CEO PULSE: Optimism takes a Fair Work whack

Australian CEOs have delivered a scathing critique of Julia Gillard's Fair Work regime, describing cruelling effects on their own businesses and the national economy.

Today’s Business Spectator CEO Pulse survey puts the matter beyond doubt: Australia’s chief executives do not like the Fair Work Act one bit.

They think it’s bad for their businesses, they think it’s bad for their industries and they especially think it’s bad for the country. What’s more two-thirds of them think Fair Work Australia is doing a worse job than its predecessor, the Fair Pay Commission, because it’s bureaucratic, inefficient and, worst of all, biased.

Do the nation’s business leaders think the Rudd/Gillard system of workplace relations has anything going for it at all? Well, er, 3 per cent of them think it has made things better.

The latest quarterly survey of Australian CEOs carried out by GA Research, contains a devastating critique of the Fair Work Act and a rebuttal of the government’s argument that the legislation improves productivity and is supported by business. It doesn’t, and it’s not.

The main problem, nominated by 54 per cent of respondents, is that the Act sets up tension between wages and productivity. Other issues that need to be resolved are: provisions around industrial action, collective bargaining and unfair dismissal – basically all the important things.

A lot of CEOs said that the new regime sets up an adversarial relationship between the unions and business, and is based around conflict. Some said that costs had increased and that they were dealing with more disputes and others said that the losses to productivity were hampering their ability to compete internationally.

To be fair, there were some positive comments. One CEO told our surveyors that there was "greater clarity and simplification via modern awards”, while another praised Fair Work Australia: "Overall, Fair Work has presided over a necessarily complex area competently.”

But Australia’s CEOs have given the system a resounding thumbs down, with 82 per cent saying it’s bad for Australia, 60 per cent concluding it’s bad for their industry, and 51 per cent that it’s bad for their own company.

The interesting difference between those three figures lies in varying numbers of CEOs who think it has no impact at all: from 45 per cent for the individual businesses to 9 per cent for the nation. There was no change in the percentage that thought it was good, which was 3 per cent for all categories.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the CEO collective now gives the Labor government 2.8 out of 10 for managing the economy. When we started these surveys in February 2010 the score was 5.4 out of 10, almost double today’s score.

The decline in the government’s standing has been remarkably steady, apart from a few months after Julia Gillard took over as prime minister and again just after the Future Jobs Forum was held late last year, accompanied as it was by a brief flurry of optimism that there would some action to help businesses lift employment.

Another interesting trend in the survey is around what’s keeping them awake at night: achieving top line growth has now clearly replaced "sourcing and retaining skilled staff” as the key issue for CEOs. Even though unemployment is still low, CEOs are now much more worried about growing sales than finding staff.

Broadly, optimism about both the economy as a whole and individual businesses has fallen a long way versus this time last year: from 72 per cent feeling somewhat or strongly optimistic about their own business to 56 per cent now.

As for optimism about the Australian economy as a whole, that’s down from 51 per cent a year ago to 28 per cent now, and no one is "strongly optimistic” at all – the whole 28 per cent is now just "somewhat optimistic”.

This is not good. CEOs are, by their nature, optimistic creatures because they spend their lives selling hope to their staff and their customers. That nearly a half of them are pessimistic about the nation’s prospects, and a fifth of them are gloomy about their own companies is kind of shocking.

Research design and analysis for the CEO Pulse was conducted by GA Research and fieldwork by AFS. The sample comprised n=96 CEOs of organisations with an Australian turnover of $100 million or more who opted to participate in a five minute survey conducted over the phone or online between July 17 and July 29, 2012.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter