Why we need a review of IR laws

As we approach the end of a year of change in industrial relations, revelations that the Federal Opposition might review its policy stance on industrial relations should be welcomed.

During the recent election campaign the Opposition played a dead bat on industrial relations, declaring it would not alter Labor’s Fair Work legislation. This tactic may well have been a factor in getting them close to victory, but the failure to distinguish themselves from the Government on such an important issue may equally have given people a reason not to change their vote.

The fact is that industrial relations laws always needs to change to meet the needs of contemporary society and the business community which provides jobs to that society. One of the most significant, and long overdue, changes made by the Fair Work legislation was the achievement of – with the exception of Western Australia – a single national system governing the nation’s private workplaces.

The existing state systems’ place in the national economy was creaky and outmoded and the Labor government is to be congratulated for getting its state colleagues finally in line and finishing off the job which was started by cooperation between State Labour and Federal Coalition governments in Victoria.

Of course, why the States, in particular New South Wales, fought so hard on some aspects of the changes, when the prize was to shed unnecessary and expensive tribunals and infrastructure, will always be a question. That state incidentally has shown signs of the same shennanigans over national OHS reform. No credit to the Liberals in Western Australia, then, who stuck to their guns and kept their own state system.

The complaints about award modernisation have been plentiful, and there is no doubt that the changes will result in an overall increase in labour costs – or employee benefits. However, again, Labor has at least gone some way to finishing the job started by the Howard-era award “simplification” over a decade ago.

While much has been said about “reform fatigue” and the need to settle the system down, business and the community would not, and should not, welcome stagnation in areas of the law which need improvement. One imagines that the same sorts of things were being said after the High Court told Federal Parliament in 1956 that it could not have an industrial court which both created employee rights through awards and in which those rights could be enforced.

The creation of a whole raft of new “rights” by the Fair Work legislation will only serve to accelerate a descent into obscene amounts of individual litigation; something lawyers and, dare one say, many ordinary Australians, deplore about the legal system in other countries. No balance has been achieved in the Labor unfair dismissal regime and if anything, the system is more complex and more conducive to employer’s paying “go-away money” than ever before.

All of these issues deserve review. And it may prove that the legislative virtual monopoly on workplace agreement provided to unions under Fair Work, and the associated vehicles such as good faith bargaining and enhanced rights of entry, also require a more balanced approach.

So, congratulations to the Coalition for dipping their toes in the water – better late than never. As for the maintenance of necessary reform, the news isn’t so good on the other side of the fence with Unions Tasmania boss, Kevin Harkins calling for that State to scrap its subscription to the national IR system. Harkins, an erstwhile senate candidate, before he was rolled by his own party, isn’t doing Tasmanians any favours and should be censured by his party. Equally, Prime Minister Gillard needs to show that she deserves the top job by being prepared to lead on change which is good for the nation. Her recently reported meeting with the ACTU was a good chance for her to stand up and show that leadership: a test she failed.

Despite 18 months of substantial and complex change, the challenge for governments, oppositions and for business remains to keep the industrial relations systems contemporary, relevant and balanced between the needs of employers and employees. The leadership mantle is there for the taking in 2011.


This article was originally published on SmartCompany.com.au where Peter is a regular contributor.

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