I can't say I'm at all surprised by this. But I'd be curious to know how Labor's "Forward With Fairness" (Ha!) proposals will actually help "working families" .... (many of them being the very workers & unionists who copped such a raw deal under Howard's WorkChoices.):
State of the union
September 20, 2008/the AGE
Labor's industrial relations package confirms the loosening of ties with the movement that created the party.
THROUGHOUT most of the 20th century, Australia's industrial relations system worked along relatively simple lines. There were unions and there were employers and there was a central tribunal with powers to conciliate and arbitrate in the middle. Please note the last two words of the preceding sentence, "the middle". Because more often than not, the tribunal would look at the claims of both sides, find the mid-point between them and that would form the basis of its decisions.
In some superficial respects, the Rudd Government's proposed workplace laws, its much-awaited replacement for John Howard's ill-fated WorkChoices, sit in that old Australian IR tradition. What the Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard has done is to look at what the employer organisations wanted, which was to hold on to WorkChoices, and what the ACTU wanted, and given them both a little bit of what they were after " in effect, splitting the difference. On the face of it, this might seem a reasonable enough approach, perhaps even fair.
But the very nature of WorkChoices needs to be borne in mind. It was the most revolutionary set of industrial laws Australia had seen. Labor's substitute for WorkChoices, which it calls Forward With Fairness, is no counter-revolution. In a way, it's more an attempt to make WorkChoices more efficient, the sort of prescription that John Howard might have gone for had he not been overwhelmed by the desire to leave behind a profound ideological mark after he won an increased majority at the 2004 election.
Howard made two massive misjudgements in 2005 that ensured he would leave politics a loser. One was to set the ball rolling on WorkChoices. The other was not to hand over the Liberal leadership to Peter Costello. Combined, those two decisions guaranteed his defeat last year. But on the WorkChoices score, Howard should have some cause to take comfort.
WorkChoices had two goals: an economic objective of giving employers extensive natural bargaining power over hiring, firing and wage-setting; and a political goal of crushing the union movement and, as a consequence, weakening the Labor Party. The political consequences of Forward With Fairness could well turn out to be more profound than the industrial ones. All told, this new IR regime reveals the truth about the contemporary Labor Party: its ties with the unions are technical and historical, not elemental. There is little in this package of measures that suggests it is the product of a Labor government committed to entrenching social democracy.
Forward With Fairness does make some fundamental changes to WorkChoices. The application of a sunset clause to Australian Workplace Agreements, which were the bluntest instrument of the old laws, is the most obvious. Some of the restrictions on collective bargaining have been eased, and the new industrial tribunal Labor will set up to supersede the Industrial Relations Commission will have some sort of power to arbitrate intractable disputes, although how much power and in what circumstances is yet to be determined. Importantly, the burden of the law will require employers and employees to negotiate but not to reach an agreement.
Resort to unfair dismissal procedures will be extended to many small businesses, but the threshold for employers to dispose of employees has been lowered significantly. Even the Fair Pay Commission, which sets minimum wages for the lowest-paid workers, will continue to exist, rebadged and with different members. The wage-setting power will continue to be denied to the central tribunal.
Voters who expected to see WorkChoices dismantled probably should have looked beyond the rhetoric and examined the fine print of the policy outlines Gillard delivered last year. The John Bray professor of law at Flinders University, Andrew Stewart, is advising the Department of Workplace Relations on the drafting instructions for the Forward With Fairness legislation.
He said yesterday that the relatively mild nature of the package should come as no surprise. "Early last year when it announced its policy, the Labor Party made a whole series of compromises. It was very concerned that there might be a backlash from employers and as a consequence it wanted to go to the election sending out two messages. One was that it would get rid of WorkChoices and the other was that it would look after business. There is no significant commitment that it made back then, as far as I can see, that it has gone back on," he said.
The changes that Forward With Fairness imposes on the existing WorkChoices model will lead to a fairer and more efficient industrial relations system. In tandem with the new laws, the award modernisation process being undertaken by the Industrial Relations Commission " a massive project " will streamline workplace relations.
But they do little to encourage the growth of unions, and that's where the political significance of Labor's course on IR lies. The Whitlam government cruelled itself by giving too much to the unions. The Hawke government avoided that mistake by tying the ACTU to a joint approach on incomes, the social wage and economic policy generally. The Rudd Government, faced with a union movement that's been weakened by 11 years under Howard, has accepted the diminution of union power as a fait accompli and has fashioned its new IR regime around that fact.
Eventually, Labor will have to reorganise itself internally to reflect this reality
; it cannot continue indefinitely to have 50% of its conference constituted by unions " especially if its IR laws regard union representation as an incidental extra. What is guaranteed is that the public campaign by the ACTU in response to WorkChoices and which provided so much help to Labor in its 2007 election effort will not be repeated. That campaign was a reflexive attempt by unions to escape the hangman's noose under Howard. Victory has resulted in unionism being plugged in to what amounts to a rudimentary form of life support under Rudd and Gillard.
The attentions of many union officials will now turn to the Greens, with a view to persuading Bob Brown and his fellow senators to negotiate amendments to "toughen up" Forward With Fairness in the upper house. Thus the minor party that has a good chance of taking a number of formerly safe inner-city ALP seats at the next election could, in the case of this policy, save modern Labor from itself.
Shaun Carney is associate editor.