Business furious as both sides dodge IR reform

Analysis

Business furious as both sides dodge IR reform

As 2012 nears its end, both sides of politics are competing to see who can do the least about the industrial relations problems facing the nation, but business is determined not to let them get away with it.

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Opinion: As 2012 nears its end, both sides of politics are competing to see who can do the least about the industrial relations problems facing the nation, but business is determined not to let them get away with it.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten set the tone when he admitted that the changes to the Fair Work Act 2009, which he introduced after a review of the Act’s operations, were only those for which there was ‘broad agreement’.

In other words, they were changes that didn’t matter much to either side, and included a name change and some cosmetic alterations to the unfair dismissal claims process.

Shorten said only those changes were necessary because the Act was largely ‘working as intended’ — which is precisely why there are raucous calls from employer groups for more radical changes, particularly on flexibility.

No optimism on change
 
However, those hoping for a more significant change of direction should the Coalition win next year’s election are getting little to be optimistic about from its WorkChoices-shy leadership.

On 19 November, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey was quizzed on Sky TV over the Coalition’s policy for industrial relations reform:
Presenter: You’ll just make some minor adjustments?
 
Joe Hockey: I think what people are looking for is stability. We have also said emphatically that we will reintroduce the Australia Building and Construction Commission, along with all of its resources and powers. That is a huge step forward.

Presenter: And that will be the biggest step?

Joe Hockey: Yes.

Presenter: Anything else will be pretty small beer?

Joe Hockey: We will be operating within the system.

Presenter: So don’t hold your breath for major changes?

Joe Hockey: Not for that one. Not for that one.

Presenter: So, to business currently clamoring for change on industrial relations, don’t hold your breath?

Joe Hockey: There are many other priorities at the moment.
 
In case anyone missed the point, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told the West Australian Leadership Matters breakfast in Perth last week that while a Liberal Government would address the problems developing in the Fair Work Act ‘we will act responsibly, carefully, cautiously’.

‘We won’t break faith with the decent working people of our country but we will address the flexibility problems, the militancy problems and above all else the productivity problems which are now glaringly obvious in the Fair Work Act but we will do so within the parameters of the existing Act.’

The problem for Hockey and Abbott is that furious employer bodies are not holding their breath, they are roaring their protests at both the Government and the Opposition.

‘Scared little rabbits’
 
Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott last week accused the Opposition of ‘acting like scared little rabbits when debating any substantive IR policy issue’ because it feared an anti-WorkChoices campaign by unions and Labor.

In a speech on 16 November, Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said 2012 had been ‘a year of disappointment’ for business in the industrial relations arena.

He said that to leave all the big issues in the ‘too hard’ basket for much longer ‘can only risk damaging our national competitiveness and the prospects for key sectors of the Australian economy’.

‘Industry needs a workplace relations system which does not impose unnecessary barriers upon productivity and flexibility, and which encourages flexible and innovative workplace arrangements,’ he said.

‘Unions recoil every time we mention this F-word.’

In this context it is naïve for either the government or the Opposition to imagine that after the WorkChoices catastrophe for the Howard Government at the 2007 election, IR is a dead issue.

The unions want the Government to allow more matters to be included in enterprise agreements, easier access to worksites, and an enforceable obligation on employers to bargain.

‘Diabolical electoral trouble’
 
However, they recognise that the Government is in diabolical trouble electorally and won’t make matters worse by demanding concessions, in case it enhances Abbott’s chances of forming the next government.

And while Prime Minister Julia Gillard would love Abbott to bow to pressure from his backbench (and former PM John Howard) and promise to reintroduce individual agreements — thus allowing a battle over WorkChoices II — Abbott will not oblige.

However, he cannot completely ignore his core constituency of big business and employer groups, who will want to see action if he wins the election.

But, considering WorkChoices was brought in after an election in which such plans were never mentioned, Abbott would be wary of denying he would make radical changes and then doing so after he wins.

After all, that is what he has very effectively accused Gillard of doing with the carbon tax.

And the electorate is unlikely to believe Hockey’s line that the Coalition will do nothing about IR, because they know workplace reform is a DNA issue with the Liberals.

Silence cannot last
 
Labor would love to have WorkChoices as an election issue, but is a lot more reluctant to debate the inadequacies of the Fair Work Act, and Abbott hopes to avoid taking any stand on IR at all.

Employer groups have, however, made it clear they will not stand for a ‘do nothing’ approach from either the Government or the Opposition.
 
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