Why the ACTU wants to break the rules it wrote

An opinion editorial by Australian Chamber CEO James Pearson

I hear every day from business how the Fair Work Act is holding back productivity and competitiveness and harming communities throughout the country.

The status quo, through the current Fair Work Act, is unwieldy, inconsistent and deliberately skewed against employers. Yes, you read that right – employers. Despite what Sally McManus would have you believe, employers are just as aggrieved by problems in our workplace relations laws as the ACTU. But we don’t make quite as much noise about it. Perhaps it’s time we did.

In 2015, the Productivity Commission made 70 recommendations to repair imbalances and problems in the existing legislation – clear, independent evidence of the need for change.

But in a twist worthy of Bizarro world, where everything is opposite, the ACTU wants to add to regulation, make it more risky for business to employ people, and skew the system even further in favour of unions that fewer than 10% of Australians in the private sector choose to join.

In this Bizzaro world, employers and government are tempted to become defenders of the status quo, of the increasingly flawed Fair Work Act, as we face the very real prospect of something much, much worse.

The ACTU wants to change the workplace relations “rules” it effectively ghost wrote under the Rudd Government.

Unions are cynically vilifying their own legislation and running a campaign to scare working people into thinking that making a bad situation worse will be better for them.

The evidence from the Productivity Commission is that substantial practical problems plague our existing workplace relations rules in areas such as bargaining, industrial action, agreement approval, and unfair dismissal.

These are genuine problems that need to be fixed and we have sensible proposals to start to fix them.

There must be a way forward which repairs the existing Fair Work Act and avoids the highly damaging “change the rules” proposals being pushed by the ACTU.

In other developed countries workplace legislation is not fatter than a phone book, and workplace relations is not a dark art, able to be understood and interpreted only by the industrial relations illuminati.  Our workplace laws are holding one hand behind our back as we try to navigate an increasingly competitive world.

There simply must be a better way. Repairing the problems with the Fair Work Act identified by the Productivity Commission would be a good start.

The way we regulate work really matters –to our economy, to our living standards, and to jobs, especially for our young people.

Both major parties understood this in the 1980s and 1990s, spearheaded by the policy leadership of Hawke and Keating, then Howard and Reith.

We need to recapture the bipartisan policy foundations that proved productive and beneficial for all Australians and we need to recognise that how we regulate work is critical.

Australian business won’t be able to provide affordable jobs without genuine workplace relations reform in the right direction.

We owe it to our young people, to make it easier, not harder, to employ.

For all the retro, 1970s class war rhetoric, for all the high cost, slick advertisements, social media and rallies, the ACTU’s proposals will ultimately serve the interests of only one group: union officials.

The change in the rules they demand would make it easier for a dispute in one firm to mutate into a strike to shut down a whole industry.

Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that more strikes and law breaking can only hurt our country.

The ACTU proposals are calculated to create an artificial divide between employees and employers, between managers and teams, in a strategy that must gladden the hearts of ageing Marxists and class warriors.

Business rejects the politics of division.

Employers and employees, managers and the teams they lead, need to work together to succeed.

It’s extraordinary that the ACTU now wants to return us to the era of milk strikes, school strikes, petrol strikes, transport strikes and even beer strikes – and apparently give union officials carte blanche to break the law.

That’s just not how we should do industrial relations in the 21st century.

My members across the country tell me that the current system isn’t working in key areas.

The rules do need to change, starting in areas such as:

  • Getting speculative claims out of the unfair dismissal system
  • Stopping employers having to pay “go away” money
  • Ensuring the system works for small business; and better supports small businesses in understanding and applying the rules
  • Restoring business confidence in bargaining
  • Ensuring minor paperwork errors do not see agreements rejected
  • Providing employers with the options they need to offer more jobs
  • Better supporting employers in retaining staff when taking over a business

All of us with an interest in making our country more competitive need work laws that work and that get the balance right.

We all need to tackle the very real problems confronting the existing Fair Work Act, starting with those identified by the Productivity Commission, not those invented via focus group testing by the ACTU.

James Pearson

Chief Executive Officer

P  |  02 6270 8000

E  |  [email protected]

Duncan Bremner

Director - Public Affairs and Advocacy

P  |  0448 822 666

E  |  [email protected]

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