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Workplace relations - the reform debate. Keynote address to the National Key Centre in Industrial Relations at Monash University, Monash University, Melbourne, 30 November 1999: speaking notes.



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The Hon. Peter Reith, MP

Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business 

Leader of the House of Representatives
 

Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600

 

Speaking notes

Keynote Address to the National Key Centre in Industrial Relations, Mona sh University

Monash University, Melbourne 30 November 1999

INTRODUCTION  

 

I would like to thank the National Key Centre in Industrial Relations at Monash University, through its Director Gerry Griffin, for the invitation to present this keynote address on
The Reform Debate.

In politics, perhaps more than in academia and learning, timing can be very important. But you’ve got the timing pretty right for this conference. The Reform Debate continues in earnest in the federal parliament as we speak. Just yesterday afternoon a committee of the federal Senate tabled a report on some of the federal government’s proposed amendments to workplace relations laws, as contained in the More Jobs, Better Pay Bill . That Bill will be debated, at least in part, in the Senate over the coming two weeks before the parliament rises for the year. It is an important Bill, and I will focus most of my attention on it this morning.

In doing so, I do not under-emphasise the many other aspects of the reform debate, including important issues such as linkages between workplace relations and employment policy, wages policy, rights and responsibilities of registered organisations, the relationship between workplace relations and social security systems, the role of State systems and laws, the constitutional basis of the federal system, youth employment and youth wages and work and family issues.

THE REFORM DEBATE IN CONTEXT  

 

As important as it is, the role of governments in workplace relations reform is necessarily limited. Workplace relations for tens of thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of employees is conducted on a daily basis without them reading legislation, without obtaining reams of regulations and without recourse to third parties. That is the way it has been for years, despite the impression that the many vested interests in the industrial relations debate have created. That is the way it should be .

Workplace relations is largely the product of human relations, commonsense and the merging of joint interests between employers and their employees. Indeed, the policy of the federal government is to recognise this almost axiomatic reality, and to enshrine it at the centre of policy development - not to structure a system that denies such workplace based realities or seeks to constrain them into artificial boundaries. This will be the case whatever governments, political parties or the Senate may or may not decide on any particular piece of legislation.

ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS AND PARLIAMENTS

However, it is the role of governments to provide policy leadership in establishing a legislative framework for the operation of the system that best serves the public interest. And it is the role of parliaments to objectively review legislative proposals with due regard and respect to the electoral mandate of the government of the day, and give passage to those proposals following review, and where necessary, amendment.

The reform debate in this area of workplace relations is always a contentious one. Unfortunately, the debate is so often clouded by vested interests of third parties, not the voice of employers and employees. That is not surprising, because the Australian system for so many decades has promoted the pre-eminence of vested interests and third parties over the actual workplace participants. The challenge for policy makers, and indeed parliaments, is to identify those vested interests and weigh judgement on their contribution by the degree they are adopting a partisan interest

THE ACTU/ALP POSITION ON MORE JOBS, BETTER PAY

There are two vested interests which have for months been assiduously working to undermine parliamentary passage of the federal government’s further workplace relations changes in the More Jobs, Better Pay Bill . These are trade union officials and the Australian Labor Party.

They have a common interest in doing so. Trade union officials are losing the membership and confidence of the workforce, and have lost the privileged position they had as de facto members of the federal government’s economic, social and industrial policy during the Accord years. They therefore see the legislative framework as the easy remaining source of their relevance and continuing control of workplace relations outcomes, rather than becoming service providers to the workforce.

It is therefore not surprising that union officials opposed in 1996, and do again in 1999, any moves to focus the system more on the workplace, to allow choices for individuals that were denied under their preferred collective centralised system, and which make them subject to the demands and needs of the workforce.

As to the Labor Party, their vested interest is well known. It is also of its own making. They have decided to tie themselves hand and foot to the trade union movement on workplace relations issues, in an endeavour to rebuild their political base after it revolted against them in 1996. Their preselections remain tied to union factions, their policies regulated by union votes at their conferences, and their funding of election campaigns is based on big budgeted revenue decided by union secretaries and committees.

It is therefore not surprising in the least that the ACTU has upped its campaign this week on the More Jobs Better Pay Bill , arguing that the parliament should abandon its proper legislative role and "just say no" to the government’s legislation, its policy and its electoral mandate.

