The failure of the government to pass the bulk of the industrial relations omnibus bill shows that satisfying the demands of industry groups, small business associations and unions is like pulling teeth.
Despite the Morrison government carrying out extensive round table discussions with employer, industry, and union groups to come to a consensus, just one of the five key parts of the industrial relations bill passed the Senate in March.
Leading up to the vote, an unlikely agreement was struck between the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in relation to casual employment.
The pair agreed on the requirement for employers to offer long term casual employees permanent work, and the option for casual employees to seek arbitration if claims for retrospective back pay in specific circumstances were denied.
Their proposal was put forward to key Senate crossbenchers, whose deciding votes were to determine what ended up in the final legislation.
But large industry groups, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), publicly denounced COSBOA and the ACTU’s proposal.
In an opinion piece by COSBOA chair and chief executive of the Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association, Mark McKenzie outlines why the actions of large employer groups have stalled progress in industrial relations reform.
McKenzie writes in SmartCompany that big employer groups like ACCI and Ai Group “have practised behaviours that have paralysed IR reform in recent years”.
“These groups bullied the Coalition into championing their proposed reforms in the wake of their own failures. The ACTU responded in kind, petitioning the federal opposition to oppose the bill,” McKenzie writes.
Clearly, McKenzie is doing little to appease existing conflicts, writing that any of ACCI or Ai Group’s claims to represent small business are misleading.
“Their actions were about protecting some of their members, the big labour hire firms, who are now free to continue the very employment practices that got us all into this mess in the first place,” McKenzie writes.
ACCI chief executive Jenny Lambert tells SmartCompany it is “disappointing and unhelpful” that COSBOA has chosen to make these comments.
“ACCI is a proud representative of small businesses across Australia who belong to their local and state and territory chambers of commerce or the more than 80 industry associations part of the ACCI network,” Lambert says.
Lambert says ACCI was an enthusiastic participant in the consultations with government and unions, which took place last year to seek consensus and balanced reform.
“Although it was disappointing to all parties that the changes to the Fair Work Act were narrow, those relating to casuals delivered a significant benefit to hundreds of thousands of small business employers and employees,” she says.
Ai Group has also hit back COSBOA’s criticisms, saying that the substance of COSBOA and ACTU’s proposal was going to be very damaging for small and large businesses alike.
Innes Willox, chief executive of Ai Group said the proposal put forward a “vague definition” of casual employment that would “reinforce all the uncertainty that the amendments are designed to redress”.
A key concern was that the definition of casual employment proposed by the ACTU and COSBOA would allow ‘double-dipping’ claims by employees who had been engaged and paid as casuals.
“The cost risks for employers of ‘double dipping claims’ are up to $39 billion,” Willox said.
Ultimately, Ai Group disagreed with COSBOA and ACTU’s proposal by saying that there was “nothing” in it that was in the interests of employers or employment.
What businesses needed was certainty in order to save jobs and encourage investment, not the cementing-in of the current uncertainties as their proposal would do, Willcox said.
COSBOA chair, Mark McKenzie, rejects these claims, arguing instead that, unlike the large employer groups, he sought out a middle ground with unions in the hope of achieving some reform.