Crikey is rolling out PromiseWatch series in conjunction with the Centre for Policy Development. Today, the topical field of industrial relations.

The mild industrial relations promises laid down by Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz yesterday may have drawn a collective yawn from the gallery and old school IR warriors like Nick Minchin, Peter Reith and the Business Council, but there is little doubt workplace policy remains a key — perhaps the key — point of difference between the major parties.

Ironically, both sides don’t have much wriggle room when it comes to new policies and promises.

Labor is cleaving tight to the Fair Work Act — forged in the fury over WorkChoices six years ago, while the Coalition and Tony Abbott are locked into a “dead, buried, cremated” promise on WorkChoices famously signed on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW morning show in July 2010.

So where do the parties currently stand on IR?

Labor

The original Fair Work Act, legislated in 2009, attempted to shift the focus back to collective bargaining and reintroduce robust minimum standards. Crucially, it circumscribed the ability of employers to force bare bones individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) onto junior and mid-ranking employees — the major bone of WorkChoices contention.

The industrial wing of the ALP lauded:

  • An end to AWAs;
  • A new safety net of ‘National Employment Standards’;
  • More collective bargaining rights, including a requirement to bargain in good faith;
  • More rights to union membership and representation;
  • Stronger protection from unfair dismissal; and
  • A genuine independent umpire to resolve disputes.

Labor said it would review Fair Work after two years. The committee’s report was handed down last year, making 51 recommendations. After taking three months to mull it over, Industrial Relations Minister Bill Shorten announced that he would initially only adopt 17 (about a third).

The first tranche of alterations, most tinkering around unfair dismissal and general law provisions, were passed by parliament in November (click here for a good summary from the employer perspective).

Then, in February, Shorten announced further amendments to the act that aimed to improve flexibility for workers in specific categories — like carers, the disabled, parents, mature-age workers and workers suffering from family violence. The legislation was also designed to:

  • Require for employers to genuinely consult with employees about changes to rosters and working hours, including the impact on their family life;
  • Improve entitlements for workers who are pregnant, including changes to special maternity leave and the right to transfer to a safe job;
  • Extend the time parents can take unpaid parental leave together from three weeks to eight weeks, and providing greater flexibility in when the leave can be taken; and
  • Entrench a right to request a return-to-work on a part-time basis after taking unpaid parental leave.

Labor’s national platform, updated in December 2011, contains a whole chapter of mostly motherhood statements on “opportunity and fairness for working families”, However, reflecting the party’s origins and major source of funding, it states “that employees are best represented in their workplace through membership of their relevant trade union.”

The Coalition

The Coalition’s “Policy to Improve the Fair Work Laws” looks to be a transitional document before real reform can be pursued towards the end of Abbott’s first term in office. Politically, it aims to neutralise a feared return to WorkChoices in an election year while appeasing concerns from the business lobby over right of entry and expensive Greenfields agreements. As Bernard Keane outlined yesterday, cautious changes to Fair Work flexibility provisions will enable workers to trade off penalty rates and leave, as long as they’re not worse off overall. And in a predictable smack down to the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Coalition will make good on its previous promise to reinstate building site cop the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

The Coalition approach was predicted months ago by the labour movement, who view a re-fanged ABCC and the creation of a registered organisations authority as a ruse to slowly bleed left-wing unions like the CFMEU, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Maritime Union of Australia dry by snagging them in costly investigations and court action. As Ben Schneiders explained, a three-month time limit on Greenfields negotiations and a good faith clause has been promised to place to prevent “another Wonthaggi”, where unions were able to double down on dialogue and delay to extract world-beating agreements to the chagrin of contractors and the state government.

In its vague official release, the Coalition pledged to:

  • Keep and improve the Fair Work laws — including the independent umpire;
  • Re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission;
  • Provide better protection for members of Registered Organisations;
  • Provide practical help to small business workplaces;
  • Guarantee workers the right to access fair flexibility;
  • Create realistic timeframes for Greenfield agreements;
  • Ensure union right of entry provisions are sensible and fair;
  • Promote harmonious, sensible and productive enterprise bargaining;
  • Ensure the laws work for everyone and an independent review by the respected Productivity Commission will be undertaken;
  • Deliver a genuine paid parental leave scheme and lift female participation rates in Australian workplaces;
  • Ensure workplace bullying is comprehensively addressed;
  • Urgently review the Remuneration Tribunal for the trucking industry;
  • Implement many recommendations from the Fair Work Review Panel report; and
  • Give underpaid workers a better deal.

The Greens

Perhaps surprising for a party that sprung from the environmental movement, the Greens appear to boast the most progressive approach — on paper at least — to workplace relations. The principles and aims run to 39 bullet points and cover the full gamut from right of entry to industrial manslaughter provisions. Melbourne MP Adam Bandt is the party’s IR spokesman and boasts years of experience at labour law firm Slater and Gordon, where he tilled a very similar field to Julia Gillard. Interestingly, the Greens specifically put the onus on an employer to enter into collective bargaining unless it can prove a majority of workers are “demonstrably opposed” to it.

Last year, Bandt introduced a private members bill to protect casual workers in insecure employment arrangements by providing a process for casuals to apply to move to ongoing part-time or full-time work.

Peter Fray

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