In explaining how he pulled together the two-day Jobs and Skills Summit this week, Treasurer Jim Chalmers sounded a lot like a parent organising a wedding.
“The reality is you can’t invite everyone that you would like to invite,” he said. “You’ve got to make some difficult decisions.”
Anyone who has had a wedding or organised one can sympathise with that.
Not everyone is going to be happy.
Chalmers said his phone had been exploding with text messages from people wanting to be part of the event.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton wasn’t one of them. He dubbed the summit a “union talkfest” before it had begun and knocked back his invitation.
In fact, there are more representatives from business than unions, but Dutton wasn’t going to let that deter him from making his political point.
Chalmers said he had tried to strike a fair balance of representation.
“Have we got it perfectly right?” he asked.
Well, no. It was never going to be perfect. But it would have been a lot better if there had been more representatives from WA — the resources engine room of the economy.
Having just seven of the 143 invitees coming from the West is a glaring error.
But there is another way in which this summit shares some of the characteristics of a wedding. In this case, something of a shotgun wedding.
It’s seeking a new marriage of ideas and objectives between business and the union movement to produce a more modern and flexible industrial framework that allows greater opportunity for collective bargaining.
The aim is a more productive, higher-growth economy, driven by better skilled and better paid workers.
Idealistic? You bet. Jim Chalmers concedes the summit is just one step towards that aim, but “a major step and an important step”.
The signals from day one are promising.
After a decade of little industrial relations reform and much rhetorical conflict, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese urged participants to build “a new culture of co-operation”.
He didn’t want them to “dig deeper trenches on old battlefields” but to seek common ground.
They were noble words. Importantly, the deeds of the business and union participants have demonstrated a real desire to turn those words into action.
Even before the summit opened, the Business Council of Australia and the ACTU had forged a new pact to reform an enterprise bargaining system they both agreed was “broken”.
Once the summit began, a broad consensus quickly emerged on other reforms to deliver greater equity and opportunity for women in the workforce.
Achieving both those aims will be difficult, but the summit provides Jim Chalmers with the necessary momentum to get the process going in his October 25 budget.
Unions, business and governments also agreed to increase the number and mix of skilled migrants coming into Australia to help fill the considerable gaps emerging in the economy.
Anthony Albanese sought to supercharge that push by unveiling a big-dollar commitment to developing Australian skills at the same time.
What he called a “$1.1 billion training blitz”, jointly funded by the Commonwealth and States, will provide 180,000 additional free TAFE places in areas of national priority and need.
Albanese is unashamedly borrowing from the consensus model Bob Hawke developed through his 1983 National Economic Summit, although the economic circumstances are very different.
While Hawke sought wage restraint at a time of high inflation, high unemployment and high wages growth, Albanese is seeking the opposite.
He wants to increase wages in an economy of historically low unemployment, low interest rates and negative wages growth.
But the functional objective is the same — bringing historically warring groups together in an arranged marriage for the benefit of the nation.
Like all marriages, it begins with great hope. But like many it may require some counselling along the way.