Last Wednesday Julia Gillard’s Press Club speech gave more detail on Forward with Fairness (FF). In her introduction she attacked WorkChoices (WC) associating it with rising inflation, high interest rates and stagnating productivity.

Most observers however agree that when the politics is stripped out and policy is analyzed, FF adopts a large percentage of WC. In substantial measure Howard’s big picture reforms are being retained except for unfair dismissals.

Under both WC and FF minimum wages setting has been removed from the adversarial environment of the Industrial Relations Commission to a structure where economic specialists make assessments. The Commonwealth largely retains sovereignty over the states on workplace matters. Pattern bargaining is banned. The right to legally strike is limited to periods of enterprise bargaining. Union right of entry to workplaces is restricted.

FF goes further, replacing the Industrial Relations Commission. Labor, not the conservatives, has closed this Federation invented institution.

Some areas present marginal but important differences. Statutory minimum employment rights are enshrined but with FF having some additional clauses that weren’t in WC.

When implemented, FF retains a form of individual employment agreement but with a different model. WC had statutory individual agreements which overrode awards and enterprise agreements. By comparison FF has individual “flexibility clauses” which build on top of awards and agreements effectively making these the “fairness” test. But the extent to which FF’s individual agreement stream is genuinely individual must wait for further detail.

Areas of considerable uncertainty exist with FF particularly over “good faith” bargaining. No such provision existed under WC. Unions seek to use good faith bargaining as a Trojan horse to force businesses into agreements they don’t want. Gillard says this will not happen. She says businesses will be forced into discussions but not into agreements. It’s a fine point of legalistic difference creating potential for risky business. Only legislative detail will give resolution.

FF will allow a wider range of issues in agreements than under WC’s “prohibited content”. Gillard says anything related to employee entitlements can be included in agreements such as payroll deductions but not items that are the “prerogative of management” such as use of preferred supplier. The detail is critical to whether FF will by stealth, allow a return to restrictions on managerial capacity to manage. It’s a union agenda!

FF leaves WC for dead in implementing long needed award simplification and modernization. WC did nothing. FF is pushing a rapid timetable which seems on track.

Unfair dismissals present big differences. Small business between 15 and 99 employees will have re-imposed on them unfair dismissal laws. This is economically dangerous for the Rudd Government threatening employment levels. Businesses with 14 or less employees will have a new form of unfair dismissal laws said to be “fairer”.

What’s unknown is the level of bureaucracy under FF. WC gave the Minister and the bureaucracy unfettered regulatory ability to micro-interfere in business relations with employees. It was an explosion of red tape. What FF will do in this respect is unknown.

Peter Fray

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