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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Fair Work Australia: a fair deal?

Eight days after Kevin Rudd appeared at the Press Club and gave Australians an idea of future directions in the ALP's policy on industrial relations, Julia Gillard has begun to flesh out the policy, has started to paint the picture, to show us the landscape of IR under Labor.

Last night on The 7.30 Report, Julia broke the news about Fair Work Australia. Fair Work Australia will take over from four agencies/institutions involved in setting the industrial law parameters that govern the working lives of a significant number of Australians: the Fair Pay Commission, the Office of the Employment Advocate and the Office of Workplace Services and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC).

Rudd and Gillard say that the AIRC has served Australia for more than 100 years but it is a 20th-century institution that is too remote from the needs of modern Australian workplaces.
Miss Eagle suggests that making a disconnect between the old AIRC and establishing a whole new edifice might not be the best idea.

Miss Eagle has no longing for the old "industrial relations club" to be re-established. This was a long-standing boys club which did not keep pace with a changing economy. The club was a cosy one for construction and the tradeable goods sector (manufacturing) but it had no - and Miss Eagle means N.O. - understanding of the service sector which has been a burgeoning part of the economy over the last two decades.

In fact, some union and business leaders and Commissioners gave the impression that they knew all about the tourism and hospitality industry because they drank alcohol, ate at restaurants, and slept in hotel beds.

Another factor contributing to the lack of knowledge of the economics of the service sector has been that it tends to be dominated by women and young people. So we are talking about an entrenched form of discrimination. Women and young people were less likely to agitate and strike to improve their conditions so they were ignored. Some unions were happy to take their union dues but union attentions remained with the non-service sectors of the economy.

So, if there could be a more universal understanding of the sub-economies of this nation, it would be an improvement.

After that little vent, back to why a disconnect with the AIRC might not be the best idea.
Business is said to be angry about the prospect of a Fair Work Australia. One of the saddest things and one of the greatest hindrances to the well-being of this nation is the lack of consensus (as once there was) on major issues confronting Australia. The AIRC has delivered a great service to this nation since the earliest days of Federation.

While John Howard has gutted the AIRC, he did not abolish least not yet.
So if the ALP goes to the trouble of establishing Fair Work Australia, does this mean that it will be dead easy for a change of government to blow it out of the water?
Why not an AIRC for the sake of continuity and the possibility of some form of call to consensus?

Another thing that is not clear about Fair Work Australia is whether it will have a research function as the Fair Pay Commission does. Miss Eagle believes that this should be a function. If it is not be a function of this new one stop shop and shopfront, why not?

Miss Eagle likes the idea of the shopfront inspectorate function if it carries out its duties effectively and diligently. This will be a further challenge to union recruitment. In fact, it will be a challenge to those states which refuse to hand over their industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth.
Look to Queensland. Peter Beattie has said that Queensland will not hand over its powers which would result in the abolition of the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission. Beattie would not be game - Bill Ludwig and the AWU will see to that. The AWU would be the biggest loser if Queensland handed over its industrial powers. The AWU would be gutted.

Outside the south-east corner of Queensland, the AWU has coverage, under Queensland's industrial laws, across a range of industries which in other states are the province of other unions. Transfer of powers to the Commonwealth would see coverage in regional Queensland go to these unions. This would mean for instance the Shop Assistants Union would then cover all of Queensland. Award coverage in retailing is the largest union coverage in the AWU. A transfer of powers would see this coverage lost along with a massive slice of the AWU's income.

So, will the Beattie government be prepared to establish a shopfront role for its industrial inspectorate to compete?

Miss Eagle will be watching.....