Fair Work vice president quits with attack on “partisan” and “dysfunctional” commission

An outgoing vice president of the Fair Work Commission has launched a scathing attack on the government body, claiming Australia’s workplace relations framework is understandably considered a “danger zone” for business.

Fairfax reports this morning that Graeme Watson will be stepping down from his role at the commission and has told Employment Minister Michaelia Cash that the body is “undermining the objects of Fair Work legislation”.

Watson was also critical of the Fair Work Commission’s unpredictable approach to unfair dismissal cases, claiming business operators don’t trust that they will be protected from employees who have been let go because of underperformance.

Watson reportedly wrote in a letter to Cash that the business community views the commission as “partisan, dysfunctional and divided”.

Watson is one of three representatives at the commission with a “vice president” title and is five months off having served 10 years in the position. There are two other vice presidents at the commission, Adam Hatcher and Joe Catanzariti, who were appointed in 2013 by then-workplace relations minister Bill Shorten.

Notice of his resignation was communicated to Governor-General Peter Cosgrove on Friday, but Watson did not notify commission president Iain Ross of his decision beforehand, reports the Australian Financial Review.

However, in a statement this morning Ross thanked Watson for his work.

“I thank the vice president for his service to the commission and wish him well in his future endeavours,” he said.

Small business group chief calls for independent appointments 

Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong says Watson’s comments highlight the need for more transparency at the commission, saying it’s important to have representatives at the Fair Work Commission who understand small business from the ground up.

“We need someone in there that gets the fact that the employer is a person,” Strong says.

“The thing is that everything is built on the belief that all employers are nasty people.”

While Strong believes Australia’s workplace system largely works well, he says the business community has seen unpredictable decisions in relation to unfair dismissal that make some worry about whether there is recourse if their employees are genuinely in the wrong.

“You have cases where someone gets caught with their hand in the till and then there’s no proof,” Strong says, adding that employers are also concerned about the prospect of having to pay out an employee who has done the wrong thing.

Strong believes potential improvements could be made to the commission’s operation through independent appointments and more transparency. Members of the commission are currently appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the government of the day, which Strong points out leads to the major political parties selecting who those new members are.

“First of all we [need to] have an independent panel that elects new commissioners,” he says.

“Then we should have an assessment process for performance of commissioners, where every year, each commissioner has a performance review.”

SmartCompany contacted the Fair Work Commission for further comment on Watson’s resignation but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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