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Prime Minister John Howard last week announced a package of changes to the Federal Workplace Relations Act which will impact on employers, employees and unions across the nation. Once implemented, the reforms will be the most significant change to Australia’s industrial relations landscape since 1904. The changes will, to a great extent, over-ride and replace the industrial relations systems in each of the states other than Victoria. Victoria has already referred its IR powers to the Federal Government. At a Council of Australian Governments meeting on June 3 2005, Prime Minister Howard will invite the remaining states to refer their IR powers to the Commonwealth. If, as seems likely, some or all of the states refuse, the Federal Government will legislate using its corporations power (and other Constitutional powers) to over-ride the states’ IR systems, or part of these systems. This may well lead to a High Court challenge, initiated by some state governments, unions or other interested parties. Although the Liberal/National coalition will have a majority in the Senate after July 1 2005, it is not likely to introduce legislation to implement these reforms until at least later this year. The most likely time for the legislation to be introduced into parliament is the spring session of parliament, which starts in August and concludes in December 2005. There is also likely to be a phasing-in period of perhaps three to six months, after parliament passes the legislation, before most of the changes to the Workplace Relations Act take effect. All things considered, it could be anticipated that the Government’s reforms to the Workplace Relations Act are unlikely to take effect before January 1 2006, and are more likely to take effect in early to mid 2006. The Government will ask that the states agree to one national industrial relations system, referring their IR powers to the Commonwealth. By this path, almost all employers and employees in the nation will be covered by the unitary system. However, it is unlikely that the Federal Government will obtain the agreement of all of the states, on the basis that they all have labor governments. Furthermore, if such an agreement was reached, it would most likely be only if there were some concessions from the Federal Government as to the scope and detail of changes. The power to assess and approve certified agreements will be taken from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, and given to the Office of the Employment Advocate. The office is currently responsible, among other things, for the approval of Australian Workplace Agreements. The process for approval of certified agreements and Australian Workplace Agreements will be stream-lined. For example, certified agreements and Australian Workplace Agreements will come into force from the date of lodgement with the Office of the Employment Advocate, not some later date such as the date of certification, which currently applies for certified agreements. The maximum nominal life of agreements will be increased from three years to five years. Some of the reforms are dealt with in draft legislation currently before Parliament, or that was introduced in the past but rejected by parliament. It is likely that they will be passed into law some time after July 1 2005. For further information contact Bruno Di Girolami, partner, ph: 9429 7644. Minter Ellison

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