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Launch of workplace relations policy, Melbourne, 25 September 1998



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THE HON PETER REITH MP

MINISTER FOR WORKPLACE RELATIONS AND SMALL BUSINESS

LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

PARLIAMENT HOUSE

CANBERRA ACT 2600

 

 

LAUNCH OF WORKPLACE RELATIONS POLICY

MELBOURNE, 25 SEPTEMBER 1998

 

E&OE                                                                    

 

REITH:

 

I am delighted today to release the Coalition’s Workplace Relations Policy for the forthcoming election. The policy is entitled More Jobs, Better Pay and reflects upon the successes of the introduction of the Government’s reform package after the 1996 election. It argues, we believe persuasively, for a continuation of that process of reform for the benefits that it will provide to the Australian economy, to employers and to employees.

 

We went into the 1996 election with a significant policy. That policy was largely then implemented in the Workplace Relations Act and, from the commencement of the legislation on 1 January 1997, we have worked to see the full implementation of that legislation. We have built on that legislation in an evolutionary way with further reforms, reforms to remove superannuation from the allowable matters list, a series of technical reforms which went through prior to Christmas last year, and administrative reforms in terms of harmonisation and the like. And we gave a greater focus to the implementation of the reform package in specific and nominated industries, where we believe the results of our reform process are able to be demonstrated and where there are benefits beyond the particular industries to individuals, both employers and to employees.

 

The policy prescription is consistent with the general objective of the Government, which is to introduce reform to continue to strengthen the Australian economy, to give Australians the opportunity for work and more satisfying work in the future.

 

The emphasis of the policy, of course, continues that focus on agreement-making, which allows people at work, either collectively or individually, to enter into agreements, those agreements thereby providing workplace changes to provide the higher productivity to underpin wages growth and therefore living standards right across the Australian economy.

 

It has been a very successful policy, not just in respect of business but for individuals as well. We’ve seen sensible wages growth and we’ve also seen, with the refocussing of the Industrial Relations Commission, a fairer deal for low income Australians. Two wage increases granted by the Commission have been a very fair deal for low income earners.

 

They have provided in two national wage cases wage increases of $10 and $14, a total of $24 over two years, compared to Labor’s last three years of $8, $8 and $8. So we’ve produced a better outcome in real terms for low income earners in two years, better than Labor’s last three years. And because inflation has been down, it’s been better - after inflation dollars and with interest rates down, we’ve set a much better economic climate for those low paid workers.

 

In terms of industrial action, it should never be forgotten that in the 1996 election, with the support of leading members of the then Labor Government, Bill Kelty said that if the Coalition was elected there would be industrial strife throughout the land. The reality was that, with the stronger compliance measures that we introduced and the more co-operative system that we are building, the level of industrial disputes in Australia actually fell. In 1997, the first full year of operation of the Workplace Relations Act, that gave us the lowest level of working days lost per thousand employees since 1913. This has been a very successful start to the reform process and we intend to continue it.

 

Labor’s policy is a policy to return to the past. Incredibly the Labor Party itself even abandoned its own policy position in March 1996 in some retrograde search for a policy position it had back in the ‘80s, if not earlier in the 1970s. It will provide a lot more power to union bosses to veto agreements made between employers and employees in non-union workplaces. It will abolish the protection for unionists and non-unionists provided by the Office of the Employment Advocate. They will repeal the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act.

 

Incredibly, they are going to allow for industry-wide agreements and thus the right to take protective action across an industry, allowing - in my view therefore encouraging - union bosses to force people to take industrial action in employment places whe re employers and employees are perfectly happy with the arrangements that they have got. That is a quite incredible policy prescription and it can only lead to levels of disputes - or disputes in enterprises where both parties are entirely happy with the arrangements that they’ve entered into.

 

They will abolish junior wage rates, whereas in contrast we will protect junior wage rates and therefore the jobs of young people.

 

We will widen the exemptions for unfair dismissal for small business, and that has been estimated independently by COSBOA to create up to 50,000 jobs. Labor incredibly is going back to some undefined duplication of a scheme that clearly failed, which even they recognise failed - the Brereton scheme based on the ILO Convention 158.

 

In our policy we are proposing some important initiatives, in addition to the building on of the various reforms that we have introduced. We are proposing the introduction of a form of secret ballots, and secret ballots will be a pre-condition to obtaining immunity and therefore access to the protected action provisions of the Act. In other words, the conduct of a secret ballot will be one of the steps pre-conditioning the allowing for protected action.

