29/08/2012 - 11:08

Abbott needs to outline IR plan

29/08/2012 - 11:08


Save articles for future reference.

Former premier Richard Court has thrown down the gauntlet to a future coalition federal government on the issue of industrial relations.

Former premier Richard Court has thrown down the gauntlet to a future coalition federal government on the issue of industrial relations.

FEDERAL opposition Leader Tony Abbott is under pressure to produce an industrial relations policy for next year’s election that will give employers and their workforces more autonomy to negotiate agreements, with reduced union influence.

However the Liberal leader knows if the policy goes too far he could provoke a union backlash similar to that which was so effective in the defeat of the Howard government in 2007.

On that occasion the union movement was mobilised across the country in response to the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation, which aimed to sideline the unions. Despite declining union membership, the campaign was listed as one of the key issues in the election result.

The Liberals were so spooked by that experience that Mr Abbott went into the 2010 poll with no significant proposals on the industrial relations front. The last thing he wanted to do was provoke the slumbering union giant.

Two years on, though, it is a new ball game. Many on the employer-Liberal side say the unions have regained too much influence and it is time for a new policy to be thrashed out; not as far-reaching as WorkChoices, but at least providing more recognition to workplace agreements.

One senior Liberal urging Mr Abbott to grasp the nettle on the issue is former Western Australian premier Richard Court. He has described the present position as a “debacle” and, surprisingly, he doesn’t blame Labor.

Mr Court points the finger at business leaders and Mr Howard for the policy, one result of which was the downplaying of the role of state tribunals. So much so, he says, that state governments now have only limited powers in the industrial relations area.

And Mr Court says it is no longer possible to introduce the sort of reforms that his government embarked on in 1993, before the Howard administration effectively used the corporation powers to achieve greater uniformity in industrial laws across the country.

The former premier spelt out his concerns in his recent address to the Samuel Griffith Society in Brisbane.

“The Howard government did what the Whitlam government could only have dreamed of,” he said. “It used the corporations power to centralise industrial relations power in Canberra, along with the support of our business leaders at the time.

“I was a strong supporter of the direction the Howard government’s industrial relations legislation was heading, as it reflected what we had already successfully implemented in Western Australia following a series of legislative changes commencing in 1993.”

It must be noted that the changes, guided through the WA Parliament by the then industrial relations minister Graham Kierath, provoked some of the biggest union demonstrations ever in WA. But they were passed and implemented.

Mr Court described the use of the corporations power to override the state systems in dealing with companies as a “major mistake”.

He said WA Liberals had argued strongly against the Howard plan well before the coalition won power in Canberra, because the key to effective industrial relations was the flexibility provided by ‘relief valves’.

Even though the federal Labor government under Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating had introduced reforms, Mr Court said the system had still been highly centralised.

As a result of changes his government started to introduce after being elected in 1993, and administered through the WA Industrial Relations Commission, Rio Tinto, for example, had moved quickly to transfer its workforce to the new deal.

“Within a few years the Pilbara was transformed with workers being paid more, having more flexibility in their workplace, improved work conditions, very few disputes, and the unions were closing their Pilbara offices,” Mr Court said.

“All this occurred while Paul Keating was a Labor prime minister and was carried out under a state industrial relations regime. You could move between the state and federal jurisdictions.”

Mr Court said the key to his government’s changes was the existence of a separate state-based system; but that avenue had been removed by the Howard government’s initiative, adding that the “the business community is equally to blame”. 

“When I discussed this with business leaders at the time I was bluntly told get off my old states’ rights horse – and that no future government would dare go back to the bad old days. My response was that they (Labor) would do it within 20 seconds of being elected. And they have. But this time there is no relief valve.”

The former premier is sceptical whether an incoming Abbott government would be able, or prepared, to implement significant changes.

“It seems that the reality is there will be some tweaking of the existing legislation to not reignite the effective union campaign against WorkChoices,” Mr Court said.

“And I do not think that is something the coalition parties should be particularly proud of because there is a need to have a system where competition between the states promotes innovation and improved productivity in our labour markets.

“We freed up the labour markets. It was successful, now we are going back to the one size fits all.”

That throws the ball well and truly back into Mr Abbott’s court.

Pay push next

LABOUR costs are shaping as the next issue in the shopping hours debate, with penalty rates for weekend work, especially on Sundays, likely to come under the microscope.

Both Premier Colin Barnett and opposition leader Mark McGowan were out and about last Sunday to soak up their share of the kudos from Sunday shopping supporters – Mr Barnett for pushing the issue through his policy of ‘gradualism’, and Mr McGowan for cutting through Labor’s policy of obstruction.

The experience of day one, stripped of all the hype, was that crowds were modest, partly due to the fact the first day clashed with the City to Surf run, and the Dockers versus North Melbourne AFL clash, which kept thousands of fans glued to their televisions.

The anecdotal evidence was that, while the vast bulk of stores were open, many smaller businesses remained closed, partly in the belief that labour costs for the day would not warrant opening their doors.

This is likely to lead to a reassessment of the penalty rates regime, which provides for time and a half or double time for weekend work. Structured in the days when shops closed at noon on Saturdays, penalty rates are important for modestly paid shop assistants, and thousands of students who work part-time.

Perhaps the answer is a general increase in the hourly rate, with a smaller loading for those rostered for the ‘anti-social’ shifts.

My tip is that unions will fiercely oppose any change. But the retail sector has now become a seven-days-a-week industry, and employers will start pushing for that to be reflected in wage rates.



Subscription Options