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Economics academic to head Fair Pay Commission

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PM - Thursday, 13 October , 2005  18:16:50

Reporter: Alison Caldwell

MARK COLVIN: The man named to head the new Fair Pay Commission is described by those who know him and those in his field as a highly respected economics academic, a man who understands the strengths and weaknesses of a free market economy and who knows the fine details of monetary policy inside and out.

Critics suggest that Professor Ian Harper may lack experience in labour market economics, but his supporters say that should be seen as a sign that he carries no industrial baggage.

Alison Caldwell reports.

ALISON CALDWELL: "The market is a means to an end rather than an end in itself" and, "The trouble starts when one begins to treat market capitalism itself as a religion".

That's from a speech given by Professor Ian Harper for the Centre for Independent Studies two years ago.

Headed "Christian Morality and Market Capitalism: Friends or Foes", Professor Harper goes on to list the weakness of the capitalist system, among them, workaholism and conspicuous consumption.

It's classic Ian Harper, according to the Dean of the Melbourne Business School Professor John Seybolt.

JOHN SEYBOLT: The quote that you just gave of the issue of what I would call the balance between an individual's professional and personal life or work and personal life is utmost in Ian's mind, that's a uniqueness he brings to this assignment.

He is not solely an economist, he's a humanist, and he has the interests of people in society at heart. And so the kind of economic decisions that he will recommend will have a major human component.

ALISON CALDWELL: "Not a bad bloke" is how one union official described Professor Harper, an "orthodox economist" and "a human being".

A fellow economist wasn't so charitable, describing Professor Harper as a "straight-laced, right-wing religious zealot".

The Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, John Harrower, has known Professor Harper since the early '90s. While he opposes the Federal Government's IR (industrial relations) reforms, Bishop Harrower says if there has to be a Fair Pay Commission, it won't be so bad with Ian Harper in charge.

JOHN HARROWER: I was really surprised that he'd received the appointment, but pleased for him and becauseā€¦ and I felt that maybe it's good for us as a community because with the great reservations that I have about the whole industrial reforms legislation, to have somebody like Ian who I know will be fair minded and principled in chairing that committee, then I need somebody that I believe we can engage with about the very major issues about the relationship between the minimum wage and for example, the whole issue of welfare.

Ian with his economic training and his experience I believe is somebody who will convene that committee well.

ALISON CALDWELL: Professor Ian Harper's 14-page CV (curriculum vitae) lists his extensive experience in economics over 25 years.

As a member of the Wallis Inquiry he was at the forefront of financial market reform in Australia.

Aside from his work at the Melbourne Business School, Professor Harper has his own consulting company. He's also a financial consultant for KPMG and the Adelaide Bank, along with CRA International, formerly Rio Tinto.

What's missing from the CV is experience in labour market economics, something that worries unions.

ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) Secretary, Greg Combet.

GREG COMBET: It looks like it's 20-odd years since he's published something on labour economics, so a bit hard to judge, but nonetheless, it's an important economic issue and I'm sure he would have given it some thought and it'll be interesting to know what his view is.

ALISON CALDWELL: In a speech that he made last year he was talking about Christianity and capitalism, and he said that he didn't think material wealth was an end in itself, he said that material wealth is there to help us live better lives. Is that a good sign?

GREG COMBET: Oh look I can't reflect on his ethical and moral views, I don't know enough about him personally, but you know, I think Christian values surely mean that we've got to be fair to people and we need to ensure that people earn a decent and adequate standard of living.

ALISON CALDWELL: The Fair Pay Commission is expected to start sitting in the first quarter of next year.

The ACTU's Greg Combet says Professor Harper and his colleagues have substantial shoes to fill.

GREG COMBET: You know, it is an institution which is now going to take over 100 years of minimum wage fixing in this country.

It is enormously important for millions of working Australians, enormously important for their living standards, and I just hope that these sort of considerations weigh on Professor Harper's mind and that he, you know, gets out there in the workplace and really listens to what life is like for people who are earning $13 or $14 an hour.

MARK COLVIN: The ACTU Secretary, Greg Combet, ending Alison Caldwell's report.
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