 

We are also proposing to encourage the use of mediation. Mediation is a form of dispute settlement, or dispute resolution, or dispute management, which we’ve seen elsewhere in other parts of the economy. We believe it can play a relevant role in the industrial or workplace relations arena. If we give, which we propose, legislative authority - or a legislative imprimatur to the concept of mediation, then for all parties, as a voluntary option, we believe that could be useful. Useful in reducing the costs of disputes, settling disputes, in making the settlement of disputes more timely and more relevant to a particular enterprise.

 

Of course, people today can turn to mediation if they so desire. It’s an option already available. But by giving some legislative imprimatur to the concept of mediation we believe we will encourage what is a sensible, alternative, additional option for parties at work.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is an important policy area. It is very important that Australia build on the reforms that have so far been introduced. We are committed to doing so in an evolutionary way and we believe this policy encapsulates the direction which is necessary for a stronger economy, to create more jobs in the future.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Mr Reith, you’ve given an undertaking to preserve the award system but in this policy you haven’t specified (inaudible) in terms of how many allowable matters will remain (inaudible). Doesn’t that leave you open to attacks from the ALP and the union movement that (inaudible) you have a secret agenda to (inaudible)?

 

REITH:

 

The only people that have a secret agenda in this election are the Labor Party, who have 10 dot points and then a promise for a review. And the only reason that they’re doing that is that they don’t want to have a full disclosure of the significant payback to the unions which they will be providing after the election if Labor is to be successful. This policy is very open. It simply builds on the reforms that we’ve already introduced. We’ve nominated a couple of areas where we think further reform if sensible. In terms of where award simplification is up to, it needs to be borne in mind that the process is a continuing one. We’ve got S.109 applications ourselves in at the moment before the Commission. I do think that it’s going to be some months before we see the process closer to completion and we will obviously be focussing on that. This is very clear, the direction that we want to go to. Obviously, if there are further reforms of that nature that we want to include in legislation, we will run the gauntlet of the Senate, as we had to do last time.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

My general view is that, if you take tallies for example - I think tallies are likely to be effectively removed today anyway by agreement. In fact I can refer you to examples where that happened. So whilst there might be a focus on this, the fact of the matter is that parties can by agreement remove any condition they want to, provided that the agreement meets the global no-disadvantage test that we’ve put in place. We are committed to that no-disadvantage test. I think it has worked satisfactorily in the time that we’ve had the Workplace Relations Act working. I think it is a reasonably fair system for both parties. It provides a lot of flexibility. We actually did propose a list of specific conditions in our first legislative proposal, the Workplace Relations Bill, and that was rejected by the Democrats and we were quite happy to go along with their rejection of that concept. So I think what we’ve got here is a fair and balanced means of proceeding.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

I don’t have a shopping list. Our policy position is our policy position, and that’s it.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

What about industrial relations reform on the waterfront? Do you expect the Coalition to have another go at this after the election?

 

REITH:

 

The latest information I have is that in the port operations of Patricks, where the agreement has been put into place in the last couple of weeks, there has been very significant improvement in productivity of over 100 per cent. I understand they are putting out some figures today. About a week ago the press reports were that they had boosted productivity 40 to 50 per cent with half the workforce. That is a very significant breakthrough in the productivity levels on the waterfront. The Government had initiated, or had responded to requests for discussions to further the reform process in the NSS - Northern Stevedoring - in Queensland in the three regional ports there, and those discussions have been under way. We have also had discussions with the Western Australian Government to back up their reform program in 10 regional ports and we expect that to be under way between now and Christmas. We have certainly said to P&O, and we would expect of P&O and the MUA, that they should settle some arrangement and make their claims under the stevedoring industry legislation by the end of the year. So we see the process of reform continuing, particularly in the next few months, to reach the seven benchmarks which have been agreed to by the participating companies.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

What about as a broad policy principle, though? Is it something that you want to see continue after the election?

