Murray spells out Democrat's effect on ALP IR plans

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Murray spells out Democrat's effect on ALP IR plans

The Democrats would consider giving employees covered by Australian Workplace Agreements greater protection by appointing a federal Industrial Relations Commission panel to act as auditors over the Office of the Employment Advocate, an industrial relations conference has heard.

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The Democrats would consider giving employees covered by Australian Workplace Agreements greater protection by appointing a federal Industrial Relations Commission panel to act as auditors over the Office of the Employment Advocate, an industrial relations conference has heard.

Democrats IR spokesperson Senator Andrew Murray told the NSW IR Society’s annual conference on Friday that he considered the Labor Party the likely front-runner to win this year’s election, and spent his address canvassing what effect Democrat policy would have on Labor’s plans for IR reform.

He said he would not bow to Labor’s plans to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements, considering he felt Labor was motivated to abolish them more because of its ties with the union movement than any genuine concern for working people, he said.

In what he admitted was a controversial view, he said the Democrats would block any move to get rid of them, because he genuinely believed they gave workers more protection, being underpinned by the award [common-law contracts are also underpinned by the award]. He said employers also knew AWAs offered the worker greater protection than the common-law contract, as so few had taken them up.

Opposition IR spokesperson Arch Bevis had a different take on this when he addressed the conference earlier in the day (see previous story, 101/2001), saying that as soon as Queensland Workplace Agreements were made open and transparent, applications for this form of contract dropped to less than one third of previous levels.

And a recent conference evaluating 10 years of enterprise bargaining heard that both awards and the no disadvantage test had now been so eroded, workers on AWAs were worse off. (see previous story, 91/2001). A Senate Estimates Committee recently grilled federal Employment Advocate Jonathan Hamberger for approving an AWA which left a maritime worker thousands of dollars worse off because of inaccurate calculations by the Office of the Employment Advocate.

Murray said he thought the Employment Advocate was doing a ‘fairly good’ job of assessing AWAs. But he admitted closer scrutiny was needed and said one way to address the issue would be to appoint a panel of Australian Industrial Relations Commission members to act as auditors for the Office of the Employment Advocate, meeting on a six-monthly or yearly basis.

Genuine grievances

Murray said the Australian industrial scene was characterised more by the parties‘ closeness on industrial policy than their differences. He said the current federal Workplace Relations Act had taken the 20 allowable matters idea straight from Paul Keating’s ‘Working Nation’ paper and Labor’s 1994 reforms around enterprise bargaining were taken from John Howard’s ideas on the subject, originally inspired by a Business Council of Australia agenda.

However Murray said one area where he did believe the ALP had genuine grievances with the Coalition was in the matter of employee choice over type of agreement.

‘I think it’s utterly inappropriate the way monopolist employer governments have forced public sector employees on to individual agreements when they clearly wanted to remain on collective agreements,’ he said.

‘Now I know the [Workplace Relations] Act says no duress is to be applied, but when someone shoves a piece of paper under your nose and says ‘Sign this or you don’t have a job’ – well. . . that’s pretty persuasive.’

He added that while he understood individual agreements may be appropriate for managers, supervisors or specialists in the public sector, he had great difficulty understanding their relevance to groups like general public servants, teachers, nurses or fire officers.

Powers of the AIRC

Labor wasn’t the only party to come under scrutiny, with Murray saying that ‘left to themselves, the Coalition will put their hearts in their wallets and let the toughest in their ranks prevail’. ‘These tough ones are those that see workers as 'units of production' or 'subject to market forces',’ he said.

Murray said while he did not want to ‘unscramble the egg’ of award simplification, there were cases falling outside the allowable matters that deserved arbitration. While the exceptional matters jurisdiction allowed the AIRC to deal with some of these matters, it was very constrained.

Murray suggested reform by expanding the exceptional matters category to allow awards to include clauses where a full bench finds the matter meets the basic exceptional matters criterion – that a harsh or unjust outcome would apply if the industrial disputes were not arbitrated. This would maintain simplicity, while allowing flexibility.

Too much litigation

He said the Coalition’s push to have matters steered towards conservative courts and away from what it perceived as a union-friendly Commission was ‘wrong and misguided on all counts’. He agreed with Labor that the ‘enormous cost’ of industrial disputes for unions, employees and employers was an ‘unacceptable policy outcome’.

While many appeals were unavoidable, because they were against commission decisions, he said the underlying law should be clarified where possible to stop cases centred around ambiguity and reduce the need for litigation or interpretations. Mr Abbott later told the conference writing a plain English version of the Workplace Relations Act was one of his goals.

The future

Murray said despite any institutional changes, the real move away from litigation would occur when there was a fundamental cultural shift. He said the Labor Party was revisionist, ideologically speaking, and appealed to it not to change the Workplace Relations Act just because it wasn’t theirs.

Finally, he said a generational change was needed in the make-up of the ‘IR Club’, all of whom were ‘mature players’ and thus came with ‘the baggage of their fathers, the baby boomer concepts and so on’.

 
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