06/02/2008 - 22:00

One system to rule them all

06/02/2008 - 22:00


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While many think the government of Kevin Rudd won a mandate for a change in industrial relations following its recent election win, there’s a good chance that very little will alter any time soon.

One system to rule them all

While many think the government of Kevin Rudd won a mandate for a change in industrial relations following its recent election win, there’s a good chance that very little will alter any time soon.

Instead, business is likely to find itself mired in the current complicated IR landscape as a result of the ideological battles that have twisted and warped the system beyond recognition.

Last week, the NSW government kindly sought to take the lead in the matter with a proposal for a unified national system. According to the experts, it’s a bit of a Clayton’s proposition, with unity involving so many opt-out clauses it looked very little different than the hodge-podge of state laws we have at present.

Most of the problem is simply collateral damage from the election campaign.

Firstly, the Howard government made drastic changes to its WorkChoices legislation in the middle of last year, a desperate bid to unroll the bad news by creating a so-called fairness test.

That layered a third version of Australian Workplace Agreements on top of two pre-existing categories, WorkChoices Mark I and pre-WorkChoices.

Great. Agreements struck in successive years were different. We may have had a national system to cover 85 per cent of employees, but it wasn’t quite the simplicity business wanted.

It has got worse, though.

Fired up and fuelled with union money, the Rudd policy machine made it very clear what Labor was against, but not so much what it was for.

That’s all very popular on the campaign trail, but leaves something of a vacuum when the party is over.

Now the real work begins – coming up with a system that is modern enough to provide business and employees the flexibility they want, providing the safeguards voters perceive are necessary, and making it operate across the country.

Right here, the federal government runs into something of a large obstacle, which could affect its credibility very early on.

The Howard government had fought and secured the legal right to oversee the vast majority of employees after winning a High Court battle against the states. Federally, the pre-Rudd opposition had pointed the finger heavily at the then government’s centralist policy, while the Labor states had fought tooth and nail for their right to self-determination on IR.

Fundamentally, it was an argument over ideology rather than federalism.

To complicate matters, faced with losing their IR war, the states enacted all sorts of petty IR-related laws to pare back parts of the system they were losing and create legal time bombs to thwart an easy introduction of WorkChoices.

All these initiatives now look pretty shallow when Labor has won every government of any note and should, by rights, be able to make sweeping changes to reverse the Howard IR doctrine.

Instead, I expect to see them fighting long and hard over who controls IR, as they cobble together something that is unlikely to please anyone.

Business, especially big business, won’t get the real unified system it wants, while the state governments and their federal counterpart end up wasting the big opportunity by squabbling.

Perhaps business should be grateful.

While WorkChoices was unpopular with the electorate, many workers enjoyed the flexibility it offered. If a Liberal government should ever walk this nation again, it may well be able to find a politically palatable way of offering that.

But if Labor really got its act together, while it basked in the warm rays of a perceived mandate, it could entrench its ideological view in a way that was virtually unbreakable – as has happened with the introduction of the GST.

The NSW concept half-heartedly tries that by requiring a majority of states to agree to any changes, should its proposal be accepted. But the Sydney-based plan effectively defeats this barrier to change by allowing individual states to opt out of the system if they so choose.

It would be a long shot to suggest that, in our system of natural antagonism between the states and the Commonwealth, everyone could agree to a system that would last very long.

In this case, perhaps it’s more pragmatic that uniformity loses out in the states versus federal government battle.

Business might regret getting what it wanted if uniformity came at the high cost of an entrenched, unchangeable system.

Such a result would hardly offer the nation an IR landscape that could evolve as needed and keep Australia internationally competitive.


Pitfalls of multi-tasking

THERE’S never a good time for a mea culpa, but in my view it’s better out there than buried within.

I always thought it was a mission fraught with danger when I was assigned to pull together our ‘Women in Business’ feature last week.

With great gusto I tackled the seemingly immense task of distilling all the issues and success stories into six pages of pure prose – an enjoyable job, I have to admit, given some of the great stories that emerged and the good humour of the subjects involved.

But alas, the gremlins got into our list of influential women and inserted a bloke.

Somehow Edith Cowan University vice-chancellor Kerry Cox slipped past all the barriers and obstacles we’d placed in his way to appear in the list. 

I guess, yet again, I’ve proved that multi-tasking is beyond me.


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