 

REITH:

 

The broad policy principle was that we want an efficient waterfront. That was always our objective. The companies have signed up to the 25 crane lifts and they are moving to implement that. There are other aspects to the benchmarks where there will be continuing work. For example, the safety record on the Australian waterfront is well and truly below average and we have had a report commissioned on that from Michael Easson. Part of the benchmarks is to improve safety, occupational health and safety on the waterfront. We have a further report being done on that by Dr Douglas, I think it is. We are doing some work co-operatively with the States, who have more responsibilities in respect of OH&S and workers’ comp. matters, so we want to see that process continue. We had agreement at the Labour Ministers’ Council to that effect and we will certainly continue that process.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible) a really aggressive round of labour market reforms, or is it more that you think the current (inaudible) even though every employer group in the country tells you that you need to go further?

 

REITH:

 

We obviously attempt to have good working relationships with the employer groups and they are all fine people and we work closely with them. But the fact of the matter is in most businesses reform is incremental. It’s also the case that for most businesses there are enough reform options in the Workplace Relations Act, as it is today, for those businesses to significantly progress the relationship between employers and employees. I can tell you, I’ve been out there door-knocking, going into businesses - I met some bloke yesterday and he was talking about his particular circumstances. He’d had one meeting with his Chamber - I’m not quite sure who he was referring to as the business organisation, but he hadn’t had a chance to get back to them and from what he told me of his business, our options would be great for his business. But he just hadn’t worked out what those options were, let alone got around to implementing them.

 

Talk about evolutionary reform, the fact is that the Workplace Relations Act for most businesses is well ahead of where they’re at. There are some businesses, sure, where they would like us to go further, but even those businesses and the more, shall we s ay, innovative and entrepreneurial businesses in respect of workplace relations, they will tell you that the Workplace Relations Act has been pretty good for them. You ask me about the waterfront, well, I suppose I should - you should never suggest somebody go and ask a question of somebody before you’ve asked the person themselves what the answer is. But if you go to certain well-known and innovative companies in the coal industry whether or not the Workplace Relations Act has been good in progressing reform, they will tell you it has been. The coal industry has been an area where there has been very significant reform and, sure, complemented by strong product market pressures on them. But that’s an industry where the problems of employer/employee relationships have been intractable and yet where a lot of reform has in fact gone on under the Workplace Relations Act. By the further use of that legislation in the time ahead, there will be continuing reform.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Is this it? Is this as much as we’re going to see you try and do in the next three years?

 

REITH:

 

This is our policy. This is our policy, full stop. In terms of the public debate as well, I think one of the factors which is on the minds of the employer groups and those generally supportive of industrial relations reform is that they do want to see a focus on Labor’s policy because the fact is that that is a very regressive policy. It does take those companies, in their organisational arrangements, back into the ‘70s. One reason Labor’s policy is so impractical, so out-of-date, so archaic, so inappropriate, so inefficient, is that a lot of corporate Australia has moved towards this new system - sure, maybe inadequately, maybe not fast enough, maybe without gusto et cetera, but they have all slowly shifted towards a realisation that they, in the management of their businesses, have to be responsible for this direct relationship.

 

What Labor is saying is scrub all that, go back to the organisational system you had in place in the ‘70s. Apart from it being wrong, unproductive and everything else, it is totally unrealistic. It seems to show absolutely no understanding of how businesses have been trying to reorganise themselves to meet their markets and better manage the labour within their enterprises. I should say that is a very important issue, not one that you can talk about in the corner store so much - I know you can’t get it into a 10-second grab - but I tell you, for business that contrast is a very important contrast to be made and it is a very good reason why, from the point of view of business, they’re focussing on Labor’s policy as much as our policy position.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

On secret ballots, will Western Australia be the model for that?

 

REITH:

 

No, it won’t. In Western Australia the secret ballot, as I understand it, is not one of the conditions leading to protective action. This is. Our proposal is. I think therefore it should attract pretty wide support. Even Tony Cook, the well-known Secretary of the Trades Hall Council in Western Australia, said at the time of the debate about secret ballots in WA that the trade union movement in Western Australia was not opposed to the principle of secret ballots. What they were opposed to was the design and implementation of that particular proposal. We are taking a different approach. We spelt out, sure, the general principle, and we would expect to have discussions in the Committee on Industrial Legislation, which would be with the ACTU and ACCI on the details of the proposal. But it is different from WA in that principal respect, namely under us it is a pre-condition in addition to the other pre-conditions under the Workplace Relations Act before you get to industrial action. So if you’re taking industrial action, whether you’ve had a ballot or not, if it hasn’t met the requirements of the Act (inaudible) protected action, then it’s not protected. It doesn’t matter, you’ve got to meet the other requirements of the Act.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

