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Shadow Minister outlines the Opposition's industrial relations policy

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: The Federal Coalition's big bang approach to industrial relations reform is now officially dead. That's the message Shadow Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Reith, had for a business forum in Melbourne today. In his first major policy speech since taking on the Shadow Industrial Relations portfolio three weeks ago, Mr Reith stressed the importance of an evolutionary approach to labour market reform. However, as Peter McCutcheon reports, the Coalition still believes there has to be major changes to the Federal industrial relations system.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: It was former Opposition Leader, John Hewson, who brought the term 'big bang' to the Australian political debate. He was visiting New Zealand at the time and was impressed by that country's radical approach to labour market reform, including the quick phasing out of the award system. John Howard signalled a departure from this approach last year when, as Industrial Relations spokesperson, he said the Coalition would be reviewing its 'opt-in' provisions, that is everyone was deemed to be outside the award system unless both employee and employer agreed to opt back in. Peter Reith told an Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry forum today that the Coalition is now seriously considering abolishing this provision, and everyone would be deemed to be inside the award system unless parties agreed to 'opt-out' onto work contracts. He was later asked why the Coalition was rejecting a 'big bang' approach.

PETER REITH: The point is that we need to be changing attitudes and behaviour so that people can end up with higher real wages, and that's a step-by-step process. The problem with the Government is they keep taking backward steps, not forward steps. Under us, there will be a sensible, evolutionary, but significant industrial relations reforms, so that instead of people having ever lower real wages, which has been the policy under this current government, people under us will have the prospect of higher wages.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: You've talked about considering 'opt-out' provisions. How would they work?

PETER REITH: Well, they would simply allow people to remain in the system as it is today, a system which, over time, is going to be reformed, but then give them the opportunity, the chance, the choice, to opt out to enter into an agreement if it so suited them.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: So will awards over time disappear?

PETER REITH: Under that system, obviously awards will continue to have a place, but it's a situation where the nature of awards will over time change and represent more of a safety net, rather than the prescriptive, complicated, totally regulated system we have today under Mr Keating.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Will there be a scope for wage rises under the award system as you see it?

PETER REITH: Yes. But that obviously is going to change over time as the nature of awards changes and becomes more of a safety net. But, look, our policy is for higher wages, but we just want a system where that can be paid for so everybody is better off.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Despite these words, is the Coalition really softening its industrial relations policy portrayed by the Government and unions in the last election as hard-line and zealous. Peter Reith again.

PETER REITH: Well, the 'opt out' obviously allows people to stay where they are without the alleged disruption of moving from the existing system to a system based on agreements outside of the exiting arrangement for most people, and so, to that extent, it's a easier transition to more flexible arrangements and less open to a scaremongering campaign from the Government. In fact, the sort of concept that we are talking about was endorsed by Mr Keating in '93, but then abandoned under union pressure. So it is .. sure, it's a more politically saleable position, and I think it ought to be reassuring to people that the prospect under us is higher wages, the prospect if Mr Keating gets back is Mr Recession and a policy of continuing lower real wages.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Coalition Industrial Relations spokesman, Peter Reith, in Melbourne this morning.