Kill the bill

October 23, 1996

On October 16, the Democrats took a step closer to fulfilling Cheryl Kernot's prediction of a few days' before — that the Coalition's industrial relations law would be in force by the end of the year — by voting for the bill to move to the committee stage, where promised Democrat amendments will be unveiled.

There is little doubt that the Democrats support the basic meaning of most of the Coalition's draconian workplace relations bill. Their position of allowing the Industrial Relations Commission — the so-called independent arbiter between workers and bosses — a greater role in protecting the "most vulnerable" workers, is merely tinkering around the edges.

The Democrats' guarded admissions since they began private negotiations with the Coalition indicate that amendments they propose will block the most blatant attacks on workers in the bill. At the same time, they support what Kernot calls "the government's right to pursue a more flexible labour market".

Unfortunately for workers, the government's more flexible labour market focuses on the individual enterprise for determining wages and working conditions, attacks union membership via the option of enterprise unions or non-union agreements, and more draconian penalties for strike action.

While the Coalition would like to destroy residually strong unions like the CFMEU and maritime union — as a necessary precondition for an all-out assault on working class wages, working conditions and living standards — the Democrats would merely like unionism curtailed.

Democrat recommendations after the Senate inquiry into the IR bill included:

  • award "modernisation" to simplify awards and fix award conditions at the enterprise level — threatening already industrially weak groups of workers;
    • that paid rates awards be retained only where they are "needed";
      • provisions to prevent "harassment" of employers — presumably insistence on decent pay, safety and other conditions;
        • provision for individual and collective non-union Australian Workplace Agreements checked by the IRC;
          • that action against secondary boycotts be made easier and quicker, while capping the damages claims that can be awarded;
            • that preference clauses be repealed — allowing non-unionists to benefit from the wage rates and working conditions won by unions and reducing unions' ability to defend them in future;
              • that enterprise unions be allowed in workplaces where 60% of workers "support" it.

              The Democrats' industrial relations spokesperson, Senator Andrew Murray, said the Coalition's plan to limit the IRC's role to arbitrating on a truncated list of 18 "award" conditions limited the commission's power to intervene against employment conditions that are "harsh or unjust". The Democrats suggest expanding the IRC's role to applying a "public interest test" to union and non-union agreements. This, among other compromises sought by the Democrats, would allow the bill to pass.

              The Democrats' approach is based on belief in a "strong and independent umpire in the [IRC] to protect employees and employers with weak bargaining power against those with excessive bargaining power". Unfortunately, the IRC is neither strong nor independent.

              Remember the turnaround in the IRC's 1991 National Wage Case ruling rejecting the introduction of enterprise bargaining into the industrial relations system via Accord Mark VI because wages growth might get out of control? The IRC changed its mind because the government only supported it when it acted in the interests of employers, while preserving a veneer of independence. More obviously, the IRC only acts within the laws made by the government of the day, which, as the record of the ALP and the current spreading stain of Coalition pecuniary interests shows, is hardly a unbiased observer whichever party is in office.

              The Democrats anti-union bias stems largely from their base of support in small business and from the legacy of their founder, that old union-hating bastard Don Chipp. If they're at all interested in workers' rights and living standards, however, they won't support an attack on the only guarantee of "fairness" in the labour market — the ability of workers to organise to defend their interests through fighting trade unions. The Democrats should kill the Workplace Relations Bill.

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