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Anti-penalty rates campaign backfires

The ad itself makes no sense whatsoever.

It's a picture of, I guess, an employer holding her hands in front of her face. I'm  assuming she's shielding her face from the cameras, in much the same way as those who are leaving courts shield their faces from the camera. 

Kate Carnell, the chief executive officer of the ACCI, thought boycott claims were a bit harsh.
Kate Carnell, the chief executive officer of the ACCI, thought boycott claims were a bit harsh. 

Clearly, she's left her hoodie at home. And then, on the palms of her hands, she's written, "I'm" on one hand and "sorry" on the other. Well, sister, if you've done the crime, you do the time.

But actually, the only crime here is the serious misjudgement of the Australian mood. Turns out it's part of a campaign by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to get ordinary people to complain to the federal government about penalty rates.

The poster which claims penalty rates are too high.
The poster which claims penalty rates are too high. 

The ad says: "This Easter long weekend, we're sorry that we will be closed. We'd like to be open to serve you. We'd like to give local people jobs. But the penalty rates are too high. Tell Canberra something has to change."

That's what passes for sophisticated advocacy these days. 

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Fortunately, the ads didn't last long. People all over Australia told their local shopkeepers and café owners that if their businesses displayed the posters, customers would take their custom elsewhere.  

Kate Carnell, the chief executive officer of the ACCI, said on Monday some small business owners had been intimidated. Some, she said, were called names. And on top of all that, the unions ran a social media campaign. 

"Free speech is OK  but not to claim you are going to boycott," she said.

Intimidating? That's a word which gets bandied about a lot – and frequently by bullies themselves – but in this case, you'd have to imagine it's useful to tell a shopkeeper you plan to take your custom elsewhere. It's like giving people notice when you plan to move out.

Censoring free speech? Yes, you can say what you like and display what you like, but Australians have the right to shop where they like. Money is the language of power in this consumer relationship.

So I went walking in my local neighbourhood over Easter. Some shops and cafes were closed but most were open and packed. Waiters get a loading of 250 per cent on public holidays (look in the PayCheckPlus section of the Fair Work Ombudsman's website). That's fair enough – you give up your precious free time to wrangle queues for coffee and food – why not get a share of the extra income? 

Do you imagine that any savings would be passed on to you, the consumer?

My suburb too anecdotal for you? 

The Mudgee Guardian wrote a story about its local chamber of commerce joining the anti-penalty rates campaign and then posted it on its Facebook page. The comments went wild and editor Robyn Murray says she was surprised: "I thought [readers] would side with the business people."

Instead the posts were overwhelmingly supportive of people being paid extra to work on weekends and holidays. I wondered whether she recognised the names of those who were posting, or whether it was a Unions Australia stunt.

"No, I know them by sight or by name," said Murray, who's been editor for five years. So how did Mudgee businesses fare over the Easter break? Murray says one of her reporters came back to work after lunch on Monday, complaining because all his favourite cafes were packed.

Last week, Ged Kearney, president of the ACTU, was at her desk in Melbourne when the phone rang. It was ACCI's Carnell, complaining about the reaction to the anti-penalty rates campaign. She accused Kearney of intimidating her members, who were only expressing opinions by putting up those posters.

"She blamed the unions for that. What did she expect us to do? Throw up our hands?

"This is the amazing thing – does she not understand how attacked our members feel about their relentless campaigning against their pay and standards of living?" Kearney asked.

Turns out that Kearney's sole contribution to the backlash was a colleague's well-advised posts on the Australian Unions Facebook page and a judicious use of Twitter. 

That campaigning is part of their work: "Members feel attacked and undervalued and we are going to fight against that."

But beyond this particular campaign, the battle to take away penalty rates is real – and it's more than just a series of poorly-conceived posters. The ACCI's submission to the Fair Work Commission makes that very clear. 

As I've argued before, business owners and lobbyists always make the case about shopping and eating, relying on our baser selves and our greed. But it's their greed which needs addressing here. Do you imagine that any savings would be passed on to you, the consumer? 

The real target is always the biggest sector which pays penalty rates. The nurses. The social workers. Yes, those most likely to be paid penalty rates work in social assistance and health care. And one-third of them rely on that income to pay household expenses.

Yes, not cappuccino. Not take away chicken wraps. But rent, electricity, water. And most of those people lived in households with a  total income of less than $30,000.

And thanks John Carney for this tip. Employers and governments might better understand why penalty rates matter if we use their terms.

That's not a penalty rate. That's a price signal.

Follow Jenna on Twitter at @JennaPrice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au.

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