We’ve not spelt that out. We have not spelt that out and we do intend to genuinely sit down and take reaction from both the unions and from employers about the management of it. I should also say that the then Labor Opposition also publicly supported in principle the concept of secret ballots in Western Australia. In the same way, if you go to the UK - and some of this is in the discussion paper, where secret ballots were introduced, the Trades Union Congress in the UK have publicly said that the measure, as introduced back in 1984 in the UK, was a measure which encouraged more democratic principles in the operation of unions, and in particular in regard to industrial, relations. There’s no doubt there’s a lot of rank and file trade union people today who feel that they don’t have a say about whether or not industrial action is taken. This is a measure which will require the trade union leadership to be responsive and sensitive to the needs of their members. It is a thoroughly democratic proposal.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

In Western Australia are you aware that the provisions have largely been ignored? Will you be making sure that they are enforced in (inaudible)?

 

REITH:

 

We intend to have a practical proposal and it will be practical partly because we will sit down with the industrial parties and discuss its implementation.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Are you able to say at this stage who will conduct the ballots? (Inaudible) equally partisan. Would that be (inaudible) the Employment Advocate?

 

REITH:

 

There are a number of options as to how it would be conducted but it has to be quite clear that the system is entirely fair, entirely above board, entirely transparent and meet a reasonableness test as to the framework to be put in place.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Is there any other area of policy (inaudible) industrial relations?

 

REITH:

 

I haven’t been reading all the Labor Party’s policies so it would be hard for me to give you a running commentary. This is certainly a significant area of difference. Tax is important and I daresay there are others, but there is no doubt there’s a gulf here between the Coalition and Labor on industrial relations policy. The Labor Party are just paying back to their trade union mates. I must say I find it incredible, here in 1998, and they are as much beholden to the ACTU as ever. In some ways they seem to be even more beholden than ever. What a fascinating contrast it makes to compare Kim Beazley hand-in-glove, doing as he’s told by the ACTU, and Tony Blair, his so-called soul mate in the UK, who said on Labour’s recent policy launch, a White Paper on Fairness at Work - Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, said:

 

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

 

Kim Beazley’s policy is: strikes without ballots, mass picketing, closed shops and secondary actions. He’s going to repeal the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act. What a fascinating contrast and, to use Tony Blair’s words, to paraphrase them, Kim Beazley is going back. And that is not in the interests of the rank and file in the trade union movement, let alone the wider Australian community.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible). What would be the effective difference by introducing legislation (inaudible)?

 

REITH:

 

It is happening in other areas, in other judicial and quasi-judicial areas. As Minister for Small Business, for example in the franchising area we introduced a dispute resolution mediator and in other areas the law, even in the building industry - in the building industry in the commercial contracts area, the concept of mediation has a much stronger foothold. What I’m saying is that it could be more readily and more widely used in the industrial relations arena, and by giving legislative imprimatur to the concept we think it will be thereby encouraged.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

It will be a matter for the parties to agree to the manner in which they would jointly go to a mediator, whereas conciliation in the Commission is established by a statutory framework and the Commission has long had that conciliation role. So it can be different but it is a matter for the parties themselves to decide how they want to make best use of the option.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

We have certainly looked at that and I don’t rule that out by any stretch of the imagination. It was part of our policy in 1996 and we have had a look at it but we’ve not as yet got to any detailed proposal. We have, however, focussed in the Blake Dawson Waldron review on financial accountability of unions. We have released publicly the recommendations of that report and we’ve called for responses by unions as well as accounting bodies and the like. We do think that we should move closer to a system where the obligations on union organisations should be closer to the general obligations on corporate entities. But Blake Dawson Waldron goes into that in great detail and we would certainly be expecting to proceed with the majority, or the vast number of those Blake Dawson Waldron recommendations. But before we do we certainly want to sit down with interested parties and hear what they say about it. You’d have to say that the running of unions is a particularly specialised field and, whilst there are accounting organisations and experience outside of unions about it, you do need to actually sit down and talk to the unions about it. They won’t talk before an election but they are usually prepared to talk after.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

How do you propose to bring in the legislative changes? Will there be one Bill, or a few Bills? When are you likely to change (inaudible)?

