Kennett promises employment contracts, sell-offs


By Peter Boyle

MELBOURNE — The Liberal-National industrial relations policy for the Victorian elections, released on August 23, is similar to the system brought in by the National government of New Zealand. The award system is to be replaced by individual or collective employment contracts for the 40% of Victorian workers who are currently covered by state awards.

The main features of the policy are:

  • All state awards will cease to apply at a set date. Employers and employees will then have to negotiate individual or collective contracts. Only if both employer and employees agree may they go back into a form of centralised wage system.

  • A minimum pay level would be set by law (though the opposition has yet to announce how much this would be), as would a minimum four weeks annual leave, sick leave, parental leave and long-service leave. All other conditions are to be up for negotiation.

  • Penalty rates and overtime are to be abolished and overtime calculated on the basis of ordinary hours over five days.

  • Compulsory unionism is to be totally banned (it only remains in the building industry).

  • Compulsory secret ballots will be required before strikes, and new rules on the conducting of pickets will be set, protecting the "rights" of scabs to break picket lines.

  • The ban on secondary boycotts (solidarity actions) is to be extended and the penalties raised.

  • Unfair dismissal claims are to be taken to civil courts, and the onus will be on the employee to prove the case.

While the union movement has condemned the policy and widened a state public sector rally scheduled for September 15 to include opposition to the Liberal-National plan, some union officials are already signalling an unwillingness to fight. Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary John Halfpenny and VTHC industrial officer Brian Boyd have said that they are not going to be provoked into a confrontation.

However, State Public Services Federation vice-president Bill Deller says that if opposition leader Jeff Kennett wants a confrontation with the union movement, he will get one. "This is not just a document that seeks a confrontation, but one which seeks the destruction of the trade union movement and to cut wages", he told Green Left Weekly.

The least organised workers would suffer the most, he said, because the "freedom to contract" will mean nothing more than an ultimatum to accept the conditions dictated by employers or face joining the huge unemployment pool.

Deller said that Kennett's industrial relations policy was more right-wing than the NSW system and rivalled the New Zealand system. "It is clearly part of a national strategy to further the New Right social experiment in Australia. Victoria is simply the next stage. If Kennett is successful, John Hewson will try to apply these principles on a national scale".

The Labor Party had condemned Kennett's policy, he added, but Labor had set the agenda for attacks on

union rights and had introduced enterprise bargaining.

Teachers' unions have also warned of "industrial chaos", especially as the opposition hopes to place teachers on individual contracts.

The Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry supported the opposition's policy, but the Confederation of Australian Industry was reluctant to endorse the plan until more detail is provided.

On August 26, state shadow treasurer Alan Stockdale announced an "early" privatisation hit list which included:

  • the state's remaining interest in the Portland aluminium smelter;

  • the insurance business of the third party insurance scheme, which would be divided into companies and privatised;

  • more of the Loy Yang B power stations (40% privatised by the Kirner government) and other power stations in the future;

  • non-core businesses of the Gas and Fuel Corporation, including appliance and retailing operations.

Stockdale said that a "relatively small proportion" of the proceeds of privatisation could go to establishing employment, education and training schemes for the unemployed. In addition, the number of government departments would be halved and many services contracted out.

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