Monday, January 23, 2017, 1:44pm
Tensions in the senior ranks of the FWC have again entered the public domain with the resignation of Vice President Graeme Watson, effective from the end of next month.
Vice President Watson in a letter on Friday to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash partially reproduced by The Australian Financial Review has attacked the IR system and the umpire, stating that he will now offer his services as an IR consultant to a business community that he says increasingly sees the FWC as partisan, dysfunctional and divided.
His resignation comes after AMMA (Watson’s former employer) late last year wrote to Minister Cash claiming that several senior FWC members had contacted it to advise they would retire early due to the tribunal’s “dysfunction and politicisation”.
In the decade since his appointment to the FWC (see Related Article), Vice President Watson, a former Freehills partner who played a high-profile role in Rio Tinto’s legal battle against coal mining unions in the mid-1990s, has been vocal in his criticisms of the tribunal’s work and direction.
Tensions between him and President Iain Ross first came to public attention in 2012 when Vice President Watson argued in his speech to the NSW IR Society annual conference that appointments to the then Fair Work Australia were dominated by former union officials and their offers of advice, assistance or recommendations were “likely to be seen as more frightening than enlightening” (see Related Article).
Justice Ross told an Estimates hearing a few weeks later that he had “expressed concern” to the vice president about his comments (see Related Article).
That year during the second reading debate on Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten’s Fair Work Amendment Bill 2012 then-Opposition backbencher Jamie Briggs questioned Justice Ross’s impartiality and accused him of sidelining Vice President Watson and former Vice President Michael Lawler (see Related Article).
New VP positions seen as “demotion”
In 2013 the Labor Government appointed two additional statutory vice presidents, despite the Law Council warning the move could reduce Vice President Watson and Michael Lawler’s status and senior responsibilities, potentially undermining the tribunal’s independence (see Related Article).
In 2014, then FWC Deputy Brendan McCarthy also raised concerns with Justice Ross amid data showing the two vice presidents appointed late in the Rudd-Gillard Government’s term – Adam Hatcher and Joe Catanzariti – were allocated to substantially more full benches than Howard Government-appointed Vice Presidents Watson and Lawler (see Related Article).
After retiring from the FWC in 2015, McCarthy launched an extraordinary attack on the tribunal’s role and operation, claiming it was not the appropriate body to establish minimum standards, with full benches for major cases still drawn from a “narrow base” of members (see Related Article).
In his October letter to Minister Cash, AMMA chief executive Steve Knott called for an independent review of the FWC, arguing it was “highly dysfunctional, not serving users well and appears to be pursuing political agendas as opposed to assisting constructive workplace relations outcomes for employers and employees”.
Among concerns canvassed in the letter, AMMA said Labor’s 2013 creation of the two additional FWC vice president positions resulted in the “effective demotion of incumbent quasi-judicial officers of a Commonwealth tribunal” and the displacement of “those properly appointed by the preceding government”.
President wishes Watson well
In a statement today Justice Ross said he had “been informed” that Vice President Watson has “written to the Governor-General tendering his resignation as a member of the Fair Work Commission, with effect from close of business 28 February 2017”.
“I thank the Vice President for his service to the Commission and wish him well in his future endeavours,” he said.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said Vice President Watson’s resignation would be a “big loss” to the FWC and “employers and employees who are widely impacted by the Commission’s decisions” and it was now “essential” to quickly appoint a replacement with “similar essential qualities”.
Of reports that his letter to Minister Cash contains “significant criticisms” of the Fair Work Act, Willox said this added “further weight” to industry representatives’ calls for the Government to “move without delay to implement its response to the Productivity Commission’s report on Australia’s Workplace Relations Framework”.
Maurice Blackburn principal Josh Bornstein, who Briggs tipped as being in line for a 2013 FWC vice presidency appointment, has also weighed in.
“Good to see Vice President of Fair Work Commission, Graeme Watson, resign,” he tweeted to his followers this morning.
“The FWC will be better for his departure.”
The ACTU declined to comment.
Vice President Watson has been a member of the tribunal since June 19, 2006.
Originally published in Workplace Express.