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A new workplace? Facts, myths and challenges in workplace relations. Speaking notes to the Industrial Relations Society of Australia 1999 National Convention, Perth, Western Australia, 23 October 1999



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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 to the Industrial Relations Society of Australia  

1999 National Conventio
n

A NEW WORKPLACE? 

FACTS, MYTHS AND CHALLENGES IN 

WORKPLACE RELATIONS

Perth 

Western Australia 

23 October 1999

President and members of the Federal and State commissions, colleagues and friends,

I would like to thank Commissioner Gregor convenor of the Con vention committee and Hugh Armstrong President of the Industrial Relations Society for inviting me to close the Convention this evening. I congratulate the organising committee on the Convention’s lively and informative coverage of contemporary workplace relations issues. You have had an excellent array of speakers and contributors - both in formal sessions and in concurrent workshops - an indication that the Society remains very active.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to mention some of the myths, facts and challenges surrounding the current workplace relations debate in Australia. In a few short minutes I could not do justice to such an ambitious topic. But particularly in the current environment there are so many myths around that I can hardly present a speech these days without rebutting a handful of them with a few facts. So I will deal with three of them in my remarks - and then get onto what’s even more important - the challenges of the new workplace. That should ensure that the Convention ends on sharp debating points, as all good Conventions should.

THE MYTHS REBUTTED  

Myth #1: That the 1996 federal workplace relations reforms and the 1999 More Jobs Better Pay Bill are ideologically driven experiments that dishonour Australia’s past industrial relations tradition .

There is no doubt that the 1996 and 1999 reforms are underpinned by policy values. Indeed any legislation worth its salt should be. I make no apologies for that. But what we now have and are working towards is no text book theory or ideological experiment. The 1996 Act took a highly regulated system which had developed in a piecemeal fashion and injected a new workplace vigour into its framework. It took a system which, because of its statutory inflexibility, did not deliver acceptable outcomes during the Accord years, and we gave primacy to employers and employees over the institutions and associations which had assumed a dominant role.

In doing so, we have 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. But the outcomes being delivered, in even a short time of three years, are almost without exception very good - and certainly superior to what went before.

Importantly, the 1996 Act did not spurn all that preceded it. It 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.

It took the better aspects of those features, modified their role to contemporary economic and social objectives, and added new choices and flexibilities within a safety net framework. Retaining these features but making them r elevant to and effective within our new economy and increasingly libertarian society is hardly an act of blind ideological zeal. It is more a case of responsible public policy making.

Indeed I would argue that had we not changed the system in 1996, and if we do not continue to do so as and when necessary, then the system itself will fall into disrepute. Our institutions risk becoming more remote from the workplace and less relevant to employers and employees if they are not given functions and powers which reflect end of century conditions and meet contemporary values in our labour market. And if the institutions fail in that way through legislative neglect, then the system itself is discredited under a weight of irrelevance. I argue, clearly, that the integrity of the system itself requires progressive change. Rather than damaging the system and its institutions, the 1996 Act and the 1999 Bill provide for a continuing relevance. In this context, the claim of a radical ideological experiment is exposed as being part of the expected, but unsophisticated, scare campaign.

And this observation is as true, in fact even more apt, to the 1999 reforms being considered at the moment by the federal parliament. As necessary as they are, it is ridiculous to say that they would structurally dismantle the system. After the passage of the legislation, those four features I mentioned would continue. Yes, with necessary modifications, but remain they would.

It is always the want of those who set their mind against reform to exaggerate and mislead, and gloss over facts that don’t suit pre-determined positions. This is particularly so in the politically charged area of workplace relations legislation. As expected as it might be, it does not dilute the need to focus on what is actually being proposed - rather than what is imputed as motive or speculated as to impact.

The More Jobs Better Pay Bill needs to be looked at both in the context of the Bill and the system which will remain after its passage. An amending Bill is only a means to an end. This Bill changes some aspects of what is there, and leaves many others untouched.

By all means assess whether we will have an economically responsible or socially fair system. But do so with both the Bill and the remaining Act in hand. And when one does that objectively, one would readily conclude that the system would still provide for at least the following ten checks and balances against a so-called deregulated model:

1. continued safety net award regulation 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 based on independently arbitrated award standards as a pre-condition to the lawfulness of all collective or individual agreements;

8. continued rights to challenge 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.

