During the recent healthcare debate in the United States, the concept of pre-existing conditions as a factor in health insurance became such a focus that a Kenny Rogers tune was frequently paraphrased as "just dropped in to see what precondition my precondition was in".
In recent weeks, a similar quip could easily be made about the impasse in talks between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association. At length, the two parties have expressed their desire to talk to one another but have failed to actually do so while levelling accusations of setting unrealistic preconditions for negotiation.
At CA's Jolimont headquarters, there is general refusal to agree to talk by citing the ACA's precondition - inked into its MoU proposal - that retention of the fixed percentage revenue model is a must. Over the Yarra River in South Melbourne, the ACA has been equally adamant that CA's negotiators have set their own precondition by stating that their current pay offer - rather than the soon-to-expire MoU drawn up in 2012 - must be the starting point for talks.
While there appeared to be a breakthrough of sorts this week when the players expressed their willingness to compromise on which streams of revenue they should be entitled to, the CA response remained bolted down to the concept of talking about their proposal as if it was the only way forward. Quoth the chief executive James Sutherland to the Age on Thursday:
"I hope those comments are a good sign. Certainly CA remains ready, willing and able to negotiate so that the flexibility built into our proposal can finally be explored."
Given the gaping ideological, cultural and policy-detail distances between the two parties, continued reference to each other's proposals, offers and presentations has served to entrench difference, regardless of clauses on both sides about common ground. CA's internal belief that it should be able sit down with the ACA and start by discussing common ground before leaving the more contentious issues for later is fair enough in theory, but the practicalities are far more problematic.
"In any dispute of this kind, an admission of fault on both sides is necessary to reset the discussion"
There appears a strong sense that the strategies of both sides have been constructed in the vacuum of their own respective offices, and left little room for divergence should circumstances change. Sutherland's letter to the ACA last month indicated that the board was intent upon what amounted to a staged ultimatum leading to war if the players did not back down: an urge to get back to the negotiating table, contract offers to players based on the current offer, then unemployment for all out-of-contract players from July 1 onwards.
Similarly, the ACA's approach in the absence of meaningful discussion with CA has been largely about preparing for a long, cold winter of non-compliance with the aforementioned diktats. There is a financial contingency fund for players put out of pocket; a new company called The Cricketers' Brand for leveraging intellectual property with commercial partners after the expiry of deals with CA; and tentative plans for numerous players to fly off to chase the T20 dollar overseas in the event of their existing CA schedules being freed up by unemployment.
All the while, the two proposals have sat there unchanged. CA's is titled: "A Fair Deal For All Players, Now And In The Future", which some players have taken to view with the same scepticism that those on the receiving end of a particularly bruising encounter with the Australian cricket team in the past may look upon the euphemism "we play hard but fair". For its part, the ACA's was titled: "Growing the Game For Everyone", and featured a proposed pay model referred to as "Win/Win".
Two things are now clear about both proposals. First, neither party can stand the sight of the other's handiwork. Secondly, both documents contain the sorts of assumptions and simplifications inherent in any policy document worked up without enough communication with those it is bound to affect.
One of the chief problems with CA's offer is that its division of what Steven Smith calls "the playing group" into international and domestic players, with only the former to receive any "blue sky" above and beyond fixed wages, simply does not pass muster. There is far greater complexity in the relationship between players arrayed around the states, the Australian duties of some, and the BBL secondments of many more.
Sheffield Shield matches do not generate their own profits, yet without that competition there would be no international players. The BBL is an area of looming financial growth for the game via the next broadcast rights deal, yet the vast majority of its participants spend all but six weeks of the year preparing themselves for it by training and playing with their states. This is without mentioning how overseas players take up a big enough chunk of BBL salary caps, so that CA's "average payment" figure is distorted by box office names who will never play for Australia.
On the ACA's side, a proposal to "cap" the board's administrative spending at 55% is a red rag to what is already a highly corporatised - and far from union-friendly - CA bull, its nine independent directors in particular. CA's contention that the ACA has overstepped its bounds as a players' association is debatable, but there is little point in pushing the envelope further unless the intention is to escalate the dispute rather than resolve it.
Likewise, the suggestion that 22.5% of the game's revenue should go to fund grass-roots facilities and competitions sounds fine on paper, but lacks the nuance, detail and knowledge required to make such a split actually happen. Sutherland was correct in this sense last week when he observed: "While the ACA has addressed [grass roots] to some extent, they don't know anywhere near the detail we do in terms of what is involved in managing these issues both at an operational level and at a strategic and policy level."
What's needed, then, is a way for the two parties to sit down and talk without being constrained by the extremes of their own rhetoric or respective proposals, as they have been over more than 20 hours of face-to-face meetings so far. The best way forward may in fact be to agree to meet without bringing either proposal to the table - with or without mediation present.
To do that would require a level of humility that neither side have shown so far, since it would serve to discard much of the research and projection work done in each office over the past year or more. Policy advisors at the mercy of jumpy, poll-chasing politicians in Canberra will be able to relate to that one.
But in any dispute of this kind, an admission of fault on both sides is necessary to reset the discussion. To admit that CA and the ACA should actually have worked together on drawing up the next MoU rather than firing each other's ideal world view at one another, via proposals, press releases and interviews, would be a start. That would then offer up the welcome possibility of a true negotiation without preconditions, on either side.