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Industrial Relations

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By Colin Ramsden, December 2005.

The Australian Federal Government has this month used its voting control of both houses of parliament to push Industrial Relations (IR) reform legislation into law on the one hundredth anniversary of the 1905 Conciliation and Arbitration Act which had provided the legal regime supporting a culture of Industrial Relations in Australia for the 20th Century.

Such changes raise much doubt and fear of the consequences throughout most levels of Australian society. This matter will be played out over the coming months and years, with the political office of the government to be held in answer. I predict a decisive swing against the incumbent government in any case, as most Australians don't like radical change, hold an inherit mistrust of people in authority, and enjoy retribution for perceived misdeeds.

The current Federal Government will be held responsible for the introduction of the GST without a proportionate reduction of personal income tax, the disastrous sale of Telstra and its subsequent share value collapse, the Collins class submarines which have no stealth capabilities, the sending of troops to Iran in support of American oil price control, the high cost of petrol in Australia, the terrible state of roads and the introduction of tolls on federal highways, amongst other deeds misdone. The effects of this new IR legislation are still to be seen, and the affect is still to be felt.

I've just taken the time to read (the Hansard proof copy of) the submission to the (Australian Federal Government) Senate 'Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee' hearing into the 'Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005' made on Tuesday, 15 November 2005 in Canberra by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA) available from
xyz http://www/apesma.asn.au/newsviews/misc/ir_changes/hansard_15_11_05.pdf.
[Should that link fail in the future, a copy is available from here: xyz DownLoads/IR/hansard_15_11_05.pdf.]

APESMA claim that they're "an organisation which has in excess of 25,000 members. We have been in existence for more than 50 years. We are the organisation that represents exclusively the employment and career interests of professional engineers, scientists, veterinarians, surveyors, architects, pharmacists, IT professionals, private sector managers and transport industry professionals in general. The organisation is a progressive and forward thinking employee association. It is not adversarial in nature. By the nature of our membership, and also by their placement in industry, we rely almost exclusively upon conciliation, negotiation and the institutions of industrial relations to achieve the objectives of our members."

I think this professional association might cater to my interests. I'm glad they took the time and effort to make submissions to the Senate Committee about this particular piece of legislation. At least they made their voice heard by appearing before the committee.

Their submission is firstly of "concern about a key assumption that underpins the legislation: that more labour market deregulation will result in more employment. We believe that is not supported by an examination of the international statistics, particularly material that has been put out by the OECD."

Furthermore they submitted that "The predecessor legislation to the bill before you for consideration is the 1905 Conciliation and Arbitration Act, one of the most significant and historic pieces of legislation ever enacted by the Australian parliament. The effects of that act and its subsequent amended versions have resonated through generations in Australia. The underpinning of that act has made a substantial contribution not only to the Australian economy but to the very fabric and nature of what it is to be an Australian."

Finally, APESMA requested that the passage of the bill (through the Senate) be delayed "pending a broad-ranging public inquiry, which we believe could be a vehicle for a genuine attempt to engage all the parties in an intelligent and frank dialogue" and continued "one which could enjoy the buy-in by all of the key players both in our national economy and in our community".

Senator BrandisInterestingly enough, it appears that the Senator's questions were politically motivated and revealing. For example,  Senator George Brandis (Senator for Queensland—Liberal Party of Australia) [pictured left] referred to the journalist Paul Kellys book, The End of Certainty and said:
"Mr Kelly talks about the Federation settlement as being based on four pillars: one of them was industrial arbitration as reflected in the act that you have mentioned; another was tariff protection; the third was immigration restriction and, in particular, white Australia; and the fourth was what he calls the instrumentalist view of the state."

