Christian Porter may have promised an industrial relations reform package within weeks of the federal budget, but Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief Peter Strong says that was always an “optimistic” timeline.
Still, he’s confident we’ll have something this side of Christmas.
A series of industrial reform roundtables finished up in September. Intended to find solutions for things such as preventing wage theft and simplifying modern awards, the discussions concluded with no agreement between unions and employer groups.
In October, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said the federal government would finalise its package of reforms within weeks of the October 6 budget.
As of yet, no details have been released.
But, speaking to SmartCompany, Strong says “there’s a bit of work to be done”.
Proposals have to be put to the Fair Work Commission, and there are processes to run through in order to make the changes that need to happen, he notes.
“It was optimistic, and we all thought that,” he says.
“But congratulations to Christian Porter for having a go.”
A spokesperson from Christian Porter’s office said there were no updates at this time.
However, Strong does believe we will get some clarity on the reforms by Christmas. And, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, they can’t come soon enough.
He points to the spike in unfair dismissal claims during the COVID-19 pandemic, and echoes small business ombudsman Kate Carnell in saying this is indicative of the complexity in workplace relations rules.
In Victoria, he adds, businesses were recently given the all-clear to reopen with less than 48 hours’ notice. To change an employee’s rostered shifts, however, you have to give two day’s notice.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis,” Strong says.
We should be encouraging businesses to hire, by as many means as possible
We run the risk of small business owners shying away from employing people again, because they deem it “too dangerous”, he says.
“There’s no supporting mechanism there, no way of giving assistance to employers with funding the right job-seeker — at the local level, we need that,” he adds.
While he’s “very confident” there will be positive change here, “the problem is the changes might come too late”.
What can we expect?
The content of the IR reform roundtables are shrouded in confidentiality. However, Strong and COSBOA have been fairly open in what they would like to see come from the discussions.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carnell called for a small business-specific industry award, as an opt-in for businesses trying to avoid some of the existing awards system’s complexity.
That would also have been the ideal for Strong, but “looks like it’s a bit too far”, he says.
In fact, last week, Porter ruled out a small business award, stressing the need for ‘realistic’ changes that have a better chance of passing parliament.
For Strong, that was a disappointing development.
“We should have it, and everybody should be asking for it,” he says.
“The people who aren’t asking for it are the ones who make money out of it.”
Back in September, COSBOA released a proposal for award changes making it easier for small businesses to employ people. The changes would operate as a model schedule, integrated into existing awards and applying to businesses with fewer than 40 full-time employees.
Proposed changes included specification of a single ‘all-hours’ rate, flexible work allowances, a universal casual-to-permanent conversion process, and expanded stand-down, redundancy and unfair dismissal provisions.
“We’re trying to limit complexity,” Strong explains.
He refers to a case back in 2018, where workplace law firm Maurice Blackburn underpaid hundreds of employees to the tune of $1 million.
“They’re absolute experts on workplace relations,” Strong says.
“Even they couldn’t get it right.”
And, while simplifying the system may sound like it would mainly benefit the business, it actually also makes it easier for the regulators to identify those that are gaming the system on purpose, Strong adds.
When businesses feel confident they can hire without accidentally falling foul of the rules, that’s better for prospective employees too.
“The system at the moment is only there for the long-term unemployed. If we wait until they’re long-term unemployed, then we’ve failed them,” he adds.
“We need to simplify things for the regulator, for the employer, and for the employee.”