On complex issues, people often resort to proxy measures to make judgments. At think-tanks, we get it all the time. People often seem more interested in who the funders are than the time-consuming process of working out whether our arguments make sense or not.
So the authors of this week’s Australia@Work report can hardly have been surprised when Joe Hockey focused on the report’s union links. Particularly as it turns out that Hockey made his original comments afer being called by a journalist for comment on a report which he had not seen. The summary the journalist gave probably focused only on negative comments about the government, which generated the predictable response.
The actual report, however, would not immediately give any cause for confidence that it was not just pushing the union line. After all, if as its cover says it is ‘sponsored by Unions NSW’ the conclusion that its content would be favourable to Unions NSW is not exactly counter-intuitive.
In this morning’s Australian, the paper digs up a speech by Australia@Work author John Buchanan, in which he declares himself to be a socialist. Can a socialist view WorkChoices objectively?
Buchanan and his co-authors were also trying to invoke a proxy measure of the report’s worth, citing the Australian Research Council in addition to Unions NSW as a ‘sponsor’ of the research. According to The Age:
Study co-author and director of Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre Dr Buchanan also took issue with Mr Hockey.
“(Mr Hockey) has made some very serious allegations about me and my team being union bosses in disguise masquerading as academics,” he said.
“I find the statements from the minister quite unhelpful and it is a complete betrayal of the scrutiny we receive as academics from our peers through the ARC process.”
Unions NSW secretary John Robertson said the research was jointly funded by the ARC under the stewardship of Education Minister Julie Bishop. (emphasis added)
But as the ARC was forced to point out, its funding does not equate to endorsement. The ARC approves research proposals, not outcomes. As Education Minister Julie Bishop has agreed to accept the ARC’s recommendations, she cannot even be seen to endorse proposals, let alone outcomes.
Both sides resorted to proxy measures to try to convince us that Australia@Work was, depending on proxy, good or bad research. Of course neither is a substitute for reading a 100 page plus report. Commenter Sinclair Davidson wasn’t impressed after he read it.
I think there is a lot of useful material in Australia@Work. This is mostly because it is based on a very large survey that will help our understanding of work and how people perceive it. But unlike the government, I am free to say that there is nothing intrinsically concerning if AWAs cause some wages to go down. For example, as I have argued before, penalty rates are often anachronisms and if AWAs help get rid of them so much the better.
That said, I would cast far more doubt on the analysis in Australia@Work than the underlying statistics. I have myself had a go at Buchanan’s tendentious analysis of labour market trends, and there is more of it here.
Before we are even out of the executive summary, we are told that there is an ‘alarming level of acceptance of long hours’. Only 40% of men working more than 50 hours a week want to work fewer hours it seems. But if people like their jobs, why is it ‘alarming’ that they want to spend more than 50 hours a week at them?
That people had previously been unemployed get lower wages than those who had changed jobs is put down to their ‘poorer bargaining position’, which is of course only one possibility – with less experience and lower-level qualifications being the more likely major explanations.
But it possible to trust the numbers of people with a barrow to push. As the top right-hand corner of my blog reveals, I have an ideological perspective, as Buchanan does – albeit a very different one. That doesn’t mean that either of us make up research findings.