Collectivism 'in our roots'

Analysis

Collectivism 'in our roots'

Collectivism is built into the Australian industrial system and any idea that it would whither away was only ‘wishful thinking’, a conference debating the issue heard this weekend.

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Collectivism is built into the Australian industrial system and any idea that it would whither away was only ‘wishful thinking’, a conference debating the issue heard this weekend.

Professor Ron McCallum, Blake Dawson Waldron Professor in Industrial Law, told the Victorian IR Society in Melbourne on the weekend that Australia’s constitution spelt out why groups would always be central to the IR system.

He said the constitutional power for industrial disputes to be settled by the federal industrial relations commission, free from ties to capital or labour, was crucial.

‘It [the AIRC] wasn’t just a dispute settler, it dealt with matters the politicians didn’t want to, and the residue of that is still in our laws,’ Professor McCallum said.

He said there was a long history of political parties on both sides leaving ‘hot potato’ issues to the Commission to sort out, from issues like a federal minimum wage to pay equity and carers' leave.

The impact of the collective could be seen in matters like parental leave, Professor McCallum said, a federal decision in 1979 which had flowed to the states, and which had been passed into statute through collectivist processes, after much ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ between trade unions and employers.

‘Conciliation and arbitration was not just about dispute settling, but policy setting where politicians feared to tread’, he said. ‘The Commission enacts rules that have the force of law across industries, giving Australian workers conditions that are the envy of many nations.’

So entrenched were notions of fairness and collectivism throughout the Australian system, that even where employers and workers had reached agreement on an industrial instrument, it had to be certified by a third party.

Professor McCallum told the conference, which was discussing individualism versus collectivism, that individual aspirations had increased in recent years, as could be seen by rising numbers of sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal complaints.

He said these recent pressures between collectivism and individualism have risen from notions of ‘contractualism’. This has its roots in the European and North American systems, and focuses on leaving employers and employees alone to work things out between them.

This new influence could be seen in changes to the industrial system, Professor McCallum said. Previously, tribunals had listened to trade unions, not individuals. Now, contractualism means tribunals not only listen to individuals, but they also register non-union agreements.

But ‘any idea collectivism will whither away is wishful thinking’, he said.

While there was a feeling at the time it was introduced that the federal Workplace Relations Act was needed, it had been ‘a very uneasy compromise’, he said.

Professor McCallum said while there was ‘a lot of sense’ in having awards reviewed, their paring back to only 20 allowable matters led to the feeling there had been a ‘very uneasy compromise’, and a feeling that section of the Act had been brought in to stem the quasi-legislation of benefits that politicians had not wanted to deal with.

He predicted the provisions of the Act would be made more flexible in coming years, and that the Commission would get broader, more flexible powers.

He also said while he was ‘not a great fan’ of Australian Workplace Agreements, they had a place, and he thought they and non-union agreements would continue, again showing the ‘uneasy compromises’ of the Act.

While freedom of association provisions had supported rising individualism, and played a role in eliminating closed shops, he said they had also strengthened the hand of those who belonged to trade unions, and those who wanted to belong.

He said the recent interlocutory decision of federal Court Justice Ray Finkelstein stopping the Commonwealth Bank offering mass AWAs (see previous story) showed it was ‘dangerous to offer AWAs in a half-hearted way as a bargaining chip in enterprise agreement negotiations’.

AWAs operated best in areas that were not highly unionised, Professor McCallum said.

‘I don’t think arbitration will whither away,’ he said. ‘We are still a collectivist nation and we are going to see movement and change. Tribunals will continue to play a big role in society because of who we are as a people and our sense of fair play.’

 

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