Opinion Editorial | It’s time to repair, not replace workplace rules

11 Jun 2019 |

There are promises to deliver on taxation and infrastructure, and there is the Morrison government’s commitment to manage the economy well for all Australians, including those running our small businesses who employ 5 million Australians, give jobs to a third of young people in the workforce and train and employ 40 percent of apprentices.

In workplace relations, the government was re-elected to continue to enforce the law on wages and conditions and conduct, particularly in construction where the law is regularly and flagrantly flouted by militant unions and a dedicated industry regulator – the ABCC – is required. The new Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has focused firmly on the importance of the law being observed and enforced.

But the real story of workplace relations and the 2019 election is what the government was elected not to do. The government was elected on a commitment not to take our laws back into the past, not to continue a culture of conflict in our workplaces and not to implement the big unions’ damaging and radical plan to ‘Change the Rules’.

But does that mean the status quo, the legislation that has remained relatively unchanged for the last decade, does not need to be improved? Is our existing legislation the last word in workplace relations law for the future of work in Australia? Far from it.

The current laws are so complex they defy understanding for most employers and employees. They deter businesses from negotiating enterprise agreements with the people they work with, and they make it too hard for employers and employees to agree to arrange their work in a way that suits them best.

In fact, the costs and risks of engaging with the Fair Work Act send shivers down the spine of many small businesses that get entangled in it.

So what more should the government do, apart from enforcing the laws we already have? What needs to change?

In 2015, the Productivity Commission told us that our workplace relations rules do not need to be thrown out, but the machinery does need to be repaired.

The Productivity Commission was right then, and it is right today; we need to repair not replace our workplace laws.

During the election campaign, former Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer foreshadowed sensible, modest reforms that ensure harmony, inclusivity and flexibility. We agree. Australia’s state and territory chambers of commerce and industry associations, the organisations that represent more than 300,000 businesses and the millions of people who work in them, look forward to sitting down with the government to discuss sensible, modest reforms that can improve the system for everyone.

Ms O’Dwyer said the Coalition would consider genuine issues plaguing the system, including the need to reduce red tape, the way that enterprise agreements are approved, and how to make it easier for employers to make sure that the people who work for them are safe and free from bullying and harassment.

It is wrong to claim the government has no mandate to make changes to workplace relations laws. No self-respecting government can stand by and let the broken pieces of an important set of laws get in the way of improvements. The core responsibility of every federal government is to administer well and ensure laws are in good order. That includes making sure that the rules governing how more than 10 million Australians spend their time at work are fit for purpose, for now and into the future.

Workplace relations laws are complex and changeable. They need adjustments to remain relevant. This means any government ought to be able to repair the system when it needs to. We need to be more productive than we have been since the end of the mining boom, if we want to sustain existing jobs and create new ones, lift wages and improve living standards.

With more and more countries doing things better and quicker, we need to be a good deal more competitive than we are today. We need to get our workplace relations laws in good order. We look forward to working with the government to put in place the sensible, modest reforms to make it so.

James Pearson is chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry

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