He continued: "His thesis, which I think is broadly true, is that those four pillars were the basis of the Australian economy, and indeed Australian society, for most of the 20th century, certainly until the 1960s. But, Sir, tariff protection is largely gone; immigration restriction, and in particular white Australia, is largely gone; and the instrumentalist view of the state is largely gone. My question to you, Sir, is: is it not time that that last of the four pillars of the old Australia, industrial arbitration, went the way of the other three so that we can complete the modernisation of our economy and change the culture correspondingly?"

Catch his political motivation—isn't it time to remove industrial arbitration and change our culture?

Mr. Fary, Acting Chief Executive for APESMA, responded with: "The Australian conciliation and arbitration model is internationally recognised and a number of other nations, including nations which have emerged only relatively recently from years of colonial rule or years of white domination, such as South Africa, have based their system on the Australian model. The International Labour Organisation talks about and recognises the Australian model." And "that it should change by evolution, by dialogue and by constructive engagement between the parties. What we are seeing at the moment is a process—if I may say so—whereby a significant stakeholder is being marginalised from the process, that its input is not being genuinely sought and there is not an attempt to gain dialogue and input for the way that the system can evolve and move forward."

Senator BRANDIS asked: "I take it that when you speak about a major stakeholder, you are talking about the trade union movement."

Mr. Fary replied: "Primarily, my organisation is a part of the trade union movement in all of its forms and variations."

After some bandying between the two about the history of Australian industrial relations and the fear of change, Mr. Fary declared that "we believe that there should be a consultative way of moving forward with changes. As I said at the outset of my remarks, I practised in human resource management for most of my adult life, and much of that has had to do with the introduction of change. You successfully introduce change by bringing people with you, not by forcing it upon them." A classic pearl of wisdom—you successfully introduce change by bringing people with you, not by forcing it upon them.

Senator MarshallSenator Gavin Marshall (Senator for Victoria—Australian Labor Party) [pictured left] asked several questions validating Mr. Fary's representation of the APESMA membership concerns, to which Mr. Fary stated that "unless there is some sort of regulatory level playing field, it is unreasonable to expect, with the best will in the world, that individual employers will take the initiative to introduce work-life, family balance initiatives in isolation" and after a description of losing skilled members to overseas jobs and the prospect of skilled vacancies increasing in the future, added that the situation was set to worsen "without the comprehensive award and classification structure in place".

Senator Marshall wanted to know why the APESMA members would not be able to negotiate an appropriate work-family balance? In response, Mr Fary said "employers have been unwilling to agree to better work-life-family balance initiatives because, in agreeing to it for their professional cadre of employees, they agree to it across the board."

Senator AllisonSenator Lyn Allison (Senator for Victoria—Leader of the Australian Democrats) [pictured left] asked about the effect of this legislation on female professionals and raised the matter of flexible work arrangements. Mr. Fary responded that "Unfortunately the professions that we represent are still underrepresented in terms of female participation, we think on average by around 15 per cent. Those women members tell us that they have even greater difficulty than their male counterparts in being able to negotiate individual family friendly type provisions."

Senator Allison asked "What is the effect on your skills shortage in the professions? If this is a discouragement of women coming into those professions, engineering, architecture, IT and so forth, is that going to exacerbate your skills shortage or not?" To which Mr Fahy replied " Yes, absolutely. That is the crisis which faces the professions that we represent at the moment."

When asked what he would recommend to the committee to progress flexible work arrangements, Mr. Fahy said "to enable the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to continue to exercise the sort of test case decision making that it has done in the past, which has enabled those sorts of initiatives to be introduced across industry."

Senator JoyceSenator Barnaby Joyce (Senator for Queensland—The Nationals) [pictured left] honed in on the income salary of APESMA membership, the members employment rate, the business outlook, and the industries management success. When he asked about the association's complaint that the prohibition of some subjects in negotiated workplace agreements was a denial of political rights, he responded with "You are still enfranchised arent you? You still have a right to vote."

Yes indeed Senator Joyce, thankyou for reminding me. I shall think of your comment the next time I'm standing at a polling booth.


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