It is important to note that the More Jobs Better Pay Bill is not the product of a mid term flight of fancy. It is the product of a detailed 31 page re-election policy released by the Coalition in the lead-up to the 1998 general election. That policy itself followed the release of numerous pre-election policy papers by the government, and the consultation consequent on their release.

Nor is it surprising that the Labor Party is adopting, in its report tabled in the Senate yesterday, the ACTU position, lock stock and barrel. That’s not surprising, but it is a deriliction of what one would have thought was its public duty to act in the public interest. It just opposes workplace relations changes because the unions have told it to do so, and because it got its fingers so badly burnt with its capitulation in the youth wages debate earlier this year. It now cannot even contemplate legislative amendments that take the system further down the enterprise bargaining path that it itself trumpeted in its last years in office.

So the power of self-interest is at the core of the Labor Party and the trade union campaign against the More Jobs Better Pay Bill . And because self interest clouds objective judgement, it means that some basic facts are ignored and rash claims made about the real nature of the government’s reform proposals. Even the Labor Premier of Victoria supports some of the proposals and in doing so has laid bare the bankruptcy of Labor’s opposition.

The fact is that the Coalition’s 1996 Act took a highly regulated and disjointed system which had not delivered fair or acceptable outcomes during the Accord years and gave primacy to employers and employees over the institutions and associations which had assumed a dominant role.

In doing so, we empowered workers and employers who had not previously seen themselves as participants in the system. Some have taken up the opportunities the new system offers, some have yet to do so.

The fact also is that the outcomes being delivered in terms of two key indicators, jobs and wages, in even a short time of three years, are almost without exception very good - and certainly superior to what went before. That is an indisputable fact across the country, on almost any measure. It is particularly so for the lower paid.

Real wages growth, coupled with substantial jobs growth (with a high percentage of full time jobs), reducing unemployment, higher productivity, fewer disputes, low inflation and low interest rates are outcomes which benefit employees. They are a conjunction of outcomes that the Accord years could only have wished for. Had Labor’s policy in government delivered these outcomes we would all be hearing about it now, I am sure. But it did not, it was a failure and they know it.

So they now conveniently forget the record of the centralised interventionist system, forget their own abandonment of it in the early 1990’s, and base their campaign of opposition on misrepresenting the government’s proposals - as if workplace relations is just some political game.

For example, did yesterday’s Labor/ACTU Senate committee report recognise the fact that the 1996 reforms retained many of the key features of the previous system, such as an independent Commission, the award system, access to conciliation and arbitration; and collective participation through organisations? No it did not.

What the Coalition did was to take the better aspects of those features, modified their role to meet contemporary economic and social objectives, and added new choices and flexibilities within a safety net framework. Moreover, did the analysis by the Labor/ACTU alliance of the 1999 reform proposals acknowledge that even after the government’s proposals are enacted the system would be a far cry from the deregulated image of workplace relations that they seek to conjure? Of course it did not. But the facts remain, whether acknowledged or not, that after the passage of our Bill the legislative framework will still provide for:

1. a continued safety net award regulat ion of wages and conditions of employment for the low paid and disadvantaged workers;

2. continued access to uncapped negotiated pay increases and improvements in conditions of employment and productivity for workers making collective or individual workplace agreements;

3. continued rights to non-discrimination, to freedom of association and to equal pay for work of equal value;

4. continued access to compulsory conciliation and compulsory arbitration on award regulated issues;

5. a continued independent, resourced and effective Commission;

6. continued rights for workers to collectively associate or bargain, as well as rights to individually bargain without coercion;

7. continued operation of an employee no-disadvantage test;

8. continued rights to c hallenge unfair or unlawful dismissals in an independent tribunal;

9. continued right to strike when bargaining collective agreements;and

10. continued rights for unions and employer associations to be formed, to conduct their affairs, and to participate in the system at both a workplace level and a tribunal level.

These policy settings would continue because the More Jobs, Better Pay Bill is an evolutionary change to the workplace relations system. I have no doubt that many in the union movement and many in the Labor Party know this, but the desire to engage in political self-interest rather than objective policy analysis is too great. Indeed, they privately concede that award simplification, for example, has not been the bogey they claim it to have been. They also know that Labor, when in government, had to take the system down these paths if the public interest was to be served. Keating wanted to do it but was stymied by the vested interests. And just look at what the UK Labour Government is doing - hardly touching the core industrial relations structures established by the Thatcher government in the 1980’s. Indeed, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair proudly proclaims:

“Even after the changes we propose, Britain will have the most lightly regulated labour market of any leading economy in the world.”

