Kevin Rudd made some substantial shifts in Labor’s industrial relations policy in his Press Club address this week, releasing
four new elements of Labor’s IR policy – a new national uniform system for the private economy; mandatory secret ballots; the abolition of strike pay; and new unfair dismissal laws that create flexibility for small business operators – other elements of our policy will be progressively released between now and the election.
Before exploring this a bit further, I should note that even if Labor is elected to government at the end of the year, there is no chance at all of them controlling the Senate – which is a good thing in my view, as I don’t think any single party or grouping should do so. So whatever proposals they put up will still have to agreed to by a majority of Senators after the election. I haven’t seen any commentary on how Labor’s IR proposals might fare in the various possible post-election Senate compositions. (Naturally, I hope to still be one of those Senators, but we’ll see what the voters of Queensland have to say about that later this year.)
The response from trade unions to these new measures announced by Kevin Rudd has been very muted, with only a few exceptions. On the one hand, this is no surprise, as they obviously feel they would still get a better deal from Kevin Rudd than John Howard, so they have to cop it sweet – indeed I suspect Mr Rudd might even have liked a bit more kicking and squealing, just so he can show he’s not ‘captive to the unions’.
On the other hand, having repeatedly voted in the Senate to defeat measures such as a secret ballot and legalising unfair dismissal a number of times over many years, I know I would have been publicly ripped to shreds by any number of unions if I had supported either of these things, so it does grate a little bit to see them meekly accepting what are very significant shifts.
Not that public criticism would have stopped me supporting measures if I thought they were a good idea, or justifiable on balance. I have supported some of the Coalition government’s IR measures – a couple of which copped us a bit of a pasting from some quarters. I can still recall former Labor Senator, the late Peter Cook, in debate in the Senate at about 1 o’clock in the morning, accusing me of supporting fascist and evil legislation, complete with a reference to the Nuremburg trials, when I agreed to a hugely watered down measure aimed at addressing issues in the building industry. Plenty on the doctrinaire left still take potshots at the Democrats more than ten years after then leader Cheryl Kernot agreed to a range of IR changes – albeit heavily amended ones – in the first year or so of the Howard government.
I find a lot of the debate around workplace relations involves people reacting to terminology or perception, rather than the substantive details. Sometimes of course it is just plain smoke and mirrors. The focus on Labor’s intention to abolish AWAs is part of this. The issue isn’t getting rid of AWAs – which after all is just a name – it is what will replace them. I simply cannot believe that Labor would completely prohibit individual workplace agreements, or on the other hand have common law contracts without some form of underpinning statutory protections. There will still be scope for individual agreements of some sort. The issue is the legal framework those agreements have to operate within.
Kevin Rudd’s modified approach on unfair dismissals is currently being slammed by John Howard as a surrender to the unions and a disaster for small business and jobs, but as was pointed out in this piece by Patricia Karvelas, “Mr Howard called for the same model in 1997, well before he had control of the Senate and the ability to deliver more radical reform.”
I think Labor’s new requirement “to outlaw industrial action unless there is a secret ballot” is far more significant. One should wait to see the fine detail, but Kevin Rudd’s announcement doesn’t seem to leave much room for qualification. I don’t know of much evidence that such a measure is either needed or even necessarily particularly workable, and it is hard to see why Rudd would do this except for political purposes.
Being a democrat, balloting things always appeals to me as an option, but to mandate it in all circumstances seems both excessively bureaucratic and potentially counter-productive. I don’t oppose the option to have a ballot, but mandating it as essential seems excessive to me. Ballots were able to be done under the pre-WorkChoices law. Pre-strike ballots used to be available to employees if they wished to use them, and the Industrial Relations Commission could order secret ballots at its discretion, but these provisions were rarely requested or used. Of course, elections of union officials have been by secret ballot for some time. I understand Western Australian used to have some rigid secret ballot requirements at a time when the Coalition had control of the upper house over there, and I don’t believe they were found to have been helpful in improving industrial peace or reducing disputation.
Canberra Times economics editor Peter Martin had a piece on his website last week reacting to Kevin Rudd’s speech, entitled “Workchoices 12months on: Howard has won” and saying
“Just as is the case for the GST, WorkChoices may be changed, but it will never be dismantled.”
The content of the article suggests he is basing this conclusion mainly on the fact that Labor has said they will retain – indeed complete the expansion and implementation of – a national system. This is one thing I never doubted Labor would do. Whilst I’ve become less of a centralist over the years, I do think a single system of workplace relations laws is desirable – even though I don’t like the content of the current set of national laws.
I wouldn’t see maintaining a national system as a win for Howard, or indeed as maintaining ‘WorkChoices’. The key features of the so-called WorkChoices system is not that it is a centralised national system, but the way it is fundamentally anti-union, its destruction of the previous long-standing system of conciliation and arbitration, and its removal of most of the safety nets in place to protect workers with weaker bargaining power.
However, it is true that Kevin Rudd’s shifts announced in his Press Club speech do represent some partial, presumably permanent, gains for Howard in the workplace relations area. George Megalogenis expands on this in his recent piece in The Australian, where he says “Rudd’s Work Choices lite is already more radical than the status quo that applied in the run-up to the 2004 election.” (I presume ‘radical’ in this context refers to the radical changes pushed through the Coalition controlled Senate by John Howard.).
But one of the biggest details yet to come is what will replace AWAs and what happens in respect of what I call the safety net of minimum conditions and entitlements – or what used to be called the no-disadvantage test which used to apply to AWAs under the version the Democrats agreed to in 1996. It is the removal of this safety net that was one of the biggest changes made by the Coalition controlled Senate, as “it ended a century of assurance from government that it could guarantee the nominal pay and conditions of all workers.” This to me is far more significant that what name is used to replace AWAs. As Megalogenis says,
“if the only thing Rudd changes on AWAs is to restore a few extra conditions – say, penalty rates for working on weekends – and to rename the piece of paper a common law contract, what exactly is the difference if it doesn’t come with a so-called no-disadvantage test?”