To say that a system which retains these features, even in a modified form, is in the words of the outgoing ACTU President ‘the most draconian industrial relations legislation she has ever seen’ says much more about the posturing and subjective self interest of the claimant than the Bill itself. It is an assertion that does the ACTU and the debate no credit.

Nor does one need to simply use a domestic measuring stick to objectively assess the true nature of the 1996 and 1999 reforms. I recently re-read the White Paper on industrial relations reforms ‘Fairness at Work’ distributed last year by the Blair Labour government in the UK. It was, in the words of Prime Minister Tony Blair, “an industrial relations settlement for this parliament”- in other words the full extent of his government’s industrial relations policy objectives.

Does it seek to implement a system of conciliation and arbitration? No. Does it seek to provide a right to protected action? No. Does it introduce a no-disadvantage test before individual or collective agreements are made? No. Does it provide for an independent tribunal compulsorily making awards and regulating standards? No

Rather its major policy initiative is to require trade unions to be recognised “where a majority of the relevant workforce wishes it”. In other words, a workplace could have 49% trade union members and the employer in the UK (under the Blair Labour preferred model) would still have no obligation to recognise the union as a bargaining agent. Just imagine the outcry if that position was advocated by the Coalition in Australia. Contrast it to our law, and our policy, that forces any employer to recognise as a bargaining agent a trade union official even where one employee out of one hundred authorises the union to represent them.

These facts expose the ridiculous claim that with the 1999 amendments Australia would have one of the most deregulated labour markets in the OECD. The truth is that we still have a long way to go, that we are moving in an evolutionary fashion, and that we are doing so with sensible regard to the historic role and features of the Australian system.

In fact, many of the values that underpin our approach in the 1996 and 1999 reforms appear to be similar to those expressed by the Blair government in the UK - which has retained almost all significant elements of the Thatcher government’s industrial relations changes that were so heavily criticised at the time. Who can forget Labor Prime Minister Blair berating the UK Trade Union Congress in 1998 with these words:

“There will be no going back. The days of strikes without ballots, mass picketing, closed shops and secondary action are over.”

Yet, in Australia union officials and a few commentators prophesy oppression and social chaos if we dare propose a requirement for secret ballots as a precondition to the right to strike.

And Tony Blair continued, with words even more instructive:

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

C an you imagine the outcry if the Coalition got to the point where it could make that claim with similar pride. Just think what would be said if our 1999 amendments to the objects of the Act, rather than emphasise (as they do) ‘an award safety net addressing the needs of the low paid’, proposed ‘the most deregulated system in the world’. You would have the organised labour movement in a state of frenzy.

Finally, as I conclude my analysis of this first myth - I simply 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 acquiessed to by many in the labour movement through the Accord and its embrace of enterprise bargaining. They are words worth recalling time and time again, 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.”

I think Democrat Senator Andr ew Murray put it very succinctly this week in a speech delivered in Canberra. 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.”

Ladies and gentlemen, yes - our objectives for the workplace relations system in Australia are based on certain values and the need for a contemporary and efficient framework that is integrated with wo rkplace aspirations and national economic and social goals. But to assert that it is an ideological experiment that dishonours our past traditions is being as partisan and wrong as I would be if I claimed that Essendon had won this years AFL flag.

Myth #2:That the 1996 federal workplace relations reforms and recent decisions have spelt the death knell for compulsory arbitration.

It is common these days for opponents of the federal government’s workplace relations policies to incite workers and the public to believe that they have lost, or are losing, access to basic elements of conciliation and arbitration. This is again a gross m isrepresentation.

The 1996 Act retained access to conciliation and arbitration by the Commission, with the edges around arbitration pruned to ensure that the scope of arbitral regulation did not extend way beyond a safety net of wages and conditions necessary to protect fair and reasonable working conditions. We did this by prescribing a range of specified allowable matters for arbitral regulation, with non allowable matters not capable of arbitral regulation except in exceptional circumstances. We did this so that a concurrent system of workplace bargaining, which is overwhelmingly beneficial for employees and employers, could work without being suffocated by award regulation intruding into non safety net conditions of employment. And that workplace bargaining system has overwhelmingly lifted living standards for Australian workers and their families.

Yet our opponents still argue that legislatively prescribing allowable maters is both unfair and contrary to the Australian tradition. But those who make this claim encounter a number of difficulties.

