07 May 2019
Debate over workplace reform in Australia has been ongoing, with varying degrees of intensity, for almost 15 years. In this federal election year, however, industrial relations policy has assumed increased significance.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has run hard on its ‘change the rules’ campaign, highlighting the union movement’s concerns over elements of the current legislative framework.
The Fair Work Act 2009 was the Rudd Labor Government’s answer to John Howard’s 2005 ‘Work Choices’ legislation. Whereas Work Choices implemented an individualised model of labour regulation, reducing the role and influence of unions and the federal industrial tribunal, the Fair Work Act prioritised collective bargaining and brought unions back into play.
For the ACTU, however, employers over the last ten years have found ways around the legislation’s mechanisms compelling union-centred workplace negotiations.
The union movement’s reform aspirations have pushed the Labor Opposition to adopt a fairly bold workplace relations policy. If implemented, some of the key commitments adopted by the ALP will have a major impact on the current approach to workforce management of many businesses. These include:
As for the Coalition Government, its policy is mostly restricted to retaining the current legislative and institutional framework – particularly the focus on curbing excessive union power (through the ABCC and ROC).
Although short-lived, the Work Choices experiment has had a lasting impact, quelling the reform appetite of contemporary Coalition politicians. Having paid the electoral price in 2007, they have not since advocated major workplace relations change, to the frustration of many in the business community. Even some modest recommendations of the Productivity Commission in 2015 have gone unimplemented.
Regardless of the election outcome, businesses need to remain alive to the need for a proactive approach to managing staff and (where present) union relationships. The latter will be even more important in the event of an incoming ALP Government, given the recent resurgence of unions in national policy discussion.
There will always be challenges and opportunities in the transition to any new regulatory environment. Informed employers with workplace strategies which align their labour and engagement models with their operational imperatives will still be able to remain ahead of the game.
The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.