HomeWorkplaceEmployment LegislationAll change, no difference: Opinion

All change, no difference: Opinion

Kevin ’13 doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? I suspect that the lack of a neat catch phrase won’t be his biggest problem.

Once the dust has settled and the election has taken place, the result is likely to be the same: a Coalition Government with Abbott at the helm (unless Turnbull gets nostalgic and decides to fight another round with Rudd – stranger things have happened). There is one certainty though. Once the politicians get back to their day jobs, industrial relations will be sitting at the top of the pile of things to do on their desks.

The first item to deal with will be legislation rushed through Parliament by Labor in apparent acknowledgement of their demise. This includes the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 (the Act). As it says on the tin, the Act seeks to amend the Fair Work Act 2009, Labor’s reaction to Work Choices.

Its principal focus is on family (perhaps unsurprising in an election year), enhancing flexibility in the workplace and giving greater protection to those on parental leave. It then turns to the question of rights of entry for unions. It is with this that it gives away the real intention of the legislation.

There was absolutely no urgency to address this issue. A minority of workplaces are unionised and the existing legislation, whilst problematic, is not so dire as to need immediate pro-union rectification. Legislating at this stage of the Government’s demise is simply a transparent attempt to pander to the unions, giving them a little as a gift on the way out of the door so as to make the task of the incoming Government more difficult.

The same reasoning appears to be behind the Early Years Quality Fund (the EYQF), which was also enshrined before Parliament rose for the break. This is a publicly funded pool of cash intended to raise the wages of those working in long day care centres.

The fundamental problem (even if you agree with the concept of the Government propping up industries over and above what the market can support) is that the pool of cash is relatively tiny and will only support part of the sector, leaving a divide between the haves and the have nots. It would be the equivalent of the Government setting up a fund for Ford but not Holden and telling the Holden workers to go and swim.

It has been described as a parting gift to the unions as it has given United Voice the platform to go into organisations that were otherwise not unionised and drum up support. They use the (unwarranted) sales pitch that if staff sign up to the union, they will guarantee that their employers get the funding.

They don’t have this power, even with a Labor Government. When passing through Parliament last week, the EYQF was described by some Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate as the single worst piece of legislation put to the 43rd Parliament, but it was still passed by the Senate in the final day of sitting.

Once the firefighting has stopped and the unions have been talked down from their perch, Abbott will be able to get on with applying his own IR policy. What will that be? Abbott summarised the position as in saying “we will retain and improve the Fair Work Act, we want to protect workers’ pay and conditions and we also want to maximise opportunities to get good jobs”.

Genius!

In one sentence he has resolved the problem that has seen governments across the world rise and fall over generations. He seems to think that achieving the perfect balance between workers and business is a simple task. If it was, he would have been invited to govern far sooner.

In reality, his policy looks likely to be a long way off achieving this utopian ideal. First of all, he has promised not to make any fundamental changes until a second term (sigh from employers).

Then, he has set out through the Coalition’s policy document a raft of pretty inconsequential statements. Basically, the Coalition will support the various family friendly provisions passed by Labor but will pull back on the union stuff. The return will be lots of noise from increasingly marginalised unions, whilst workers and businesses at grass roots level remain dissatisfied and confused.

So, it seems that for all of the change occurring at the moment, there will be no difference. The vast majority of Aussie workers and employers will continue to be subject to the confusing set of laws set up to address the issues of the minority. All the while, Australia will continue to be viewed as a difficult place to do business because of the complexity and cost imposed on businesses through its labour laws.