IR concern in Latham’s plans

Federal Opposition leader Mark Latham, visiting Perth next week, could be Prime Minister before the end of the year. Mark Beyer reviews his policies and their impact on WA business.


JOHN Cummings runs two suburban supermarkets and heads the Independent Grocers’ Association so he speaks for many people in the business community.

By his reckoning, Mark Latham could bring the best of times and the worst of times.

Mr Latham gets a big tick for the proposed strengthening of the Trade Practices Act to protect small business.

But he gets a big black mark for industrial relations reforms that critics say will reduce workplace flexibility and give unions a bigger say.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry says industrial relations is the defining difference between Labor and the coalition.

“It’s the biggest clearest point of difference,” CCI employee relations director Bruce Williams said.

“On many of the other issues there isn’t a huge difference.”

For employer groups, the main concern is the planned abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements.

“We would strongly oppose that,” said Mr Williams.

“That would be disastrous for WA in particular.”

Mr Williams said 4,000 AWAs are being registered every month in WA, as local employers jump from the State system (following the abolition of State-based individual agreements) to the Federal system.

Austal chairman John Rothwell is also concerned about the abolition of AWAs.

“To abolish them and encourage enterprise bargaining through unions would certainly be a backward step,” he said.

Mr Rothwell said all of Austal’s 1,500 employees were on individual workplace agreements.

“In our case it works marvellously well. The guys are paid well and it works well so why change it?” he asked.

The flavour of Mr Latham’s planned industrial relations reforms was illustrated by his landmark speech to the ALP national conference earlier this year.

“Delegates, we can be so much bigger than the Howard Government,” he told the conference.

“Big enough to help the working poor and put some decency back into the industrial relations system.

“The Tories say it’s a sin to represent working people. I say it’s a virtue.

“Like you, I’m proud of where I come from. I’m proud to be Labor.

“That’s why my government will abolish AWAs and restore the role of the Industrial Relations Commission. I don’t believe in a dog-eat-dog industrial relations system.

“I want cooperation and productivity in Australian work-places.

“And as we work together as a nation, we need a better balance between work and family.

“I don’t want Australians having to make a choice – a false choice – between being a good parent and a good employee.

“That’s why a Labor Government will introduce paid maternity leave and improve the rights of working parents.”

Labor’s workplace relations spokesman Craig Emerson played down the significance of AWAs, which he said cover less than 3 per cent of the workforce.

“We do not believe that AWAs create harmony or contribute meaningfully to productivity growth,” Dr Emerson said.

“AWAs have been imposed on low income working Australians to drive their working conditions beneath the award safety net.”

He also argues that any workplace flexibility achieved through AWAs could be achieved through alternative means, such as collective agreements or common law contracts.

“For lower income earners, the flexibilities of AWAs to violate award conditions are unacceptable,” Dr Emerson said.

“For higher income earners, the flexibilities of AWAs are available in other individual and collective instruments that Labor will retain.”

Dr Emerson complains that Labor’s political opponents are deliberately misrepresenting its policies.

For instance, it has been suggested Labor would mandate an entitlement to part-time work.

“The reality is that Labor’s policy would give parents returning from parental leave an entitlement to ask for part-time work,” Dr Emerson said.

“Employers do not have to accept this request if it is unreasonable for their business.”

Similarly, Labor’s policy provides for long-term casuals to ask for permanent employment and once again employers are entitled to refuse the request.

Dr Emerson said another ‘myth’ was that employers would have to bargain with unions rather than negotiate directly with their workers.

CCI’s Mr Williams agrees that non-union collective agreements will continue but emphasises that unions will have a right to intervene when collective agreements are being registered.

He said the ‘good faith’ bargaining provisions would also extend the influence of unions.

Mr Williams said the abolition of AWAs would leave employers with two choices – use industrial awards, which in many cases were archaic and inflexible, or negotiate collective agreements with unions.

Another contentious Labor proposal is the removal of secondary boycott laws from the Trade Practices Act and away from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The Australian Mines and Metals Association’s chief executive Steve Knott said the ACCC’s use of the secondary boycott laws to investigate unlawful strikes and award damages had a profoundly positive impact.

“The ACCC’s scrutiny of union behaviour has been a major reason why industrial disputes are at historically low levels and have limited impact on innocent employers,” he said.

“The ALP proposal to remove the ACCC from this process and give the AIRC a ‘toothless tiger’ role is a serious concern.”

The WA Liberals’ Labour Relations spokeswoman Cheryl Edwardes said a Federal Labor government would raise concerns about the planned crackdown on improper activities in the building and construction industry arising from the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry.

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