umpire in workplace relations and based wages and working conditions in part on what it thought was a fair, or living, wage. This meant that, in the interests of fairness and a reasonable standard of living, some people in some occupations were paid more than their contributions were worth.
By 1983, the world had changed dramatically since Federation. The government of the day decided that we needed to make big changes in our workplaces to survive in the global marketplace. It began a gradual move towards decentralising workplace relations and allowing the market to determine wages and working conditions. This began as a joint effort between the government and the unions – remember The Accords?
By 1996 when the Liberal Howard government took over from the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, two of the three pillars of Australian workplace relations, tariff protection and centralised wage fixing, were all but gone. The third pillar, the AIRC, was about to go. The new government further deregulated the labour market and replaced social justice principles with economic rationalism. The role of workplace legislation moved from social fairness and protection to promoting the efficient functioning of labour markets.
The world continues to change. With the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, computer are predicted to take over millions of jobs in the next 15 years. (See my blog How not to lose your job to a computer.) As a result, people are beginning to talk once more about a living wage. The argument is that since computers will perform so many jobs, a lot of us won’t need to work. But we’ll still need money to pay the bills and live a good life. This is where the living wage comes back into the picture. Paying people whose jobs are taken over by computers a living wage will free them up to do creative work, entrepreneurial work, voluntary work, research work and so on. People can ‘follow their dream’ once they’re freed from the need to earn money. In the end, life could be pretty good.