The business community needs to assemble more evidence to get industrial relations reform back on the political agenda.
THE two-year anniversary of the federal government’s Fair Work Act passed earlier this month.
The new industrial relations regime has been roundly criticised by multiple business groups, which are concerned that efficiency and productivity gains are slowly being whittled away.
Despite that, Premier Colin Barnett and federal opposition leader Tony Abbott, both Liberals, have continued to steer clear of industrial relations reform.
What will it take for them to go on the front foot and campaign for a better system?
A good start would be community education, to explain that IR reform does not automatically mean a return to the Howard government’s unpopular Work Choices regime.
It seems neither Mr Abbott nor Mr Barnett wants to even consider this.
Former minister Peter Reith highlighted Mr Abbott’s sensitivity around this issue after he failed to win enough votes to become federal Liberal Party president.
Mr Abbott rarely mentions industrial relations while out on the hustings.
His official line is that the coalition will have “a strong and effective industrial relations policy” before the next election, based on problem solving and not ideology.
Mr Reith wasn’t satisfied with that, arguing that the current party leadership was being timid on IR reform.
Just a few days later, Mr Barnett declared his stance on IR reform.
He stated that he had no plans to implement reforms recommended by lawyer Steven Amendola – even though it was his own government, in the form of cabinet minister Troy Buswell, that commissioned Mr Amendola to write his report.
Mr Barnett’s rationale was very simple – he didn’t want to be tarred with the Work Choices brush.
“The Amendola report contains a lot of, if you like, Work Choices policies and we are not going down that path,” the premier told journalists.
Mr Amendola shot back by saying it was wrong to characterise his preferred policies as being akin to Work Choices.
“So as not to cause unfounded damage to my professional reputation and that of my firm, I ask when you comment on it publicly you do not misrepresent what it says,” a leaked letter from Mr Amendola to Mr Barnett stated.
The backdrop to these pronouncements, at both a federal and state level, is growing concern among industry groups.
The Australian Mines and Metals Association said the confidence of employers in the current IR system was in a state of serious decline.
The AMMA said a study of resource sector employers had found a significant decline in the proportion reporting acceptable workplace productivity.
Employers are also spending more time and resources in meetings and negotiations, and this includes time spent negotiating union-specific clauses being demanded as part of the agreement making process.
The Australian Industry Group has argued that amendments to the Fair Work Act are vital.
Its view is that large-scale changes are not needed, but some amendments are essential.
One example it raised was laws to outlaw union bargaining claims designed to restrict the engagement of contractors.
The AI Group’s chief executive, Heather Ridout, was spot on when she said it was time for the debate to move on from the accusations and recriminations about Work Choices.
“No country can afford to freeze in time its workplace relations system, least of all a country like Australia with such an open economy,” she said.
The Master Builders Association has particular concerns about the future treatment of contractors.
Its concerns relate not so much to the Fair Work Act, but to the activities of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which has commenced an inquiry into ‘sham’ contracting.
The ABCC has done a lot to tackle militancy in the building and construction industries.
If the ABCC can maintain that focus, while also weeding out rogue contractors, then that would be a good outcome. The risk is that its inquiries may adversely affect legitimate contractors.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA has responded to the concerns of its members by releasing a detailed policy paper on IR reform.
Its policy paper provides a basis for more informed debate, but unfortunately that is not occurring.