TENSIONS between the Catholic Church and the Federal Government have reached new heights over proposed workplace reforms.
It comes on top of demonstrations around the country by hundreds of thousands of workers on November 15.
Two opposite views of how the family can best be protected have emerged from the dispute.
Federal Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews, a Catholic who won widespread respect for his successful campaign to defeat the legalisation of euthanasia in 1997, said the Government’s proposed employment laws will be good for families because they will lead to a stronger economy and more jobs.
Mr Andrews has continually reiterated the Government’s argument that the changes will create new jobs by giving more incentives to employers to hire people.
“The best thing we can do for families is have a strong economy,” he said.
But prominent critics within the Church and community disagree with Mr Andrews.
In an interview on November 17 with Perth archdiocesan newspaper The Record, Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta said he had respect for Mr Andrews, but questioned the minister’s ability to reverse a policy he described as “very much a concern” for Catholics.
Bishop Manning stressed the difference between the Government’s proposals and Catholic social teaching, as expressed in Church documents like Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus.
Bishop Manning said the Church teaches that people “are co-workers with Christ. With the dignity that man has, no one has the right just to use human beings as commodities, which I’m afraid is what this legislation is going to bring about”.
The bishop also criticised the payment of exorbitant salaries to business leaders.
“Five thousand dollars a day for certain people, when other people are trying to live on something like $460 or less a week with children. It’s just sinful,” he said.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating argued in a recent newspaper commentary that if minimum wages under the new system fell to $10 an hour – an outcome he predicted as likely – then the Government’s goal of increased employment would become meaningless.
Currently, the minimum wage is a little more than $12 an hour.
“If you can only score $10 an hour it does not matter how many jobs there are. Forty hours at $10 means you can only earn a maximum of $400 a week – not enough to accommodate and feed yourself,” Mr Keating said.
Bishop Manning said that he has to wait and see if the Government proposed Fair Pay Commission, a new body charged with setting minimum wage rates, would offer improvements.
The bishop said the Government’s reforms are clearly aimed at damaging unions and said this should be a concern to Catholics.
“The average worker in many cases has no voice of his own. He has been helped through unions who have taken up his cause for him. They (unions) have an absolute right to organise themselves and act collectively,” he said.
When asked if he thought Catholic teaching endorsed the kind of labour market deregulation proposed by the Government, Bishop Manning said: “Definitely not. The Catholic Church is looking to ensure that the dignity of the human being is being respected. And some of these laws are going to do less than that”.
Rob Lambert, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia and a former adviser to the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, described the proposed changes as extreme, repressive and anti-democratic.
“They are denying people a voice in their workplace,” he said. The Government’s changes represent “a low wage strategy to cut wages and conditions and impose a Chinese model on Australia”.
The changes are “quite foreign to the whole history and tradition of this society”, Prof Lambert said. “What they’re doing with union membership is like letting you join a golf club, but telling you you’re not allowed to play golf.”
A Senate review of some provisions in the federal work laws was expected to be completed by the end of this month.
Senator Steve Fielding of the Family First Party is pushing for several changes, including respect for a 38-hour work week and 30-minute meal breaks every five hours of work.