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Industrial reform in the university sector.

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Industrial Reform in the University Sector [18 June 2004]

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Many years ago when John Howard was the Opposition spokesman on industrial relations labour market deregulation was his passionate goal.

For John Howard labour market deregulation had three main features - removing unions as much as possible from the negotiating process, reducing or removing a range of industrial benefits and entitlements such as penalty rates, paid rates awards and unfair dismissal laws and restricting the role of the Industrial Relations Commission.

It is therefore no surprise that since being elected in 1996 his government has presented to the Parliament over sixty bills dealing with industrial relations. An attack upon trade unions, the award system and the Commission was always going to be a major part of the Coalition’s agenda despite John Howard’s promise that no worker would be worse off and that he wanted people to fell “relaxed and comfortable”.

To borrow another phrase people should have been both “alert and alarmed!”

Before turning to the specific topic we are addressing today, industrial reform in the university sector, I need to first address the broader topic of industrial relations policy and practice under this Government.

After all the higher education sector is really no different to most other industries or sectors when it comes to industrial relations - or, as it is called today, workplace relations. People employed in universities should be entitled to the same opportunities to negotiate their wages or salaries and conditions that other employees are entitled to. They should be entitled to become members of unions and to have the right to collective bargaining as enshrined in ILO conventions. They should be entitled to the protection of an Industrial Commission if necessary.

The fact that universities receive substantial funding from government (though it is declining in real terms) should not preclude them from the same rights and opportunities still enjoyed by many other workers.

The Coalition Government has a different view but I will come back to that later.

I said earlier that the Coalition has presented over sixty industrial relations bills. What is significant is that the overwhelming majority have been designed to limit, or remove, conditions of employment, restrict industrial rights and limit the ability of unions to represent employees.

Moreover someone has a cynical sense of humour because the title of the bill often reflects the complete opposite of the legislation’s intent. It appears that George Orwell still lives somewhere deep in the Department of Workplace Relations!

Let me just give a couple of examples.

In 1999 the Government introduced the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill. Rather than more pay and better jobs the main thrust of the bill sought to prevent low paid workers from receiving safety net wage increase until their awards had been reduced to the list of twenty allowable matters.

More recently in 1993 we had the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting the Low Paid) Bill 2003 which did nothing of the sort. In fact this bill would have made it more difficult for the Industrial Relations Commission to grant wage rises to the very low paid, the working poor.

Probably the bill which was the most hypocritical in its designation was the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002. There was nothing fair about this bill. It removed the right of employees in small business to seek redress for unfair dismissal. This proposed legislation, which has been rejected on a number of occasions in the Senate, actually started out as the Workplace Relations (Unfair Dismissals) Bill. At least it was a more appropriate title.

Further, on unfair dismissal laws, the Government sought through its Workplace Relations (Termination of Employment) Bill to exclude the State tribunals from hearing unfair dismissal cases where employees are employed by a corporation.

It was claimed that this would bring about greater uniformity. In realty it would have created greater complexity as hundreds of thousands of employees would have suddenly found themselves with their working conditions and industrial rights regulated by two jurisdictions instead of one.

In February this year the House of Representatives passed the Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill. But who is it better for? The Bill effectively prevents a range of employees such as nurses, teachers, aged care workers and child care workers from taking industrial action even though the Act specifically allows it during the bargaining period.

The implication is that these groups of employees are irresponsible. This is grossly offensive to their professional integrity and the great service they provide even though in many cases these employees are substantially underpaid.

Currently there are 12 Workplace Relations Bills listed on the Senate Notice Paper including the Better Bargaining Bill. They include such titles as the Award Simplification Bill, the Good Faith Bargaining Bill, the Improved Remedies for Unprotected Action Bill and the Simplifying Agreement Making Bill. George Orwell has been replaced by Monty Python!

Last week a Senate Committee considered the Occupational Health & Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement & Compliance) Bill. The effect of this proposed legislation is to remove the primary right of public sector unions to be involved in health and safety issues in the workplace.

Why is the Government doing this? They claim that it will provide greater flexibility. Yet no evidence was presented to show that the unions are an impediment to improved health and safety.

In fact it was recognised by the Department and Comcare that the Unions play a major role through education & training, advice, expertise and promoting the establishment of heath and safety committees.

Moreover that support is provided to all employees collectively whether members of the union or not. This is a classic example of where the rhetoric about flexibility and deregulation are paramount over real issues in the workplace.

I am amazed that so much time, money and energy is wasted on these exercises when there are more fundamental and important issues to be addressed.

That leads me to comment on recent developments in the university sector.

The background to this discussion is of course the Higher Education Support Bill which was eventually passed on the last day of the Parliament last year. The bill sought to implement the so called Nelson Reforms including the proposals for Creating Flexible and Effective Workplaces:

The Government proposed to increase funding by $404.3 million between 2005 and 2007 provided the institutions complied with the Government’s workplace relations policies particularly in regard to Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA’s).

The Government also stated that it would provide $55.2 million over 2 years (2006-2007) for a Workplace Productivity Programme but no details on just how this programme would operate were announced. Rather it stated that

“The details of the evidence universities will need to provide to demonstrate a commitment to workplace reform will be settled prior to the Programme’s implementation”

Finally the Government also announced that it would seek to amend the Workplace Relations Act to limit the ability of staff to take protected industrial action.

When the bill came before the Parliament it contained just one small section dealing with these proposals. In a 200 page bill tucked away on page 40, Section 33-15, were the conditions for receiving a grant. If you blinked you might have missed them but they were far reaching in their intent.

Those few words if enacted would have given the Minister for Education an absolute power to dictate to universities and their staff how they should negotiate their wages and working conditions.

Senator Tierney in his speech in the Senate claimed that

“All we are saying in this bill……is that Australian Workplace agreements be available to staff if they want to access them. There is no compulsion.”

