Workforce participation, future of AIRC and more

Analysis

Workforce participation, future of AIRC and more

Increasing workforce participation is on the federal Government’s agenda, but a unitary IR system is not, delegates were told at the Centenary Convention of the AIRC in Melbourne today.

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Increasing workforce participation is on the federal Government’s agenda, but a unitary IR system is not, delegates were told at the Centenary Convention of the AIRC in Melbourne today. The conciliation and arbitration system was strongly defended in another address. 

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission is celebrating its centenary in 2004-05 and the convention is an important part of those celebrations. WorkplaceInfo will be reporting further from this important event. The Commission is the direct descendant of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, which was established by the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904.

Federal Government agenda

Delegates were treated to a snapshot of the Government’s IR intentions, with current Industrial Relations Minister Kevin Andrews telling the audience that increasing workforce participation levels would be a major focus, and the introduction of a Independent Contractors Act is a priority. 

‘Increased workforce participation is a major goal, particularly for those currently on government benefits,’ said Andrews. ‘This is an ethical responsibility and economic imperative as our population ages and the workforce contracts.’ The minister suggested that having third parties rather than the actual participants in the workforce make critical decisions was not the preferred option. 

Andrews also made pointed statements about his view on the ongoing role of the AIRC, commenting that although the Commission’s role had traditionally been to make determination on claims between existing employees and employers, ‘it is time for the Commission to have greater interest in the economic conditions that provide employment to all who want it.’ 

However, Andrews made it clear that a unitary IR system is off the Government’s short-term agenda. ‘Although having six IR systems is confusing and costly, there are constitutional limitations,’ he said. ‘Short of a referendum or the States conferring their power, change has to be incremental. But we will work to harmonise of the systems.’ 

Conciliation and AIRC defended 

Increasing the level of conciliation was also a big theme in the opening addresses of the conference today, with both President of the AIRC, Justice Giudice and Justice Michael Kirby of the Australian High Court noting that the Constitution emphasised the role of conciliation in resolving industrial disputes. 

‘The Workplace Relations Act shows that priority must be given to conciliation over arbitration,’ said Justice Guidice. 

Justice Michael Kirby was also scathing about those commentators who believe that the role of the AIRC in Australia’s industrial system should be scaled back. 

‘Those in the bully pulpit who attack conciliation and arbitration need to be put in their place,’ he said. ‘There is no room in Australia for industrial ayatollahs. Ours is a more temperate system of incremental change.’ 

And the effect of the economy on the IR system of Australia was also highlighted. Justice Guidice said that the current industrial system now recognises economic power. Justice Kirby advised that ‘some of the rigidity of past industrial decisions need to give way to market forces.’ However he also warned that the AIRC’s role was to maintain a balance between economic considerations and the human rights of workers. 

‘The market forces work miracles, but at the edge of the market miracle, there are those who miss out,’ he said. ‘To think that everyone stands or starts equal in the market is pure fantasy. Australia needs to continue to provide protection to the most vulnerable.’ 

Related

Australian industrial relations celebrates 100 years 

The Federal Election 2004 in review 

New challenges ahead for AIRC: Kirby

 

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