It comes as no surprise that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has now abandoned one of his star election policies — his paid parental leave scheme.

Opponents of Abbott’s scheme said it was inequitable and favoured the rich. The debate was preoccupied by the difference between Labor’s existing paid parental leave scheme (18 weeks’ pay at minimum wage) and Abbott’s “generous” paid parental leave proposal (26 weeks’ pay at the mother’s ordinary wage), which distracted us from the far nastier aspects of Abbott’s workplace reform proposals.

Without doubt Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme was the most highly publicised part of his industrial relations agenda, but it is just one small part of a whole suite of workplace “reforms” that the Liberal Party took to the election and is now trying to pass through the Senate.

Despite repeatedly telling us that WorkChoices is “dead, buried, cremated”, the centrepiece of the Liberal Party’s industrial relations package is promoting the use of “individual flexibility agreements” — individual contracts that can be used to displace the collectively negotiated conditions contained in collective agreements. Sound familiar?

Let’s not forget that even two years on from the 2007 election, which the Coalition lost in no small part because of the community’s rejection of WorkChoices, Abbott announced to the House of Representatives that “workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government.” Abbott has reintroduced the “best” bits of WorkChoices, albeit with a different name.

The changes proposed by Abbott would allow any existing workplace entitlement to be “negotiated” away. There are no limits. Overtime? Penalties? Redundancy pay? All these benefits will be able to be scrapped, in favour of the terms of the individual agreement. And what’s more, Abbott says that “non-monetary benefits” can replace those entitlements. Employers will be able to trade pay for something other than pay, which will affect employees’ take-home wages.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Abbott is going to undermine collective bargaining by preventing employees from being able to take any form of industrial action unless the employer has already agreed to negotiate with the employees. This effectively means that an employer has a veto right on the employees exercising their right to take industrial action. This weakens the employees’ collective negotiating power, which will, in turn, diminish employment conditions.

This isn’t the end of Abbott’s workplace reforms. He has now joined the chorus of employers and industry groups calling for the scrapping of penalty rates, he has directed the Productivity Commission to inquire into a raft of workplace matters including whether unions are the best way for workers to be represented (I note there’s no inquiry into the role of employer representatives), and he is preparing to launch an attack on industry super funds.

Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme was just a carrot that came with a nasty stick — a bundle of changes that will erode employees’ everyday conditions of employment. Now that Abbott has abandoned his plans for paid parental leave, we are left standing here waiting for the stick to deliver its great big whack. Abbott’s changes will leave employees worse off, and the Senate should reject them.

Peter Fray

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