First published by the Australian Financial Review on 6 August 2013.
by James Massola
LABOR’S workplace reforms may not be over. The government will look to make further “family-friendly” changes to the Fair Work Act if it is re-elected, Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten says.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian Financial Review to mark the beginning of the election campaign, Mr Shorten said Labor’s workplace laws were “largely set” but also hinted at changes to the rules governing greenfields agreements as he predicted the Coalition would try to “bury workplace relations and bury talk of schools” as a political issue.
Mr Shorten said Labor would stand on its workplace record but added, “we are interested in more family-friendly provisions which ensure that people and particularly women can work flexibly and balance work and family”, although he would not reveal the new measures.
The minister has been charged by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with leading a working group of business and unions to examine potential changes to the current workplace rules. “We are revisiting improving greenfields by good-faith bargaining in greenfields. That’s been an idea that’s started to be spoken about,” he said.
“In terms of our working group, I’ve attended a number of meetings with the BCA [Business Council of Australia] and the ACTU and we’ll keep working on it,” Mr Shorten said. “Work place relations change doesn’t start or stop on a particular day of the year, it doesn’t start or stop at election time.”
Changes aimed at families passed in June included additional roster protections, improved parental leave conditions, strengthened rights for an employee to request flexible leave arrangements and enshrining penalty rates in the act.
OPEN TO RIDICULE
But the opposition’s workplace spokesman, Eric Abetz, told the Financial Review that while Mr Shorten and the union movement had “hyper-ventilated” over elements of the Coalition’s policy when it was released in May, “every commentator ridiculed their attack”.
Senator Abetz said the Coalition was committed to “evolution, not revolution” in industrial relations, pointing to a planned Productivity Commission inquiry into workplace laws that would be “guided by looking at practical problems and solutions not embedded in ideology”.
Senator Abetz, from Tasmania and the Liberal Senate leader, said Australians could feel confident the commission’s review of workplace laws would be a “robust but sensitive inquiry”.
He said the Coalition did not have unions in its sights – contrary to Labor’s claims – through its plan to subject officials in registered organisations, including unions, to the same penalties for malfeasance as company directors.
“We are not targeting one group over another,” he said.”We are actually being pro-union by rehabilitating the reputation of trade unions by exposing these sorts of scams.”
The Coalition’s industrial relations policy emphasised the need for productivity in enterprise bargaining, tightened the rules for industrial action and broadened the role of individual flexible agreements, while also flagging the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Labor’s changes may potentially open the door to agreements that allow for a form of arbitration for negotiating enterprise agreements on major projects.but Mr Shorten dismissed the Coalition’s proposal to allow employers to effectively have an greenfields agreement unilaterally after three months of negotiating with a union.
“The fact that they (the Coalition) want to have employers do a deal with themselves in the mirror shows that they don’t respect the voice of employees in work places,” he said.
Mr Shorten said that under Labor, productivity had risen, industrial disputation had fallen while the government had invested in skills, education and training.
The Productivity Commission’s May 2013 update on productivity growth in the economy showed labour productivity had grown under Labor between 2007-08 and 2011-12, but multi-factor productivity growth has fallen in the same period.
According to ABS data, the number of industrial disputes fell in the December 2012 and March 2013 quarters, from a peak of 64 that commenced in the September 2012 quarter.