Time for persuasion

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Time for persuasion

President Park Geun-hye’s recent address to the public turned my gaze toward British politics. I want to avoid American politics for the time being while straight talker Donald Trump makes headlines with his usual sensational and outspoken ways (Personally, I don’t think Trump’s political future has much legs even though some polls have him leading the Republican presidential field this early time).

I am more interested in British politics because of Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron’s resounding victory in the May general election has given him a second term for his premiership and his Tory party, a majority in the Parliament. Emboldened by the new support, he is pushing ahead with one of the more difficult challenges in British politics that only “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher attempted, and that was 30 years ago: breaking the power of the labor unions.

President Park cited German labor reforms as a kind of role model for our labor agenda in her recent address. But she has gotten her facts and circumstances wrong. The German government was able to push ahead with its labor reform agenda because the left-leaning party pleaded for support from its voting base, which had been labor unions. Former President Roh Moo-hyun was better positioned to campaign for a free trade agreement with the United States because the liberal president had the backing of the working and farming labor force. But the German reform style is neither possible nor suitable in Korean politics especially with the country’s general election coming up next year.

Britain is a lot more like us. The conservative party is in power and must push ahead with labor reforms that would be against the interest of the opposition party. The reform bill would require cooperation from the Labor Party in order to get through. So far Cameron’s reform agenda has been favorably evaluated by the media.

The goal of the reforms is quite straightforward. The government wants to tighten rules on strikes and political donations. Under the Trade Union Bills, minimum turnouts must be set for strike votes, with unions needing at least 50 percent for any work action to be legal. In the public sector, 40 percent of those eligible to vote would have to support a walkout before it could go ahead. Current rules require a simple majority of those who vote. The law also allows hiring of staff during strikes.

Before imposing the regulation on the private sector, the government first proposed to enforce it on public services such as health, education, fire, transport and energy. Cameron pledged to end the “merry-go-round” of low-paid workers having their wages taxed and receiving in-work benefits such as tax credits.

“It is dealing with the symptoms of the problem, topping up low pay, rather than extending the drivers of opportunity by helping to create well-paid jobs in the first place,” he said.

Cameron was equally no nonsense in actions. He immediate invited members of the 1922 Committee, a group of conservative backbenchers, to seek support for his Trade Union Bill. He also attended a meeting of the opposition Labor Party. He placed Sajid Javid, the son of a bus driver of Pakistani descent, as secretary for business to spearhead the reform drive. Cameron has been pitching the need for union and labor reforms on government websites. Local media observed that the conservative leader was trying to rebuild the country through his skill in persuasion and communication.

I don’t want to nag the president about her communication skills again. Reform is the goal and communication is part of the means of delivery.

A presidential address should be just the beginning of a publicity campaign. She and her team must have an action plan. Labor reform is much harder to sell than reforming civil service pensions. But it makes me wonder if the governing force is aware of this. There are few traces of sincerity and willpower.

The more difficult a task is, the more resolute the government and ruling party must be. They must be assertive and aggressive both in rhetoric and actions. Flexibility in the labor market is interpreted by the unions as an easier way to lay off a lot of people. Still, we don’t see any efforts from the government to clarify such a misunderstanding. There is no persuasion being attempted on the opposition party or on the public.

We are a nation that willingly donated our gold jewelry to help when the nation was in trouble in 1998. The president has repeated the words like “crisis” and “low growth.” They fail to move the hearts of the people. The presidential office website has posted the presidential statement, but few comments are tagged on it. This is the public’s response to a supposedly urgent national agenda.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 10, Page 30

*The author is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Seung-hee

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