Strike us lucky, it's not what we feared

THREE officially designated ‘‘wise men’’ have just issued a message to Australia’s boisterous industrial relations scene: ‘‘Take a chill pill, folks.’’

It hasn’t worked, of course. The day after, their efforts were being colourfully assessed as a ‘‘bitter blow for business’’ and ‘‘gives unions the upper hand’’, not to mention finding themselves dismissed in a national newspaper as ‘‘three guys who are said to be independent’’.

It must have seemed so straightforward when Reserve Bank Board member Dr John Edwards, former Federal Court judge Michael Moore and workplace relations academic Professor Emeritus Ron McCallum AO were given the job of reviewing Labor’s Fair Work laws.

Labor had promised a down-the-track review when they brought the laws in, because they were so comprehensive. Not only did they undo the anti-union WorkChoices legislation often blamed for the fall of the Howard government; they also modernised the 100-year-old arbitration system, replacing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with a new official umpire, Fair Work Australia.

Labor viewed this as just bringing things back into balance. But businesses, spooked by the global financial crisis, have been complaining that in a little over two years the changes have skewed the system too far towards the unions, limiting economic growth and business productivity.

About 250-odd submissions and 300 pages later, the three experts have come up with 53 recommendations for changes to the Fair Work Act (check them out at deewr.gov.au). And they’ve concluded that, rather than being restrictive, the laws are ‘‘operating broadly as intended’’.

Nor do they find any connection between the laws and sluggish productivity. ‘‘The Panel is not persuaded that the legislative framework for industrial relations accounts for this productivity slowdown,’’ they write.

The changes the panel suggest are largely fine-tuning, with the Minister for Workplace Relations Bill Shorten characterising the review as having ‘‘no ‘break glass emergency’ calls’’.

What it does have is space for discussion of actual policy, rather than automatic nay-saying. As one commentator observed, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is ‘‘deeply wedged’’ on the subject. If he suggests any of the major changes his more ideological backers want, he raises the WorkChoices zombie. In the public’s eye, on that topic, he’s on a hiding to nothing.

But if he doesn’t, he offends the extremists within his own party. He may be able to quieten them by promising to go in hard if he wins government; but that would put him in the slippery position of acting against the policy expectations of the electorate. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, now so unpopular in his own seat of Ashgrove that he’s behind in the polls, shows what happens to politicians who give the voters unpleasant surprises.

Effectively, this leaves the political opposition with nothing but motherhood statements such as Abbott’s to the ABC: ‘‘We have some serious workplace relations issues in this country and that may very well involve changes to the Fair Work Act. .. . But the point I’ve made all along is that they will be careful, cautious, prudent, responsible changes.’’

While it may be reassuring to know that they won’t be careless, incautious, imprudent and irresponsible, it still doesn’t tell anyone what they will be. But such reluctance to debate policy lets the government bypass partisan headline duels. It can negotiate directly with employers.

And there is scope. The CEO of the Australian National Retailers Association Margy Osmond told the Financial Review that she favoured the review’s recommendation for a yearly maximum of 11 public holidays, reducing problems with penalty rates. Ms Osmond was also happy with ‘‘BOOT’’ – the provision that employer and employee can negotiate on some non-monetary benefits, such as flexible hours, provided that the result protects the employee via the Better Off Overall Test.

Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott has welcomed easier individual flexibility arrangements. Her council’s concern centres on allowing workers on new project sites to negotiate claims other than wages and conditions. It’s the complexity that worries them, though, not the concept.

But the most significant point of the review is that it’s just that: a review. It doesn’t have to be adopted en masse. The government has given itself some weeks to respond, and could use those weeks teaming the negotiation skills of Julia Gillard with the practical approach of Bill Shorten.

Did I hear, ‘‘Good cop, bad cop?’’

What changes in industrial laws would you like to have?

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