Controversial new IR Bills for Federal Parliament


Controversial new IR Bills for Federal Parliament

It aims to ensure a secret ballot overseen by the AIRC comes before workers take protected industrial action, so that action is not substituted for genuine bargaining.


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Awards will be stripped back to only 15 allowable matters, unions will have to follow strict conditions when serving claims on small business employers, and states will lose powers to rule on unfair dismissals in new legislation introduced to Parliament today by Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 allows for the Federal Government to cover the field when it comes to harsh, unjust or unreasonable dismissals, excluding the states and territories by using corporations powers available to it under the Constitution (see 360/2002).

Unlawful dismissals on discrimination grounds would still be able to be dealt with by the states.

It establishes a new set of rules for small businesses employing fewer than 20 people, saying the AIRC must have regard to five matters only in determining the harshness, unjustness or unreasonableness of a dismissal:

  • whether there was a valid reason for termination, related to the capacity or conduct of the employee or to the operational requirements of the employer;
  • whether the employee was notified of the reason;
  • whether the employee was given an opportunity to respond to any reason related to their capacity or conduct;
  • the degree to which the size of the employer's undertaking would be likely to impact on the procedures followed in carrying out the termination;
  • the degree to which the absence of dedicated human resource management specialists or expertise in the business would be likely to impact on the procedures followed in carrying out the termination.

Small business employees would also have their qualifying period before making claims doubled to six months, and their compensation halved to three months.

Applications against small businesses could also be dismissed without hearing on the basis that they are frivolous or vexatious, and penalties for lawyers or agents who encourage unmeritorious claims against small business would be refined. 

The Opposition has called for a Budget impact statement, saying the potential doubling of the workload for the AIRC will mean not only the need to appoint new commissioners, but also additional registrars, registry officers, conciliators, and court reporters, who will need more hearing rooms and office space.

Three other bills were introduced today.

Award simplification

In his explanatory memoranda accompanying the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002, Abbott said the Government's original intention to make agreements the primary industrial focus, by limiting awards to only 20 allowable matters, had failed, with awards continuing to contain extra provisions.

As a result, he now wants to remove five further allowable matters - skill-based career paths, bonuses, long service leave, notice of termination and jury service.

The remaining 15 allowable matters would be 'clarified' in other areas, for example outlawing union picnic days as public holidays; ensuring cultural leave applied only to ceremonial leave for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders or other 'similar' obligations; and cutting down the transitional period for the removal of non-allowable matters from 18 months to 12.

Exceptional matters orders could be made only by a full bench of the AIRC.

Choice in Award Coverage

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Choice in Award Coverage) Bill 2002 amends provisions concerning the roping-in of employers to federal awards. The amendments aim to:

  • provide businesses with more information about their rights in roping-in;
  • restrain the ability of unions to rope in small businesses which employ no union members in the federal jurisdiction;
  • and require the AIRC to investigate the views of unrepresented small business employers potentially affected by roping-in claims.

This Bill is a reaction against a claim the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees union has before the AIRC, which attempts to rope in 19,000 small Victorian retail employers currently covered by Schedule 1A of the Workplace Relations Act - providing lesser wages and conditions - into the federal award (see 220/2002).

Under the Bill, dispute findings could not be made unless the AIRC was satisfied the union had followed certain conditions pertaining to the serving of the log of claims.

Secret Ballots

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) [No. 2] Bill 2002 - a new bill - is identical to its predecessor, which was rejected in the Senate in September.

It aims to ensure a secret ballot overseen by the AIRC comes before workers take protected industrial action, so that action is not substituted for genuine bargaining.

Employees party to a current Australian Workplace Agreement would not be eligible to vote, or take industrial action.


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