Opposition leader Brendan Nelson has sent up the white flag on Labor’s industrial relations reforms, signalling the Coalition will vote for the proposed laws as long as they are consistent with Labor’s pre-election promises.
“WorkChoices is dead,” Nelson said after a shadow cabinet meeting to consider the Coalition’s position on Labor’s IR plans in Sydney yesterday.
WorkChoices is “no longer our policy; they are not the policies we support,” Nelson said. “We’ve listened to the Australian people, we respect the decisions that they have made, we’ve listened and we have learnt.”
But Nelson confirmed his deputy Julie Bishop’s demand for an inquiry into the removal of the impact of the removal of the unfair dismissal exemption for small businesses.
The comments mean it is now less likely the introduction of Labor’s new IR regime will be delayed by obstructionist Coalition senators.
Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard yesterday moved to clear up confusion about the timing of Labor’s second tranche of substantive IR changes, saying that while its new workplace watchdog, Fair Work Australia, will come ito operation in January 2010, other changes including the removal of the unfair dismissal exemption could take effect as early as next year.
Gillard’s comments leave open the prospect that the exemption from unfair dismissal claims for businesses with fewer than 100 employees could be removed before the introduction of its proposed fair dismissal code or commencement of Fair Work Australia.
Labor’s pre-election policy puts Fair Work Australia at the centre of its plan for a workable unfair dismissal regime and says it will hear cases that involve dismissals where employers try to act in accordance with the code.
Any move to remove the exemption from unfair dismissals before the introduction of the fair dismissal code would be untenable, according to Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia chief executive Tony Steven.
“We would object vehemently to any withdrawal of exemptions on unfair dismissal laws before a workable replacement has been developed between the small business sector and the Government,” Steven says.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry director of workplace policy Peter Anderson says there are several issues intimately tied to the details of Fair Work Australia’s operations that will need to be worked out before unfair dismissal laws are changed.
“Whether or not the fair dismissal code is part of the framework, the components of a workable system go beyond that and relate to the powers and functions of the Government tribunal that administers the system, the role of lawyers and consultants and the capacity of the system to weed out illegitimate claims,” Anderson says.