Prime Minister John Howard’s strategy to coerce industry groups into publicly backing WorkChoices is backfiring. Industry groups, business academics and accountant groups say the Coalition needs to do far more to reduce red tape and paperwork. They also claim that WorkChoices is flawed, with many employers struggling with the regime.

But many are also afraid to speak out publicly. One industry group that wants to go public with its dissatisfaction with WorkChoices has been warned off by another prominent industry group that has been very vocal in its support of WorkChoices.

Some industry groups are caught in a quandary. They have received a lot of money from Federal Government coffers to educate employers and employees about the benefits of WorkChoices. Some still feel obliged to push its benefits to members.

Others are too annoyed to stay silent.

James McCall, executive director of the Motor Traders Association in NSW, says his members are very confused by WorkChoices. “There is a whole host of problems. It is very difficult to get definitions and clarification on the rules and our members are very confused. And it’s nearly all at the federal level,” McCall says. “Small business has numbed itself because of the massive increase in paperwork imposed in the last nine years, and almost all of it is at the federal level.”

He also claims that the benefits of the unfair dismissal exemption for companies with fewer than 100 employees has been overstated. “We see employees still suing in the district court for other things like breaches of contract.”

A number of industry groups confirmed to SmartCompany off the record that they will not be using advertising and marketing to publicly support WorkChoices. They say that while businesses support the substance of WorkChoices, it should be working hard on ways to improve implementation and transition difficulties, and address the myriad of other concerns about regulation and red tape increases.

“Any enthusiasm for WorkChoices might be there in substance but has been muted by implementation difficulties,” says workplace relations lawyer Peter Vitale, who works at VECCI. “The added complexity of the system has bemused a lot of people.”

It is not just WorkChoices. The former ACT small business commissioner, Michael Schaper, says that Howard in 1996 promised to cut paperwork and red tape by 50%. “The execution from the Coalition falls far short of the rhetoric. While the small business minister has made a good attempt to rein things in, there are a multiple of things that could be fixed quite easily and are not being addressed.”

He was highly critical of the lack of research into paperwork, regulation and WorkChoices. While a lot of money has gone into selling the benefits of WorkChoices, almost none has gone into researching whether the benefits are tangible, Schaper says.

Brian Welch, executive director of the Masters Builders Association, says that while WorkChoices has increased productivity and provided other benefits for employers, the downside has been compliance and paperwork. “Things definitely need to be improved.”

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Peter Fray
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