I hope no one doubts my credentials for wanting industrial relations reform. After all, I drew up the first Coalition policy on the subject in 1985 and it was widely accepted. It was moderate and based on common sense. Its essence was that the wage-fixing system of awards should remain, with industrial disputes resolved by mediation and arbitration. However, the system needed flexibility and scope for workers to bargain with their greatest asset: the price of their labour. So, if employees wanted something better and different, they could make agreements with employers so that their work would be governed not solely by the award, but also by the agreement. As a result, the centralised system would wither on the vine and productivity would rise.
But what about the no-disadvantage test? Surely, without it, unscrupulous employers would impose Draconian terms and conditions on their workers? Not so. Workers would apply their own no-disadvantage test: if they could not drive a better bargain, they would simply stay on the award. With the passage of time, agreements negotiated between employers and employees would become more attractive and pressure would build among workers and employers alike to have more, while awards would remain the soul-destroying recitals of the lowest common denominator.
There were other features of the policy that should have been applied, but which regrettably were forgotten or ignored when the Howard government legislated to reform the system. So we ended up with WorkChoices. The new system was promoted as if a revolution had arrived. But people do not like revolutions. Some of the opposition actually came from employer organisations, whose lukewarm support for the policy was the kiss of death.
WorkChoices was a disaster. It was extreme, it advocated immediate change, it was poorly defended by the Coalition parties and undermined by some employers and their organisations. Workers and the commentariat are now understandably suspicious of any new proposals for employment contracts because they fear they would be a Trojan horse for WorkChoices.
You would think, then, after this sorry history, that the warriors who want an overnight revolution in industrial relations would drop the subject, or at least postpone it. But no, there they are, at it again, as if their twin missions in life are to be media tarts and prevent Tony Abbott from being elected.
Mr Abbott is right to resist their siren song, because if he follows it, disaster lies ahead. It is one thing for them to ruminate over port and cigars at a directors’ convention on the need for reform of industrial relations. It is another to enlist the support of the population, or enough of it to get elected, which should be the first priority, not only of Mr Abbott but of his supporters. Fortunately, he is wise enough to appreciate that if he proposes a policy that looks even remotely like WorkChoices or its pale shadow, hysteria will erupt that will divert attention away from issues on which the government is vulnerable and morph into a campaign against the Coalition that it will probably lose. And Abbott is astute enough to know that when employers and some of his former colleagues say, ‘Tony, we are right behind you,’ they mean it, for that is where they will be when the battle begins to rage.
The Coalition should therefore propose a policy of working within the present system, at least for the next Parliament. This does not mean giving up on the notion of free bargaining and flexibility, for individual agreements will naturally emerge from the processes enshrined in the current law. It is a modest start, but it will be hastened by the inevitable decay of trade unions, the rise of union-free industries and the natural desire of workers to improve their own lives. In any event, it will be better than being in opposition.
Moreover, none of this means the Coalition should propose a vanilla industrial relations policy of no substance. Here are some suggestions for real policy reform:
• focus attention on the scandalous loss of union members’ funds; create a statutory right to enable members to sue for the stolen money; the Commonwealth, as a model litigant, should support them
• split the absurdly-named and incompetent Fair Work Australia, hive off its investigative section and appoint an Ombudsman to beef up its investigations
• follow Bob Hawke’s precedent of appointing a tribunal to undo the ludicrous situation in which a former assistant secretary of the ACTU can become its president
• return to mediation and arbitration earlier in the progress of industrial disputes and encourage the private sector to provide those services
• the Grocon /CFSMU blockade is a brutal reminder of the need to have a tough cop on the beat to stop thuggery and intimidation in the construction industry
• abolish the monopoly of unions on Greenfield sites and limit the right of union entry as Gillard promised to do
• start an international move through the International Labor Organisation, long overdue, to modernise industrial relations so that it reflects the modern world of work.
But first things first. Those tempting Mr Abbott to focus on individual contracts of employment, to the exclusion of all other reforms, are doing a grave disservice to his cause and their own.Tags: iapps