Can you imagine the outcry if the Coalition got to the point where it could make that claim with similar pride? You really would have the organised labour movement in a state of frenzy this week.

I would like to remind you, no matter how uncomfortable it is to some, of what the industrial relations objectives of Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating and his government were in the period 1993 to 1996. Objectives acquiesced to by many involved in this weeks ‘just say no’ campaign to the More Jobs Better Pay Bill . They are words worth recalling, not because he delivered on them (he didn’t), but because they highlight the double standard of the labour movement and the Labor Party in the current debate. They also demonstrate that the direction we are going down is not unprecedented - even in the Australian context. Keating said, and I quote:

“Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards provided by arbitral tribunals. It is a model under which compulsorily arbitrated awards and arbitrated wage increases would be there only as a safety net. This safety net would not be intended to prescribe the actual conditions of work of most employees, but only to catch those unable to make workplace agreements with employers. Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses.”

THE DEMOCRAT’S POSITION ON MORE JOBS,BETTER PAY

So, I now turn to the position of the Australian Democrats in the current workplace relations debate.

The first thing to say is that the Democrats appear to appreciate the force of what I have said this morning about the Labor Party’s record compared to the Coalition’s 1996 reforms.

I think Democrat Senator Andrew Murray put it very succinctly in his Senate report yesterday and in a recent speech where he said, and I quote,

It is fashionable among the ‘just say yes’ and ‘just say no’ brigades to describe the nearly 300 pages of additional suggested workplace relations changes as Peter Reith’s second wave. It is actually the third wave. The anger the 70’s and 80’s produced eventually resulted in the first wave - Paul Keating and Laurie Brereton’s Industrial Relations Reform Act which launched enterprise bargaining, deregulation and major reform in 1993……Now we face the third wave.”

Indeed, the Democrat committee report tabled in the Senate yesterday does affirm that on each of the key public interest indicators, the 1996 Act has worked to the benefit of the workplace relations in Austra lia.

That is not to say that the Act cannot be improved. In fact, that’s why we are seeking further legislative amendments. We, like the Democrats want even better outcomes. We, like the Democrats, recognise that some aspects of the 1996 Act have not operated as intended. The issue between us at the moment is to manage through the parliament the passage of amendments that will achieve these objectives.

The challenge for the Democrats in this debate is to sift the wheat from the chaff - to identify the self interest and inconsistency in the campaign of misinformation being peddled by the ALP/ACTU, and to objectively consider what is in the Bill, how it will be beneficial and the structures that will remain after its passage.

The government recognises that there are many issues that the Bill deals with. This does not make consideration of it any easier - but it is a product of the fact that we are dealing with an Act that covers a broad ambit of workplace relations issues.

Nor does the government have a set formula for enacting some of our policy objectives. From the outset when the Bill was introduced into the parliament I indicated that in a number of areas there are a variety of ways of meeting our policy objectives, and that we are open to discussion on these.

For example, the process for implementing secret ballots as a step to exercising the right to strike is able to be achieved in different ways. There is a model in the Bill, there was a different model in a draft Bill that went to the tri partite Committee on Industrial Legislation in May, there is a model in the UK laws, there is a model in some State jurisdictions. We have always been open to dialogue on the issues of details where in-principle agreement can be reached on the policy objective.

Similarly, the recognition of external mediation in dispute resolution. Our Bill proposes a mechanism for external mediation to apply on a voluntary basis as an alternative, where agreed, to formal conciliation and arbitration. That mechanism involves the accreditation of approved mediators for this purpose and regulation of the role of parties in the mediation process. Again these are areas which can be the subject of proper discussion once the objective of voluntary mediation is accepted as desirable in the statutory framework.

What is important in this debate is for the Democrats to perform the function which a party holding the balance of power in an Upper House should do - to review, to consider but not to fall for the politics of the Opposition. The Democrats have the challen ge to clearly identify themselves as adopting a different approach to the Labor Party when dealing with workplace relations issues. I

think Senator Lees recognised this in some comments yesterday on the secret ballots issue when she accepted that the democrats retain in-principle support for the proposition. This should hardly be a surprise given that the Democrats have in the past introduced a Private Members Bill to secure secret ballots. Their in principle support should be matched by a willingness to engage in a debate on the detail in the Bill.