Firstly, they are usually union officials who are largely the gatekeepers to the award system and who therefore have a significant vested interest in themselves controlling access to arbitrated standards, rather than the legislature itself acting in the public interest. So I discount the merits of the views of those with self interest in preserving unchanged the old model by the degree of their self interest.

Secondly, the proposition fails dismally to reveal just how extensive is the coverage of the allowable matters (even in their form to be amended) - ranging from basic wage and leave conditions to penalty rates, annual leave loadings, shift allowances and leave for care for sick family members.

I noticed just this week in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Brad Norington, who has written extensively on unions in recent times, entitled “Undermining the Unions” the following interesting observation:

Unions not suprisingly have resisted the mandatory stripping back of awards….Begrudgingly, however most admit that their members have not been hurt much by the award stripping process because the central provisions on minimum pay, annual leave, sick leave, overtime and penalty rates remain untouched.”

So once ag ain it appears that the union officials themselves adopt a public posture well divorced from their own knowledge of the facts. And they do so primarily for political reasons.

Thirdly, they fail to give weight to the fact that the arbitral powers not only bear directly on the rights of workers under awards, but also apply in a threshold way to protect any worker making an individual or collective agreement. This is because the no disadvantage test is based on the otherwise applicable arbitrated award. How can it credibly be argued that when the system applies the product of arbitration (that is the award) to regulate the content of agreements that arbitration has been undermined by agreement-making. Of course, it can’t.

Fourthly, it is quite wrong to say that legislative regulation rather than Commission arbitration of workplace wages or conditions of employment is contrary to the Australian tradition. Many State jurisdictions have prescribed for many years minimum wage and statutory conditions such as annual leave, sick leave, long service leave and public holidays. Ironically, those who argue that the legislature should not have a role in regulating what is an allowable matter have had a track record of going to both the legislature and the Commission seeking regulation of conditions of employment. Do not the unions seek improved conditions of employment by either legislation or arbitration or both, as and when it suits? Of course they do and have done - occupational superannuation and occupational training are just two examples in the past decade. Do they not even now argue for legislation governing industrial matters such as protection of employee entitlements on employer insolvency - something about to be delivered by a Coalition federal government, not a Labor government? Of course they do.

And these critics of legislative prescription are very selective about the lessons of history. The fact is that the person deified as the founder of arbitration in the Australian tradition, Henry Bourne Higgins, lamented in the opening words of his Harvest er judgement of 1907 - which ushered in the era of arbitrated wages and conditions across industry - that the parliament had, and I quote, “shunted its legislative responsibility” in leaving it to his conciliation and arbitration court to define what is “fair and reasonable”. For the parliament to now be providing some legislative framework around the operation of arbitration is simply not an undermining of the system or the Australian tradition.

Before I leave my few remarks about arbitration, I should mention the recent Full Bench decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in the Coal and Allied (Hunter Valley) matter. This decision was a very important one, and one which the federal government welcomed because it clearly applied to the facts of that case the objects of the 1996 Act in the manner intended. The CFMEU and some of its comrades, predicably (but unintelligently) described this result as the end of arbitration. The fact that the Commission had terminated the bargaining period on the CFMEU’s application, that the Commission had arbitrated under s170MX at the unions request, that the Commission had heard oral and written evidence and submissions from the CFMEU and its lawyers for months on end and the fact that the Commission at the conclusion of the arbitration found no merit in the unions claims seemed to have escaped the CFMEU once a journalist with a note pad got on the other end of the phone for a public comment. Far from being the end of arbitration, it was an arbitrated outcome that demonstrated that the safety net is available to all workers in the coal industry, but that industrial action designed to force above safety net outcomes not conceded by employers is a costly, and at the end of the day, futile exercise if the demands have no intrinsic merit.

Myth #3: That the 1999 More Jobs Better Pay Bill , currently before the federal parliament, is an attack on the independence of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission .

The Commission has played an important role in the development of the system in Australia, and continues to do so. But as is evident from even that brief quote I made from Higgins, the Commission is and always has been the creature of statute. The Commission has always had an independence, but an independence based on the statutory role prescribed to it by the parliament of the day.

