03/12/2008 - 22:00

IR reforms back on the agenda

03/12/2008 - 22:00


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THE controversy over the federal government's proposed industrial relations reforms made me think back to the mid 1980s when people like Charles Copeman led a bruising battle to free up Australian workplaces.

IR reforms back on the agenda

THE controversy over the federal government's proposed industrial relations reforms made me think back to the mid 1980s when people like Charles Copeman led a bruising battle to free up Australian workplaces.

In those days, industrial relations was a tough battleground, and Mr Copeman and other members of the so-called new right were seen as genuine radicals.

The community has moved on a long way since then.

The 'radical' reforms that Mr Copeman and others pushed through, initially in the Pilbara and later across the country, have generally come to be seen as sensible and acceptable.

Successive state and federal governments have progressively pursued further labour market reforms to achieve improved efficiency and productivity in Australian workplaces.

The Hawke and Keating Labor governments played a big part in this process, helping to break down the central role that the old Industrial Relations Commission played.

The Howard government extended the reforms and, for the most part, brought the community along with it.

That all changed with WorkChoices. The Howard government imposed changes that many in the community did not understand or accept. It wasn't just workers who questioned WorkChoices; many employers and small business operators were uncomfortable with the changes.

They came at a time when the economy was booming, unemployment was at record lows and business was buoyant.

The Howard government failed to properly explain why further change was necessary.

This failure contributed to its defeat at last year's federal election and gave the Rudd government a mandate to roll back the WorkChoices package.

It appears that Labor has gone further.

The Fair Work Bill unveiled last week by Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard in some respects takes Australia back to a system that prevailed prior to the Hawke and Keating reforms.

It tilts the balance heavily back to central control of wage negotiations and gives unions - who currently represent only about 16 per cent of the workforce - greater powers to enter workplaces and get involved in negotiations.

The Rudd government has so far resisted pressure to wind back another of the Howard government's major initiatives - the Australian Building and Construction Commission. This body has gone a long way to keeping the militant Construction Forestry Mining & Energy Union in check.

However, the union movement is exerting pressure on the government to go further, as evidenced by this week's stop work rallies, and it remains to be seen how long the government sticks to its guns.

A key test for Australia is whether workers continue to support the flexible workplace arrangements that have served the country well over the past decade and more, or whether they move back into the union fold.

It was easy for workers to enjoy their independence when the boom was rolling on.

With unemployment set to rise and pressure on company profits, many workers may get nervous about their prospects in a deregulated market.

Premier Colin Barnett believes Australian workers have changed over the past two decades.

"I think modern workers are more educated, more sophisticated," he told a recent press conference.

"Sure, they want the best pay and conditions they can achieve, but they also want to see a productive economy and they want to see security and job satisfaction."

Mr Barnett speaks for many workers when he expresses that view - the many workers who understand that the breakdown of central control has made it possible to introduce sensible, efficient workplace arrangements that benefit all parties.

Imposing a third party on the process, whether that be a union or a centralised industrial relations commission, in most cases does not help the process.

Mr Barnett also pointed to the risk to investment in Western Australia.

The proposed legislative changes present an opportunity for employers to show their good faith, to show that they can continue to work constructively with their staff to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

The danger, as the Master Builders Association has pointed out, is that increased rights granted to unions mean that the tail could end up wagging the dog.


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