Heavy hitters take Abbott to task on IR

Two of Australia's corporate heavyweights have admonished Prime Minister Tony Abbott for not tackling industrial relations reform in his first term.

Two of Australia's corporate heavyweights have admonished Prime Minister Tony Abbott for not tackling industrial relations reform in his first term.

At the same time, a younger member of the business elite called for corporate leaders to keep their mouths shut.

Speaking at a lunch in Melbourne, Lend Lease chairman David Crawford and Asciano chairman Malcolm Broomhead seized on Mr Abbott's inaction on workplace issues.

Mr Broomhead said it was "absolute madness" to defer reforms until 2016 at the earliest. The 2016 date was nominated by Mr Abbott in August, when he launched a set of pre-election workplace policies that left the Labor Party's Fair Work Act largely unchanged.

His one significant change will be to revive the Australian Building and Construction Commission, but for most companies not involved in the construction industry, little has changed.

Mr Crawford, who sits on the BHP Billiton board with Mr Broomhead, said putting off more extensive workplace reform was "extremely disappointing".

He said Mr Abbott had made a political decision to help get elected. "I think he has lost an opportunity to deal with the fundamental issue which, as you said, has been identified by just about everybody in business," he said. "We need to have industrial relations reform, and it needs to be done in a way that will lead to productivity growth and will lead to infrastructure development."

The 2016 date should coincide with Australia's next federal election, and Mr Crawford said Mr Abbott should be wary of assuming voters will give him another chance.

"It's a very brave move to assume . . . that you are going to get a second term and you are going to put off addressing the difficult decisions until that second term," he said. "They'd have lost effectively three years of trying to get their reforms through."

Among the companies that have opposed Labor's workplace settings in recent years, BHP has been one of the more outspoken, with chairman Jac Nasser calling for the policies to be "reversed".

The workplace portfolio was one of the most delicate for Mr Abbott before the election because of public fears of a return to the WorkChoices legislation that was introduced under former PM John Howard.

The comments came as National Australia Bank chief executive Cameron Clyne called for business leaders to keep their mouths shut about reform discussions, saying it was counter-productive to provide a running commentary. He said the government needed "clear air" to introduce long-term reforms, a luxury he said the Rudd and Gillard governments were not afforded.

"The previous government was often criticised for lacking consultation," he said. "It didn't. I can certainly think of two occasions where there was a genuine attempt for consultation, only to have that quickly breached by a number of participants bursting out the door to provide their views on it. That perhaps scared them away from future consultation."

Mr Clyne said reform was never easy, and people were wrong if they thought the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era were achieved seamlessly.

"It has always been hard," he said. "The harsh reality of real reform is there will be winners and losers.

"The challenge business faces is we are not going to win everything. If we descend into the individual wants of each industry then we are going to be very, very susceptible to dividing and conquering.

"Therefore we must speak with a united voice and recognise in some cases . . . while we may not benefit from an individual industry perspective, we will benefit from the rising tide of a growing economy."

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