Upper House ‘should think carefully’ about Victorian changes

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Upper House ‘should think carefully’ about Victorian changes

The Victorian Upper House has the numbers to reject any recommendations the Government may make after the release yesterday of a report into the state’s industrial relations system, but if it does so it will have to come up with some other remedy for problems facing one-fifth of Victorian workers, according to the chair of the IR Taskforce.

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The Victorian Upper House has the numbers to reject any recommendations the Government may make after the release yesterday of a report into the state’s industrial relations system, but if it does so it will have to come up with some other remedy for problems facing one-fifth of Victorian workers, according to the chair of the IR Taskforce.

 

Professor Ron McCallum today told WorkplaceInfo, in a post-report interview, that implementing any recommendations the Government may choose to make from the 106 in the Taskforce’s report would be ‘a tough call’ for non-Government members of the Upper House.

With pressure from business not to make the changes - which include setting up a Fair Employment Tribunal to set remuneration, wages and conditions for workers not covered by federal industrial agreements (see previous story) -‘they have the numbers to defeat it, but they may have to go to an election knowing they’ve defeated it’, he said.

‘At some stage they will have to answer the question of what changes will be made, and how they will be implemented.’

He said the Upper House could look at not rejecting all recommendations outright, or of introducing a sunset clause to have the changes for a term while it considered further moves. However, he said the changes may not reach the Upper House until next year – ‘and six months is a long time in politics’.

How public hearings influenced the Taskforce
 
The inquiry process of the Taskforce was notable for taking to the roads of Victoria and asking real people how the handing over of Victoria’s industrial powers to the Commonwealth, by former Premier Jeff Kennett, had affected them. It undertook 11 public hearings over a month in June and July and hearing the stories of both workers and employers touched all the taskforce members in a way nothing else could, according to Professor McCallum.

From the dairy farmer who found it almost impossible to get labour, to the 16-year-old schoolgirl who was working a 36-hour week in a fast food shop, from pizza delivery drivers working for lower and lower wages to the employer who wanted to do right by his workers but couldn’t get on to anyone in the city to help him - all shed light on the difficulties.

‘We can all read about war casualties, but when you see for yourself someone lying in a hospital bed with only one leg, that really brings it home’, Professor McCallum said.

He said that research done by WorkplaceInfo’s partner, the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT), backed up what the Taskforce was hearing for itself. Rural Victorians were the worst off in the state because of a combination of market forces (fewer jobs meant workers took what they could get, no matter whether the wages and conditions were legal), and a lack of compliance, education and awareness.

‘I don’t want to make out that Victoria is different from the other states – often in small rural towns market forces take over’, Professor McCallum said. But he said that in 1996, when the Commonwealth took over, ‘no-one thought of compliance’. Federal inspectors with the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business could not enter Victorian workplaces. That, combined with a lack of knowledge from ‘fundamentally decent’ employers, had led him personally to the idea of a Fair Employment Tribunal as a standard-setting body, dealing with the focus on compliance and education, rather than conciliation and arbitration.

The referral of powers and Victoria’s special situation

Professor McCallum said although Victoria had never really had a conciliation and arbitration tribunal in the form of other states (it had wage boards instead), the compliance issue was obviously being dealt with inadequately by the Commonwealth.

Much of this had to do with the way powers were referred by the Kennet Government to the Howard Government in November, 1996 – due to a distinct set of circumstances at the time that Professor McCallum personally thinks would not coalesce again. In fact, he says, he thinks Jeff Kennett would not do in today’s climate what he did then.

He said the Howard Government’s introduction of a number of ‘very successful’ reforms – allowing workers to vote on certified agreements, and allowing direct agreement between workers and their employers, instead of with only unions – had introduced a ‘high water mark’ around November 1996.

The speed with which the Kennett Government had acted to synchronise with the January 1, 1997 start date of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, meant not enough time had been given to working out compliance and enforcement measures.

Professor McCallum said this meant to him and the majority of Taskforce members that the State should step in on these matters. ‘We decided we needed a Fair Employment Statute to set out employment rights.’

But he said it was not necessary to hand over any more powers. ‘There’s nothing inherently wrong with 67% of the workforce who have signed off on federal agreements being covered by that system – they have protections’, he said. ‘And to bring it all back would take away some of the economic advantage Victoria has.’ He said around half of all the State’s workers had always been on federal awards, and it was good for big companies to know they could make a federal award in Victoria without having to notify an interstate dispute.

He said the new tribunal was about getting proper minimum wages for the 21% of workers – 80% of whom work for small businesses - who have fallen through the cracks.

Tradeoffs in the Taskforce process

Professor McCallum said the recommendation of only a partial return to state laws had nothing to do with tradeoffs between the Taskforce members, although Taskforce members had made significant concessions in areas important to them.

For unions, he said, bargaining and unfair dismissal remaining in the federal sphere would be a disappointment. Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard confirmed this with WorkplaceInfo, adding that unions had ‘compromised quite heavily’ on the outcomes. Among other issues they would have liked included in the report, unions were disappointed with the recommendation that conciliation and arbitration only deal with individual grievances, and that there was ‘no mention of awards’. While they were not happy, and ‘would clearly have liked more’, Hubbard said the taskforce’s final recommendations were ‘a good start’.

He rejected Opposition claims that the changes would cost too much to implement, saying ‘it’s not about us charging ahead of the other states – it’s about us catching up with the rest of Australia’.

And Professor McCallum added that although they had a fundamental difference over the reform process, firmly adhering to the belief that the federal government was better equipped to improve matters, employers agreed with the rest of the Taskforce that things needed to change for the 21% of very badly off Victorian workers, and had played their part gracefully in the Taskforce inquiry.

The Australian Industry Group and Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce had signed letters to employers supporting the ACIRRT research and while they had not signed off on the chapter concerning legislative change, they had shown their commitment by being involved in the discussions, he said.

He said the idea of the Tribunal was his, rather than coming from any of the other parties, saying he felt the co-operation required to have the federal government agree to changes recommended by Victoria would take too long for what was an immediate need for the workers.

The future Fair Employment Tribunal

Professor McCallum said ‘nothing on heaven and earth’ would make him want to be president of a future tribunal. ‘I’m of the firm opinion that anyone who recommends anything ought not benefit from that’, he said.

He said the future president would have a hard job ahead, dealing with such a complex field. That person would have to be ‘someone with gravitas, with a barrister’s experience, who would be able to deal with an unorganised area, and have the sensitivity and goodwill required to bring together the different threads [of small business employment]'.

Someone like Jeff Shaw, former NSW Industrial Relations Minister?

Shaw would be a ‘very good’ candidate, McCallum said, for either the Victorian tribunal or the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. But one problem for the Victorians – ‘he’s a Sydney boy and you’d have to convince him to leave!’.

(Shaw told WorkplaceInfo that while McCallum’s comments were ‘very flattering’, he was enjoying ‘an active life back at the Bar’.)

And VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard, whose name is among those being bandied about, said he was definitely not interested and agreed with Professor McCallum the job would require a 'very special person - a real lawyer and someone who could command respect, not from either side of the industrial fence'.

He added that the Tribunal had specified the president should be given Supreme Court judge status, so that if a future government did away with the Tribunal, they would have some tenure.

 
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