Brennan foreshadows lower minimum wage

Jesuit lawyer Frank Brennan yesterday told a conference of diocesan bank managers that the Federal Government's new Fair Pay Commission is confined by its legal mandate and would reduce the minimum wage in future if necessary.

The Fair Pay Commission, a part of the Government's workplace reforms, started operating yesterday with a mandate to set and adjust the minimum wage.

Fr Brennan said: "Much has been made of the strong Christian disposition of Ian Harper, the Chairman of the Commission, and the appointment of Patrick McClure from Mission Australia who has pledged a commitment to the poor and vulnerable in our society."

But he says the commissioners will be constrained by their legal mandate to make decisions in the interest of economic prosperity.

"Presumably the Howard Government would have had no interest in reducing the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission and setting up the Fair Pay Commission unless there was a strong possibility that the new arrangements would put a brake on any increases to the minimum wage," Fr Brennan said.

In the event of a future slowdown in the economy, Fr Brennan said, the Commission could even reduce the real minimum wage. "That would not have been a possibility had the Industrial Relations Commission retained its power," he said.

In his speech "On being model employers who exemplify Gospel values and the Church's mission in the 'WorkChoices' Era" at Brisbane's St Stephen's Cathedral, Fr Brennan rejected the argument that reducing wages at the lower end of the market would increase employment.

He also questioned the "economic rationalist" presumption, including such a presumption in the Bishops' statement last year on WorkChoices, that economic growth is needed to enhance social justice.

But Fr Brennan strongly defended the role of Church leaders in policy debate where they have restricted themselves to statements of principle. He said that it is not good enough for politicians "simply to cherry pick their church leaders" when it suits them.

"Church leaders [are] informed by the church tradition and Catholic social teaching," he told the conference participants. "I will be particularly attentive to any concerns they express in favour of workers or unions."

"Afterall," he said, "they all run dioceses which are now major employers, so they are not too likely to wear workers' rights or union power on their sleeve, just for political effect."

Frank Brennan SJ: On Being Model Employers Who Exemplify Gospel Values and the Church's Mission in the WorkChoices Era (Address to the Australia/New Zealand Conference of Managers of Diocesan Development Funds, St Stephens Cathedral, Brisbane 1/5/06)

2 May 2006