The 1996 Act and the 1999 reforms are consistent with the unquestioned independence of the Commission. Under the Coalition, the Commission has operated as a free agent, as it should, within its statutory charter. Unlike the previous Keating government, the Coalition has not contested decisions not to our liking by public denigration. Memories fade fast, but none should forget the public reaction of Keating, his then Minsters Cook and Willis and (then) ACTU figures Bill Kelty, Martin Ferguson and George Campbell after the 1991 national wage case. Keating publicly threatened the existence of the Commission when it failed to adopt the Accord Mark VI dictates, whilst Kelty described its decision as “vomit”. In an almost unprecedented manner, the Commission in its decision felt obliged to publicly defend its position against the Labor government’s attack on its independence in the following terms:

“The Commission is concerned with its independence and integrity…It is our view that the public perception of that integrity and independence has been jeopardised by the manner of the recent actions of the Commonwealth government and the ACTU.” (National Wage Case decision, April 1991, pp9-10)

Fo r our part, we have strongly and publicly supported some of the important decisions of the Commission over the past three years which have applied the principles of the new Act to major issues of public interest. However, when the Coalition has disagreed with Commission decisions we have done so by exercising the statutory rights parliament has given the government of the day to appeal, seek reviews or intervene in the public interest and advance argument on merit.

Nor do I accept the Labor Party’s refrain that the proposal to introduce the option of 7 year term appointments into the legislation compromises the Commission’s independence. It’s a bit rich for that criticism to come from a party that abolished the Conci liation and Arbitration Commission in 1988 and created a new tribunal under a different name and re-appointed every member of the previous tribunal to the new body except the one they wanted to get rid off. Let’s not forget the lengths they went to eliminate Justice Staples.

Of course, critics of the government’s proposals do not inform the public that the appointment changes we are seeking would not apply to any existing member of the tribunal. All members, including all appointees of previous governments, will retain their life tenure until retiring age. And - perhaps even more importantly - the right for appointment to life tenure will remain available to all governments. The proposal for a limited tenure is in addition to the existing appointment provisions, not a substitution for them. It is designed to ensure that as the tribunal changes over the years, that there is sufficient flexibility to ensure that its membership bears a relationship to its work. The trend has been over the past decade or so for appointees to have generally been appointed at a younger average age than they were previously. A legislative option for future term appointments means that not all new appointees must necessarily have future tenure projected out 20 and in some cases 30 years, to a point where one cannot sensibly predict the nature or role of the system.

Nor is a fixed tenure option unprecedented. The immediate past President of the federal commission was appointed in the 1990’s by the then Labor government for a fixed term. Labor now says that was a special case. Again, it seems one rule for Labor, one for the rest. Term appointments for some members of industrial relations commissions apply in State jurisdictions such as Tasmania, South Australia and (until recently) Queensland. Officers in other jurisdictions, such as equal opportunity bodies, ombudsmen and workers compensation conciliators hold term appointments, as did Judicial Registrars appointed to the former Industrial Relations Court of Australia, magistrates appointed to the NSW Local Court and members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Where were the critics when these appointments were made or continued, even by Labor governments. Moreover, is anyone pointing to credible evidence to suggest that these officers have not operated independently of the government of the day, or been free to do so?

To summarise, let me quote from the following legislation:

The President shall be appointed by the governor-general from among the justices of the High Court. He shall be entitled to hold office during good behaviour for seven years, and shall be eligible for reappointment…”

No - that’s not the current Act or our 1999 Bill. It is in fact section 13 of the very first Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904. So - rooted in t he system, from its inception was a term appointment for the sole member of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. In fact, the High Court found, in the Boilermakers Case 1956 that in fact the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration could not constitutionally exercise both "judicial" and "arbitration and conciliation" powers, so the two functions were split between the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the Commonwealth Industrial Court. These functions have remained separated ever since.

So, it must be remembered that fixed terms have been used in the past and that there is no "judicial" barrier to their use in the future. By all means, argue the merits of the proposition - whether the option we seek to legislate is needed or desirable. But do not impugn the motives of the government or the good name of the Commission by suggesting that interference is either being sought or capable of being given.

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD  

I have rebutted a few of the myths doing the rounds because they colour the current debate in an unseemly fashion.

However, I am much more interested in concluding my remarks to you on a more positive and forward looking note. 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 i nterest, not self interest.

