It’s looking more likely the federal government will need to step in if small businesses are to relish a simplification of modern awards in the upcoming 2020-21 budget, after an industrial relations roundtable on the issue concluded without agreement between unions and employer groups.
In what was initially pitched as a circuit breaker to years of industrial relations malaise, Attorney-General Christian Porter has now finalised months of negotiations about workplace law reforms, but it appears talks about award simplification — an area of extreme interest for small business owners — have concluded without broad agreement on a path forward.
Speaking to Perth radio station 6PR on Wednesday, Porter was asked about a Council of Small Businesses of Australia (COSBOA) proposal to introduce a separate small business award that would allow many companies to side-step the existing system, alluding to a lack of consensus on the idea.
“The problem is agreed that there’s a whole bunch of awards … and very often, they’ll have seven or eight different classifications and then pay rates inside the classification. That causes a lot of complication, administration, regulation of the businesses,” Porter said.
“Whether you would tackle that by having yet another award that layers over the top or whether or not you’d work inside the existing award structure is another secondary question.
“Very often, the answers are different.
“COSBOA’s answer is slightly different from the answer that another employer group might give and different again from the unions.
“Our job is to try and bring all of those disparate strands together and try and work out what is the best compromise.”
SmartCompany understands award negotiations encountered an impasse before they really got started, with parties disagreeing about the premise of the negotiations: the supposition that the modern award system is overly complex and in need of serious reform.
While there was scepticism from the get-go about whether the roundtable — itself one of five streams targeted for industrial relations changes — would deliver a bipartisan mandate to overhaul the system, it means the government now faces the prospect of going out on a limb to pursue award reforms.
Such a move would likely be opposed by union groups and the Labor opposition, leading the government down a path it has been remiss to seriously pursue since the Howard-era WorkChoices policy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged earlier this year the federal government was prepared to step in and mandate reforms if there was no agreement between unions and business groups, a sentiment Porter echoed on Wednesday.
“Nothing is going to be considered unless there is a clear common-sense view that it can grow jobs,” Porter said.
More broadly, Porter said the five roundtables had been “quite remarkable” in their discipline and rigour, despite there being “imperfect agreement” about solutions to commonly identified problems.
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“As these things go, it was a very, I think, healthy, useful exercise,” Porter said.
“But obviously, at the end of the day, the government legislates and the government makes policy.
“We’ve got to try and look at all of the different angles … and try and build them into a product that can A) grow jobs and B) make its way through Parliament.
“Ultimately, the only thing that matters is growing jobs.”