There is a core inconsistency in the Democrat position if they were to reject outright such substantive policy initiatives in the Bill. Having said, correctly, that the 1996 Act has been beneficial legislation to employers and employees, it is incoherent to reject further evolutionary changes of the type passed in 1996 because of alleged potential detriment.

Having participated in a course of reform in 1996, having concluded that the reform has been beneficial, having last year described the Coalition’s More Jobs Better Pay election policy as “no nasty second wave”, having last year argued that “a case for further evolutionary change can be made”, having argued last year that “we should look at reducing some of the compliance costs and cumbersomeness of the law” and having in the past accepted the principle of initiatives such as secret ballots and mediation, it is remarkable to think that the Democrats can reject these parts of the Bill.

There are some significant questions facing the Democrats after reading their position put to the Senate yesterday.

Why if the Democrats (as they say) do not believe that tallies in the meat industry should be allowable matters in awards do they not seek to simplify awards accordingly?

Why if the Democrats believe in direct industrial democracy (as they say) do they not accept secret ballots before the right to strike at least in principle and negotiate on the detail?

Why if the Democrats belief in alternative dispute resolution (as they say) in almost every other form of commercial or social dispute do they not accept the principle of voluntary mediation in workplace disputes, and then negotiate the detail of its implementation?

Why if the Democrats consider that small business was disadvantaged by the big government, big union, big business policies of the previous IR system (as they say) would they not now accept some changes that allow small business to more easily make agreements with less paper work and less regulation in their awards?

Why if the Democrats believe in freedom of association (as they say) do they not accept the need to amend the Act to close loopholes that have allowed unions to use compulsory union encouragement clauses as a back door method of union preference?

And above all, why if the consequences of the 1996 Act that the Democrats were a party to have been beneficial (as they say) will not further evolutionary changes of a similar ilk not provide similar benefits?

These are questions that should loom large in the Democrats mind as they contemplate the issues raised in the Bill and the parliamentary debate on it during the remainder of this year and into 2000.

THE MAJOR POLICY OBJECTIVES OF THE 1996 ACT AND THE 1999 BILL

Having discussed our values and policy intent, I would now like to take a few moments to provide some practical examples of how the Government’s Workplace Relations policies have impacted on the workplace, and the proposed further reforms contained in our 1999 Bill. In doing so, I will concentrate on the key areas of agreements, awards, industrial action, mediation freedom of association and unfair dismissals.

1. AGREEMENT MAKING

The Government’s 1996 reforms have already opened up a range of options for more simple and effective agreement-making available. These options include certified agreements, made with unions or directly with employees, individual employment agreements, AWAs, made directly between an employer and employee, or informal arrangements.

Agreements (whether collective or individual) can now replace awards and, subject to a global ‘no disadvantage’ test, award entitlements can be traded off. Employers and employees can make genuinely innovative and flexible agreements.

The take up of the ne w agreement making options has been impressive

•  Almost 15,000 collective agreements, including more than 1,400 non-union agreements, have been formalised under the WR Act and an estimated 75 per cent of all federal award employees are now covered by formal collective agreements

- the take-up rate of non-union agreements by small business (with less than 20 employees) has increased from 2.8 per cent of agreements under Labor’s Industrial Relations Act 1988, to 9.5 per cent of the total agreements under the Government’s Workplace Relations Act

•  around 73,000 AWAs have been approved, with the use of AWAs having picked up dramatically in the last 12 months or so.

Agreements are being used to introduce a wide range of flexibilities in work organisation and practices including variations to the ordinary hours of work; removal or annualisation of penalty rates; rationalisation of allowances; more flexible remuneration arrangements, individual tailoring of leave entitlements and a range of productivity improvement measures. These flexibilities are not just benefiting business, but employees also.

Further proposed reform of agreement making

The proposed reforms to agreement making arrangements aim to further encourage the use of agreements and to enable greater flexibility so that agreements can better reflect local needs and circumstances to the mutual benefit of both employers and employees.

The current procedures and tests for approval of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) and Certified Agreements (CAs) have proved in practice to be complex and costly for some businesses. They will now be simplified to make AWAs and CAs more accessible, encourage more innovative and better quality agreements and reduce transaction costs and unnecessary paperwork. Small business in particular is likely to benefit from a more simplified agreement making process.

The proposed changes with respect to AWAs include:

•  amalgamation of filing and approval processes to ensure a much simpler and more streamlined process and allowing AWAs to take effect from the day of signing if that is the wish of the parties;

•  removing the requirement for employers to offer an identical AWA to comparable employees; and

•  confining scrutiny of AWAs to the Employment Advocate (EA), with the possibility of the EA being able to approve AWAs not meeting the no-disadvantage test - on public interest grounds.

