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Issue #1593      May 15, 2013

Abbott’s revived WorkChoices must be defeated

Tony Abbott has admitted he cannot always be believed but if he and the Liberal Party are sincere in what they say in introducing their “new” industrial relations policy, they are living in fantasy land. In their imaginary Australia, unions are all lawless fiefdoms run by corrupt “bosses”, union officials barge into businesses hundreds of times a year and harass non-unionised workers in their lunch-rooms. Greedy, unreasonable, unionised workers are frequently paid much more than the Prime Minister and bosses (actual bosses) live in terror of unions. There is a culture encouraged by the Labor Party of “strike first, talk later”. Does this sound like your workplace? Didn’t think so.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

To the fictitious rescue comes the Coalition’s new industrial relations policy called The Coalition’s Policy to Improve the Fair Work Laws. The title is a give-away about the Coalition’s general approach – to wrap up major changes in the cloak of Labor’s own “Fair Work” regime. The centrepiece will be the effective restoration of Australian Workplace Agreements to be called by the current name for individual contracts – Individual Flexibility Agreements (IFAs). There is a strong historical irony in the fact that much of Howard’s WorkChoices apparatus was kept, slightly toned down and given new names, by the ALP. If the Coalition is elected in September, it will restore all the content of Workchoices but keep Labor’s names for the components.

The use of IFAs will no longer be restricted by the presence of Enterprise Bargaining Agreements. Individual contracts will be more front and centre. If you can believe the oily words in the policy, a worker cannot be obliged to accept an IFA as a condition of employment. Fair Work Australia will apply the “better off overall” test. It’s the old WorkChoices duck and weave all over again. Don’t believe them. The same with penalty rates. Abbott and shadow Industrial Relations Minister Eric Abetz insist that there will be no change to the present situation … sort of.

“On penalty rates I know these are a significant issue for businesses, particularly in tourism and hospitality,” Mr Abbott told a press conference last week. “There should remain provision first of the Fair Work Commission and second and third subject to the kinds of sensible changes that might be possible under enterprise bargaining agreements and individual flexibility agreements. And I would encourage businesses that think it is important to maximise employment and to maximise the success of the business and its workers, to consider enterprise bargaining agreements or individual flexibility agreements.” Penalty rates will be up for grabs under the Coalition and it won’t be because bosses want to maximise employment.

One area where a WorkChoices label will be restored is the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The Coalition claims it is not happy with the work done and the number of prosecutions made of union officials in the construction industry by Labor’s re-badged Fair Work Building and Construction unit. The name “ABCC” will be restored with implicit instructions to take more union scalps. In fact its role will be expanded to include offshore projects where it will wage war on the Maritime Union of Australia. Original plans to subject the whole Australian labour movement to ABCC-style control have not been buried or cremated, either.

Bosses will have their tight rein on right of entry tightened even further. Their ability to dictate where union officials can meet members will be strengthened. This is already an issue in some industries where workers interested to hear from union representatives are only able to do so in paddocks distant from the worksite at the most inconvenient times possible.

If unions and bosses can’t come to an agreement for a new project (a Greenfield Agreement) after three months, the Fair Work Commission will step in and make one. In the explanation for the Coalition policy, delays are inevitably the fault of unions pressing for “exorbitant demands”. This will be the ideological underpinning for the Commission’s new responsibilities. The Commission will also house a Registered Organisations Commission to investigate unions’ financial affairs.

“A Coalition government will ensure that registered organisations and their officials play by the same rules as companies and their directors, with the same penalties,” the policy says. “This will ensure that members’ money cannot be spent on prostitutes, used for personal holidays, or withdrawn from ATM’s to be spent on personal items. In addition, we will improve financial disclosure rules and create a Registered Organisations Commission as a watchdog to ensure the obligations are met and to help educate people about improved standards.”

The basic assumption in the Coalition policy is that unions are unnecessary third parties impeding productivity (reducing the bosses’ profit share). They are semi-legal entities that are tolerated at best and sent broke if possible. Abbott would love to go further now but would find that politically difficult facing an electorate still holding vivid memories of WorkChoices – a policy he simultaneously disowns and praises.

“It’s not that long ago that the leader of the opposition was telling Australians that WorkChoices was good for wages, good for the economy, good for everyone and that needed to be remembered,” Julia Gillard noted recently. In fact Abbott and his policy still refer to the WorkChoices days as some sort of golden era. Australian workers don’t, hence the opposition leader’s caution about the terms he uses for its restoration.

Abbott is promising to refer the Fair Work Act and related bureaucracy to the Productivity Commission for review and recommendation. If it recommends even tighter control on working people, he has promised to take the changes to the next election for a mandate to do so. Workers would be ill advised to accept any of his undertakings. He must never be Prime Minister and WorkChoices must never be restored.   

Next article – Editorial – The winds of change

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