Industrial Relations

Peace, love (and please don’t mention WorkChoices) to fix productivity mess, says Christian Porter

Matthew Elmas /

Christian Porter

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch.

Why can’t we just all get along? Attorney General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter wants to find out.

Such are the broad terms of reference for a new discussion paper published by Porter’s office on Monday, asking for views about how better workplace cooperation could help fix Australia’s labour productivity problem.

Australia’s labour productivity, a ratio examining output relative to labour inputs across the economy, fell 0.4% in 2018-19, the first decline since 2010-11, the ABS revealed on Monday.

“Research shows”, Porter says, “that when employers and employees work together to improve the performance of a business, they jointly share in the benefits”, including but not limited to, “improved productivity, higher wages [and] more innovation”.

Flagged in the wake of the Morrison Government’s re-election in May, Porter is undertaking a broad-based review of Australia’s workplace laws and is considering a raft of reforms, including simplifying the Modern Award system and overhauling unfair dismissal for small business.

The highly anticipated review is expected to be finalised early next year and will form the crux of the Morrison government’s workplace agenda, amid widespread concern about labour productivity growth in Australia and red tape experienced by small business owners.

But, sensitive to the politics surrounding industrial relations reform — particularly given the Howard Government’s infamous WorkChoices policy — the Morrison Government is looking for a way to tackle workplace relations without igniting a political storm.

The discussion paper explains the government wants to understand how it could improve the industrial relations system to support business efforts without necessarily changing the Fair Work Act.

The government wants to avoid contributing “in any way to a false and detrimental view of the industrial relations system as a zero-sum game”.

That means so-called “harmonious workplace relations” is on the agenda, and Australia isn’t faring too well, Porter says, noting economies such as Canada and the United States both fare much better on the measure of “employee engagement”.

What Australian workplaces need, Porter reckons, is a bit of “fresh thinking” and “better management cultures”.

“There is a significant opportunity to turn this situation around in Australian workplaces,” Porter said on Monday.

“Importantly, legislative reforms are not required to achieve these sorts of positive outcomes. Instead, what is needed is fresh thinking and better management cultures that view and treat workers as assets, rather than merely as a cost of production.”

The discussion paper says Australia’s industrial relations system should “use every available lever to discourage adversarial behaviour and foster an environment where the preference of the parties is to cooperate and avoid a conflict model”.

There are 10 questions total for workplace cooperation enthusiasts to mull over, which are listed in the five-page paper.

Consultations close on February 28, 2020.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany. You can contact him at [email protected].