Some of the proposed changes in respect to CAs include:

•  streamlining the approval and variation requirements and procedures;

•  'fast-tracking' certification processes by removing the requirement for formal hearings and formal consideration of agreements by the Commission unless concerns are raised within a specified time limit;

•  removing restrictions on agreements applying to part of a single business and allowing businesses to have different agreements for different parts of their organisations; and

•  preventing unwarranted union interference in agreements made directly with employees, including measures to stop unions from blocking their extension or variation.

2. AWARDS

Awards should provide fair minimum safety net standards for the low paid and those not in a position to engage in agreement making. They should not act as barriers to greater workplace efficiency and flexibility and employment growth. Since the WR Act came into force new awards have been limited to twenty allowable matters and existing awards have been required to go through a process of award simplification aimed at removing matters falling outside the twenty matters.

Reasonable progress has been made on this front. From a total of 3,235 federal awards (including 31 new awards made since 1 July 1998), at 31 October 1999, 1,245 awards had been set aside or deemed to be no longer current, while a further 359 have been simplified.

The Government has recently taken initiatives to advance the process of award simplification. A specialist team has been established within my Department to act as advisers and facilitators to the private sector. With the establishment of this team, there is now no excuse for award parties to drag their feet in the award simplification process.

Further proposed reforms of awards

Despite awards being confined to 20 allowable matters from July last year, unions and some employers appear to have deliberately adopted a head in the sand approach to award simplification.

A number of refinements are proposed to increase the focus of the award system on a genuine safety net role and accelerate the pace and scope of award simplification. The objects of the legislation will be amended to better emphasise the proper safety net role of awards.

The Commission will be required, when simplifying awards, to have regard to the primacy of agreement-making, the productivity and efficiency requirements of businesses (including small business), the removal of inefficient work practices and the importance of regulating workplaces to the minimum extent only.

The Government will also decrease the number of allowable matters by removing matters such as tally provisions, jury service, union picnic days, long service leave, superannuation and trade union training leave.

Awards will also be required to be simplified before they can be varied for the purposes of including future safety net adjustments.

3. INDUSTRIAL DISPUTATION AND COMPLIANCE

Under the WR Act the circumstances in which industrial action is allowed and not allowed are now more clearly defined. Employees have a specific and limited right to strike during the negotiation of agreements and employers have a similar right to lock out employees. However, an employee or union must not take industrial action to support or advance further claims during the period of operation of an agreement certified under the WR Act.

The Government has strengthened the powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to stop or prevent unlawful industrial action. The Federal Court can enforce Commission orders by injunction. Industrial action having the effect of hindering interstate or overseas trade and secondary boycotts are both now prohibited as is strike pay for industrial action, which includes bans and limitations.

These measures have made a significant contribution to reducing industrial action in Australia to historically low levels. In 1998, for the second successive calendar year, Australia recorded the lowest level of industrial action (measured in terms of working days lost per thousand employees) since records were first compiled in 1913. Available figures indicate that the level of industrial action continues to be low in 1999. It is also note worthy that the level of disputes in Australia today is only around a sixth of what it was twenty years ago.

Further reform to industrial disputation and compliance arrangements

Under the proposed reforms, protected industrial action will be preceded by longer (5 day) notice periods and by a secret ballot process overseen by the Commission which will determine whether a ballot should or should not proceed. An application for a secret ballot will be able to be refused on the grounds that the applicant is engaged in pattern bargaining or is not genuinely trying to reach agreement.

An application for a secret ballot will only be able to be made during a bargaining period and will be required to include a range of relevant information. The vote would be carried by a majority of valid votes cast with a quorum required of at least 50 per cent of eligible voters.

The Commission will be empowered to suspend a bargaining period on application from a negotiating party if 14 days have passed since the protected industrial action commenced, unless the Commission considers it is in the public interest for the bargaining period to continue.

Suspension or termination of a bargaining period will also be required in the case of a party engaging in unprotected action in relation to a proposed agreement. The amendments will also allow for a bargaining period to be terminated if a party is engaging in pattern bargaining.

The Act is also being amended to improve the efficiency of making and enforcing s.127 orders against unprotected industrial action and to give better access to common law remedies.