But that is not what the proposal said. Firstly, the requirement was based on the implementation of the Government’s “workplace relations policies” which are far more extensive than the workplace relations legislation actually provides. Secondly it was the Minister who had to be satisfied, who had the final say, on whether those policy requirements had been met.

The distribution of $400 million in grant money was thus conditional on a subjective political judgement by the Minister. The proposal was contrary to the Workplace Relations Act in that it undermined the principles of enterprise bargaining enshrined in that legislation.

Is it any wonder that there was widespread opposition to this proposal from across the sector? All groups, unions, staff, students, vice-chancellors, expressed outrage at this deliberate attempt to interfere in the management of universities and to undermine their autonomy.

I must say that for a government that constantly talks about the need for employers and their employees to negotiate free of outside interference these proposals were

hypocritical in the extreme. The Government constantly talked about the need for fundamental workplace reform in higher education but they produced little evidence before the Senate Committee or during the parliamentary debate that current arrangements or legislation were an impediment to productivity and flexibility.

The Government argued that universities were currently prevented from having the flexibility to employ academic staff on higher salaries. That was demonstrated to be absolute nonsense. Evidence was provided to show that universities have the full range of options available - awards, enterprise agreements, and individual contracts and they utilise them.

As an aside it is also interesting to note that when it comes to fiscal policy generally the Coalition has historically opposed the use of tied grants to achieve policy outcomes. It seems however that they are prepared to make an exception in the case of university funding.

The Labor Party took a strong stance and opposed these measures. So did the minor parties. Initially, so did the independent Senators though as we know they reached, literally, an eleventh hour deal to pass the legislation with amendments.

Ultimately the clause that was agreed to between the Government and the independent Senators whilst better than the original does not provide the complete barrier against ministerial interference that the independent Senators thought.

Each enterprise agreement must now contain a clause stating that “the provider may offer AWA’s in accordance with the Workplace Relations Act 1996.”

The new provisions also provide that:

(1) The Secretary may, on behalf of the Commonwealth enter into a funding agreement with an education provider relating to a grant….[and]

(2) The agreement may specify conditions to which the grant is subject, that are additional to the conditions that apply under Division 36.

(2B) Where the agreement specifies conditions to which the grant is subject……those conditions must not relate to industrial relations matters.

Unfortunately the scope of the term “industrial relations matters” is not defined in this legislation and is the subject of much debate. But that’s what happens when you draft amendments on the run at 11pm on the final night of parliamentary sittings.

The Department of Education, Science & Training website makes it clear that the Government still intends to pursue its preference for AWA’s as much as possible.

I have focused on this aspect of the Bill because it was the most significant attack on university autonomy. The legislation contained many other aspects which were also of concern to the Opposition. These included the new provisions dealing with the composition of governing boards, the distribution of funding within universities and of course the huge increases in fees and HEC's charges.

In all there were over 300 amendments moved by the Opposition, Democrats & Greens. None were accepted. The final deal with the independents involved about 120 amendments to the original bill.

A central aspect of the bill was of course the issue of indexation. This remains unresolved. All that is promised is a review and maybe an outcome by 2007.

Moreover most of the funding does not come through until 2007. The additional amount this year is only $67 million. Government operating grants for universities have only

increased since 1996 from $4.9 billion to $5 billion. That is an actual decrease in real terms of approximately $1 billion.

So there is plenty of scope for the Minister to continue to apply pressure and link future funding to compliance with the Government’s own agenda rather than the real needs of universities, staff and students.

Let me conclude with some comments on Labor’s approach to industrial relations.

Labor supports an industrial relations system that is based on flexibility with fairness. Indeed it was a Labor Government that transformed this economy during the 1980’s and early 1990’s by promoting a productivity based wage fixing system and industrial relations reform.

We introduced enterprise bargaining underpinned by a safety net system of minimum wages and awards overseen by an independent industrial relations commission.

We did it by cooperating with unions and employers not by legislating to remove entitlements, award provisions and industrial or legal rights.

Our industrial relations policy is still based on those fundamental principles. We have made it clear that if elected we will abolish AWA’s because they are a mechanism for setting wages and conditions below the relevant award.

Despite all the attempts, and expenditure, by the Government to promote AWA’s after 8 years they still only apply to about 3% of the workforce. That is why they have tried so hard to force them on to public servants and now university staff.

We will retain the option of employers and employees negotiating individual common law agreements, something that has always existed.

We will restore the role of the Industrial Relations Commission as an independent tribunal focused on conciliation and arbitration

One final area which is of relevance to your sector is the growth in casual employment. Casual and part time work has grown substantially in recent years. It is now around 27% of the workforce though I understand that in higher education the figure is over 40%.

More significantly we now have many more casual employees (around 60%) being engaged continuously in the one job for more than a year. We will therefore introduce legislation that will enable the inclusion into awards of provisions to assist casuals to convert to permanent employment.

Finally, we support expanding the provisions in awards that relate to work and family issues, such as more flexible parental leave.

There is a clear difference between the ALP and the Government when it comes to industrial relations whether it is in the higher education sector or elsewhere just as there are clear differences in education policy generally.

I remind you that we have already announced specific policies such as funding for 20,000 new university places, 300 new post-doctoral fellowships, increases in Austudy & rent assistance to students, a reduction in the age of “independence’, a reduction in fees for maths and science degrees and an increase in the HECS repayment threshold. It is a $2.4 billion fully costed, fully funded package which will help transform our universities into world class learning institutions.

Whilst the Coalition is focused on reducing the autonomy of universities and trying to find ways to reduce entitlements and the role of unions we are more interested in how we can invest more in education and research. It is after all an investment in our future.

The people will soon have the opportunity to make their choice.