As important as is the need for progressive legislative change, the greater challenge is actually one common to us all. We must all recognise the context in which we conduct the debate. Workplace relations is not ultimately a factor of legislation, arbitration, submissions to tribunals or third party activism. It is what employers and employees do at the workplace, and why they do it. Our combined challenge, even in periods of hotly contested debate, is to focus our attention on the workplace and give its participants the primacy in our decisions.

If we do so, then we are most likely to contribute to a system that meets employers and workers needs and aspirations. Conversely, if we lose that focus, or allow process to color the objectives then we lose our way. That was one of the great failures that underlined the Accord approach to workplace relations. It decreed from on high based on a closed deal between a select few. It is a failure rectified by the 1996 Workplace Relations Act.

That is why I already have concerns about the potential for bad industrial relations decisions to be made by the new minority Bracks Labor government in Victoria. No only is that government an incredibly inexperienced group of politicians, but it is accompanied by a leader installed by factional and industrial maneuvers only months ago, and with an industrial relations policy I doubt even the authors (let alone the public) intended to be implemented by an executive government.

In this context the challenge for Mr. Bracks is to keep a focus on the best interests of the workplace and not the whims and fancies of deal makers behind the scenes who put him there and authored his policy.

The threats of industrial warfare in coming months by unions across the bu ilding, manufacturing and health sector within hours of the swearing in of the new Premier is a clear challenge to the public interest, and thereby the authority of the Premier and his minority government. That the new Industrial Relations Minster saw fit to telephone mass rally organisers to wish them well in taking their vote to threaten industrial warfare , and to do so as her first policy action in government beggars belief - and says something about the priorities of the new government in a State where executive administration had been in caretaker mode for nearly two months. You would have thought, at the very least, there were more important things to do on day one than make a comrade to comrade call.

I take a further example. 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 argued 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.

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 Senator Murray’s recent speech - which I quoted from earlier - suggests that some cross party consideration of such issues is a possibility. Indeed, I have already had some preliminary discussions with Senator Murray on this issue. The benefits 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 focus would continue to be on enterprise and workplace a greement 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 of discussion papers on these and related issues earl y next year. It will encourage a meaningful debate on the system as it moves into the next century.

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. And, as always, there will be challenges unseen to us all. The debate will continue, including in this Society. We all have a role in meeting those challenges. The federal government looks forward to continuing its leadership role in delivering better outcomes for the workplace as required by the public interest.

I thank all Society members and speakers for their contribution to this Convention, and again acknowledge the good work of your organising committee. I close this Convention - but not the debate.

VICTORIAN PARLIAMENTARY LABOR PARTY POSITION ON SINGLE INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS SYSTEM IN VICTORIA

EXTRACTS FROM VICTORIAN HANSARD DEBATES ON THE TRANSFER OF POWER TO THE COMMONWEALTH, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1996 - DEBATE ON THE COMMONWEALTH POWERS (INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS) BILL 1996

Steve Bracks, Member for Williamstown, Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations

"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, page 1466)

"New entrants to the labour market will be protected by a federal industrial relations system that is better than the former State system" (Hansard, 13 th November 1996, page 1108)

"The government has handed over its industrial relations system to the federal government which has significant benefits" (Hansard, 13 th November 1996, page 1110).

"The government’s Bill is a sham. It creates a hybrid shandy system. That is where it fails…" (Hansard, 21 st November 1996, pages 14678-68)

"The standards contained in the Howard-Reith Australian Workplace Agreement would be better than the proposed conditions of this Bill" (Hansard, 21 st November 1999, page 1471)

Mr. Micaleff, ALP Member for Springvale

"I have always supported the overall principle of moving to a federal system and I accept that potentially many good things can come out of such a move " (Hansard, 19 th November 1996, page 1305)

The Commonwealth Powers (industrial Relations) Bill 1996 transfers most of Victoria’s industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth. It is a pity it does not transfer the lot, and that is one of our key concerns. If it transferred the lot the Bill would have much stronger support from the Opposition" (Hansard, 21 st November 1996, page 1476)

Hon. Theo Theophanous, Labor Upper House Leader (province of Jika Jika)

"Of course the Opposition supports the principle of a single national system of industrial relations…We support the principle of a single national system of industrial relations. [interjection - "Run by Peter Reith"] I don’t think it matters who it is run by. A federal system and national consistency are important." (Hansard, 4 th December 1996, page 1015)

 

 

 

jy  1999-10-26  09:39