Fair Work fait accompli?

Labor MPs and ministers have been out in force in recent days and there are two big issues on their agenda.

The first groups of MPs and ministers, including Simon Crean, Peter Garrett and David Bradbury, have been throwing their weight behind Prime Minster Julia Gillard, who has gone from looking like she would be rolled by Kevin Rudd as soon as next week to looking firmly in control of the party room numbers.

The other group, including Bill Shortern, Greg Combet and former small business minster Craig Emerson, have come out to start the job of deflecting business concerns about the Fair Work Act, which have come to the fore as every employer group and their affiliates enter their submission to the current review of the Act.

The business groups aren’t happy with what they see as regime that has increased union interference in the workplace, reduced the flexibility of employers and stifled productivity. The Business Council of Australia has argued that Australia is now a more expensive place to do business than the United States – and this is for a range of reasons, including the high Australian dollar and the falling Greenback – but nowhere near as productive.

But Gillard’s frontline isn’t having a bar of it, essentially arguing business has not done enough to prove its claims that falling productivity is a result of the Act.

“The BCA is right that we have to boost our competitiveness because that is the key to protecting our standards of living,” Combet told the Australian Financial Review.

“This poses some key economic challenges and the government clearly has its mind on it.”

“But where I disagree with the BCA is that I think it isn’t consistent with Australian values to just think we can turn ourselves into the US. The US had no safety net, no workplace rights and we shouldn’t have the aspiration to cop inequity and inequality.”

Hmm… I’m not sure the BCA is arguing for the implementation of a US style labour system that Combet says would “induce poverty” but the minister’s point is made – we’re not going to dismantle workers’ rights.

Emerson was similarly dismissive.

“What provisions of the Fair Work Act have reinstated restrictive work practices in Australia?” Emerson, who is now trade minister, asked. He says there is no evidence productivity has been undermined by the Fair Work Act and no evidence that it would be.

Some in the business community would probably argue that labour laws could actually support productivity rather than just not undermining it, but that’s another story. Again, the point here is that Labor is not looking to make major change.

The process of reviewing the Fair Work Act – the filing of submissions, the exploration of ideas, the chest-beating by both unions and employer groups – is interesting and it is likely that the panel will find ways to improve the way the Act operates.

Will the Government want to implement any of these ideas? Given it does not even believe that business has a case, that seems very unlikely.


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