All these proposed reforms will help ensure that employees genuinely suppor t any industrial action. They will also provide business with more notice of industrial action, and greater protection and remedies against illegal, unprotected or unreasonably protracted action.

4. MEDIATION

The Bill gives recognition to private, voluntary mediation as an alternative or supplement to the quasi-legal processes of the Commission. It recognises the availability of private mediation on a voluntary basis as an option for dispute resolution prior to protected action, during suspension of a bargaining period, following termination of a bargaining period, as a step in dispute resolution procedures and in relation to agreement-making generally.

Compulsory conciliation will continue to be provided for under the Bill in relation to industrial disputes about allowable award matters, exceptional matters and demarcation disputes. Voluntary conciliation by the Commission will also be available as an alternative to private mediation. A fee for voluntary conciliation will be introduced to minimising the cost differential between it and mediation, and to encourage parties to resolve matters at the workplace level while not discouraging them from seeking assistance to resolve more difficult matters.

Reforms in this area will give employers and employees genuine choice in how they resolve their workplace issues, by allowing them to access the Commission or draw on (local) people who may possess more relevant skills, knowledge and experience.

5. FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The principles of freedom of choice and freedom of association are fundamental to the WR Act. Membership of all industrial organisations is now voluntary. Compulsory unionism and preference for union members in employment are now outlawed and a range of measures have been introduced to provide greater freedom to form and join unions, including enterprise unions. Discrimination against individuals or victimisation of individuals because of their membership or non-membership of a union is prohibited.

Further reforms to freedom of association provisions

The Government is proposing to give wider coverage to the freedom of association provisions by closing loopholes which have emerged in their operation. The current prohibition clauses in agreements which directly require union preference will equally apply to indirect preference provisions such as union encouragement or discouragement clauses. The provisions which allow the Federal Court to set aside or vary contracts made by independent contractors, will be repealed.

The Government also intends to amend the right of entry provisions in the Act to ensure that unions do not operate as uninvited quasi-inspectors in workplaces.

6. UNFAIR DISMISSAL

The previous unfair dismissal system discouraged new employment and has been replaced with a much fairer and simpler system. This has resulted in a significant reduction in unfair dismissal applications. For the first six months 1999 compared to the same period in 1996; the number of federal applications decreased by 48%, where as they remained relatively stable in State jurisdictions, when considered as a whole. This resulted in a 26% overall reduction of unfair dismissal claims - in both federal and State jurisdictions.

Further proposed reforms to unfair dismissal arrangements

The Government’s policy is to secure the passage of legislation through the Senate to exempt small business from the operation of these laws with respect to new employees.

The Government is also proposing a six-month period before any new employee could be eligible to make a claim against an employer of any size .

The new Bill also contains further measures to ease the burden that unfair dismissal applications impose on employers, reinforces disincentives to speculative and unmeritorious unfair dismissal claims and introduces greater rigour in processing of unfair dismissal applications. Access to costs will be widened, contingency fees disclosed and the Commission will be required, at the conciliation stage, to make a recommendation as to the appropriate settlement or discontinuance of the matter, having regard to the merits of the case.

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD

Challenges ahead exist for all of us concerned about workplace relations. We must face them, and meet them with a determined eye to the public interest, not self interest.

VICTORIA

The Bracks policy contemplates the re-creation of a complete new Victorian State industrial relations system. It does so at an admitted direct cost of $23 million dollars to the taxpayer. However it would do so at a much greater cost to the workplace and the public good. It’s the sort of promise you make in opposition when you expect to remain in opposition, but which you really know would be foolhardy if and when in government.

Whatever our political complexion, one thing most would agree with is that the workplace relations system for too long has been too complex. One of the significant bipartisan advances in recent years has been some useful moves towards harmonisation of federal and State workplace relations systems - by both legislative and administrative means. 

The minority Victorian government would do well to reflect on whether $23 million plus would be better spent on hospitals, roads, police and in schools than in creating another unfair dismissal or arbitration jurisdiction.

It should not be forgotten that the creation of one State workplace relations system in Victoria through the transfer of powers to the Commonwealth in 1996 was publicly voted for by the then Labor opposition.

