How Abbott outflanked Labor on IR

Rather than fight a renewed battle over WorkChoices-style industrial relations, the Coalition has promised to implement a swathe of unfinished Labor policies.

The Coalition's industrial relations policy is a real disappointment to many.

It’s disappointing for big business lobbyists who wanted a commitment to individual employment agreements. They wanted a dropping of good faith bargaining provisions and the reintroduction of employer friendly Greenfield agreements amongst many items. Most things on their wish list are technical legal issues relating to how union negotiations are to be handled.

Small business people wanted the dropping of unfair dismissals affecting them, an easing of penalty rates, particularly on weekends, and greater work flexibility.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has labelled the Coalition policy “too cautious.”

But the greater disappointment is for the Labor Party and unions.

What Tony Abbott’s Coalition has promised to do is to retain the Fair Work Act but to change it to what Labor promised in the 2007 and 2010 elections. This creates a dilemma for Labor and unions. If they criticise Abbott on industrial relations they are really confirming their intention to continue Labor’s broken industrial relations promises.

This is probably why Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten and Australian Council of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney looked flustered when (separately) interviewed on ABC Television last month. The ABC interviewers understood that Abbott’s policy picks up Labor’s broken promises. Both Shorten and Kearney didn’t know where to turn when this was put to them.

There’s a significant list of Labor’s broken promises on industrial relations.

Labor promised a ‘strong cop on the beat’ in the construction sector. Instead they destroyed the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It’s replacement does nothing. Abbot says he’ll reintroduce the ABCC and make construction unions obey and respect the law.

Labor promised small business people a ‘fair dismissal code.’ What’s been put in place is not at all ‘fair.’ Instead small business people have to pay money out of their personal pockets over a questionable dismissal claim. Abbott says he’ll put in a genuine ‘fair dismissal code’ to fix a broken Labor promise.

Flexibility agreements were another Labor promise. In the Fair Work Act they’ve used the name ‘flexibility’ but the process is entirely controlled by unions. No-one’s able to easily change work arrangements to suit family needs. The Coalition has promised that it’ll enable people to do this on the condition that people are ‘better off.’

But Abbott’s Coalition has also said it’ll also do things not promised by Labor.

It's promised small business people that the Fair Work Ombudsman will be required to give them reliable advice on required pay and conditions. Currently the FWO gives information that if incorrect, enables it to sue small business people. Frankly that’s Labor perverting justice!

And Abbott’s Coalition is intentionally going to anger unions. They will require unions and their leaders to have proper financial disclosure and accountability just like company directors. The Coalition policy will make it illegal for union officials to spend union money on prostitutes. This happened and the Health Services Union and the Labor government have done nothing to clean it up.

Finally, Abbott will implement changes that Labor’s own review panel recommended but which have not been actioned. Presumably he’ll need to try and undo some damaging industrial relations amendments that the Gillard government is ramming through parliament in its dying days.

These include one-sided work ‘flexibility’ laws, forced consultation on changes to rosters and penalty rate principles enshrined in law. Then there’s a new and strange national bullying jurisdiction, expanded union right of entry to lunch rooms and funding of union access to remote sites. Instead of making unfair dismissal laws more balanced, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is making it harder for employers to defend against allegations of unfair dismissals. None of these things were ever stated in Labor election commitments instead it’s a panicked agenda sprung on Australians.

What Gillard is doing is locking down to every extent possible the institutional power of unions. Assuming the Coalition wins government in September these new pro-union labour laws will not be able to be reversed unless Abbott wins control of the Senate. That’s unlikely according to most analysts.

Returning to the Coalition's industrial relations policy, it has produced an election campaigning problem for Labor and the unions. They’re disappointed. They wanted to do a re-run of their anti-WorkChoices campaign of 2007. However now, if Labor attacks the Coalition they’re really attacking policies and promises Labor made, which Labor has broken.

Ken Phillips is executive director of  Independent Contractors Australia and author of Independence and the Death of Employment.

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