 

REITH:

 

As far as unfair dismissal law is concerned, that legislation has already been prepared. We propose within this policy going one step further, and that is for the bigger companies a six-month probation period as opposed to the three-month period, which will bring it in line with South Australia, and I think is a better, more balanced approach. But for that proposal to be implemented at a legislative basis would not take long to put together. Some of the other material obviously requires further consultation. The superannuation legislation on award simplification is already basically there. We’ve already introduced that so we could bring that up. We have not actually made any decisions about a legislative timetable. We have in this policy just focussed on the general direction that we want to go with the system.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible) replace conciliation and arbitration?

 

REITH:

 

Mediation is different from arbitration anyway. But no, this is not a replacement of one with the other. This is an additional option for people and a more timely, less costly and sometimes more appropriate option. But it is a voluntary option for people

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

We’ve not turned our mind to a timetable for legislation, let alone wondering whether or not it would be better now or later as far as the Senate is concerned. I’m putting 50 hours aside for the Democrats, that’s all I can say to you.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

With regard to Telstra (inaudible) strike pay provisions for 

 

REITH:

 

I’m not aware of that.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Have you ever given them any advice on that, as you did with (inaudible)?

 

REITH:

 

I couldn’t say we haven’t given Telstra advice about strike pay, and the reason for that is that 12 months ago maybe - don’t quote me on the date, but Andrew Murray wrote to me about strike pay and Telstra. So I think we did provide them with some statement as to how the strike pay provisions of the Workplace Relations Act work. But whether or not we have given them that advice, we would expect them to observe all the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. You can’t get reliable numbers on strike pay and its impact on bans and limitations, but anecdotally there seems absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the strike pay provisions of the Workplace Relations Act have significantly reduced bans and limitations. When I say that the level of industrial disputes is down, I rely on the published numbers from the ABS. They’re the only independent numbers you can use. But I have no doubt that in addition to the big fall-off in that number down to the all-time record, there has also been a significant reduction in bans and limitations. I would invite you to speak to some of the big corporations who have had a history of bans and limitations and ask them if they’ve had less of them since 1 January last year, and the answer is definitely yes.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible).

 

REITH:

 

I don’t think our management of this issue has really got anything to do with the waterfront dispute. I would put it to you that our management of this issue in this campaign is pretty much the same as it was in the ‘96 election campaign.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible) might be different, though.

 

REITH:

 

Nick, you’ve been around long enough for me to discuss with you the reality, as opposed to the perception. The reality is that we had a pretty comprehensive document in ‘96. We started the ‘96 campaign with an undertaking and we basically said at the start of this campaign, if not a bit before, that we would have the same undertaking in respect of not being worse off under an agreement than what was provided for in the award and the no-disadvantage test. It was the Labor Party in ‘96 who said they’d make 1k the big issue, and the only time it became a big issue in the 1996 election campaign was when Keating said they were wrong on unfair dismissals and Kelty threatened World War III if they got back in. This time around it was the Labor Party who again said they were going to make this the big issue, and what did they do? They dropped their policy on launch day because they didn’t want anybody to read it. Let’s hope that Bill Kelty gives another speech next week at the Town Hall. Otherwise I think it’s a bit of a re-run of last time.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

(Inaudible) worse off under this policy.

 

REITH:

 

That is contained - let me just answer that because that is a comment we hear from the other side. We gave that guarantee in the ‘96 election campaign and Cheryl Kernot said, “I’m going to make sure that they legislate that guarantee and I won’t pass their legislation until it does.” I paraphrase her policy position. That is basically what the Democrats said. You ask me about the running of this -you know, IR during this campaign. The fact of the matter is, when people criticise the Workplace Relations Act, they should be attacking Cheryl if they don’t like it because she and the Democrats voted for it. And that actually is a very difficult position for the Labor Party. We did what we said we’d do in the ‘96 election campaign and we had Cheryl Kernot, front-bench extraordinaire from the Labor Party, ticking off saying, “Yes, this is right.” And that is why in many ways it is a very difficult issue for the Labor Party but no-one has buried it more than they have and I think they’ve got a lot to bury. I think it’s an embarrassment.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Buried under the (inaudible)?

 

REITH:

 

Well, here I am here and you can ask me all the questions you like.

 

For further information contact Ian Hanke: 0419 484 095

 

 

 

 

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