In fact, in the 1996 parliamentary debate on this issue in Victoria Mr. Bracks was the Labor Opposition Shadow Industrial Relations spokesperson. He was the lead speaker in support of the single system in the State. This is what he had to say :

"The Opposition supports in principle the concept of a single national system of industrial relations, and it always has. It can deliver benefits to both employees and employers by creating a uniform national framework for dispute resolution and the application of minimum employment standards that can be more easily complied with and enforced" (Hansard, 21 st November 1996) 

"New entrants to the labour market will be protected by a federal industrial relations system that is better than the former State system….The government has handed over its industrial relations system to the federal government which has significant benefits" (Hansard, 13 th November 1996 - further quotes attached).

In fact, Mr. Bracks and his colleagues went on to claim that the Victorian transfer did not go far enough because it did not transfer the whole lot (he criticised it as a "hybrid" transfer), and actually arg ued that the federal reforms and the federal no disadvantage test for Australian Workplace Agreements would be a more acceptable safety net for Victorian workers.

So, I would think that one of the first challenges Mr. Bracks has is to apply some public interest principles to his industrial relations policy. If he is still true to his public position, he will know, as many of us do, that Australia can ill afford the six systems we currently have, let alone adding a seventh. That might please lawyers, advocates and others who make a living out of the system - but it does nothing to bring the system closer to the workplace and demystify its complexity. Adding cost, complexity and bureaucracy is the wrong way to go if we are to focus on outcomes for the people that matter.

CORPORATIONS POWER

I have earlier this year already floated the idea of moving to a more rational system by a judicious use of the Commonwealth corporations power. It is a proposal which has some intrinsic benefits for both employers and employees. Those benefits (if we are being objective) should cross, at least in part, political divides. Mr. Bracks above-mentioned position and then position of the Australian Democrats suggests that some cross party consideration of such issues is a possibility. Indeed, the Democrats 1998 industrial relations election policy committed that Party to support for, and I quote:

" closer integration of State and Federal systems, with the eventual aim of a unitary industrial relations system across Australia".

Today on Radio National Senator Murray described this proposal as a radical reform which he supports. I welcome his interest in the corporations power and note that Senator Lee also has been publicly supportive of it in the last few days. I should note, however, that in his Senate report released only yesterday Senator Murray said "The Democrats do not believe that a strong or compelling case has been made out on the need for major further reform."

The benefits of the corporation proposal would include:

•  a nationally coherent framework;

•  a simpler, fairer and more secure safety net of minimum wages and conditions; and

•  an end to the complexity and cost created by paper disputes, ambit logs of claim, dispute findings, notional interstatedness, competing award respondency and dual registration of organisations.

There would be a continued role for awards and the Commission, unions and employer bodies but under a different statutory framework. The f ocus would continue to be on enterprise and workplace agreement making, with the underlying protection of a national safety net.

There are however many issues associated with such a proposal - issues that will need to be addressed by all of us, I suggest, before it comes before federal and State governments for decision. But the debate is one worth having.

To this end, I have asked my Department to establish a special project team to further develop these ideas and possible approaches, as a precursor to further consideration and consultation. The team brings together people with high level legal and policy skills. It will also be tapping into private sector and academic constitutional legal expertise. The issues to be explored include:

•  the key features of such a system, including the operation of the safety net;

•  implications for, and the role of, the States;

•  the legislative task, including in relation to registered organisations and freedom of association;

•  the international perspective;

•  costing of the current and possible future arrangements;

•  the state of play on harmonisation between the federal and state systems; and

•  transitional arrangements in the event of moving to a corporations power based system.

I am looking to release a series o f discussion papers on these and related issues early next year. It will encourage a meaningful debate on the system as it moves into the next century.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the 1996 Workplace Relations Act has changed, in a sensible way, the framework for workplace relations in Australia, and not before time. Employers and employees are now the central focus of the system rather than third party structures.

The outcomes have, on almost all major indicators, been good. This shift has been invaluable in creating more productive and competitive workplaces, fewer disputes and more diverse, secure and rewarding jobs. This in turn has driven economy wide improvements in growth and employment, lower inflation and interest rates and higher living standards.

However, there is no room for policy stagnation. There are still problems to be addressed - some big, some small. The parliament has its role to play - including in the current debate on the More Jobs, Better Pay Bill , together with legislation next year on registered organisations and its attitude to the debate about the constitutional structure of the system.

The debate will continue, including in the National Key Centre and with the speakers and participants at today’s conference. The federal government looks forward to continuing its leadership role in delivering better outcomes for the workplace as required by the public interest.

Enjoy the rest of the conference, and I look forward to hearing about its outcomes.

Thank you.

 

 

 

jy  1999-12-01  11:59