Nicholas Way

Labor has shown its IR hand, and token protests from the unions show a realization that a little blood-letting is needed to really mark that line in the sand.

Unfair dismissal bullet well and truly bitten

Labor Opposition leader Kevin Rudd’s address to the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday has ended the “phony war” between Labor and the Coalition; with this speech Rudd signaled his intention to make industrial relations a key battleground in the forthcoming election.

By declaring his intention to overhaul the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation in specific areas – notably unfair dismissals, scrapping Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) and restoring certain minimum conditions such as penalty rates – Rudd has drawn a line in the sand on an issue that’s critical to every business.

Make no mistake. Rudd cannot retreat from this position – in effect mirroring the position John Howard finds himself in having to support his legislative package lock, stock and barrel.

The unions would not be happy with the limitations on the right to strike and the requirement for a secret ballot for taking industrial action, but the muted complaints emanating from the state labor councils and the ACTU yesterday suggest they were across the detail long before Rudd’s address.

After all, the unions have won two important concessions: the abolition of individual contracts and the reintroduction of unfair dismissal laws.

Business – especially small business – isn’t happy. The previous unfair dismissal laws, in particular, tied up business in a regulatory maze. Disgruntled employees could manipulate the system to extract a payout from employers as the price for going “quietly”.

But Rudd is no Mark Latham. He has given small business (15 employees or less) a 12-month probationary period to sort the wheat from their employee chaff. [For bigger businesses it’s six months.] It is an important concession. He also promises to “speed up” unfair dismissal hearings, hopefully by minimising legal involvement in the system.

Rudd must know business will not be happy with his proposals. But as a Labor leader he couldn’t afford to walk way from the union movement – politically or financially.

The unions are pouring money into this campaign; they know this is their last throw of the dice. If WorkChoices remains on the statute books for another parliamentary term it will be almost impossible to turn back the clock. This is why Rudd extracted the concessions he did from the unions.

But it’s not just about the money. WorkChoices is biting in the electorate – ironically for the very reason that the Coalition is so philosophically committed to this legislation.

What WorkChoices did was overturn more than 100 years of industrial relations thinking in this country – it promoted the individual at the expense of the collective in the workplace. Workers were told to think as individuals, to negotiate directly with their boss. In this enlightened era of industrial relations, we were told, there is a mutuality of interest between employer and employee.

Well, these employees are now thinking as individuals. They’re asking what WorkChoices has done for them, and it seems many don’t like the answer. The Coalition, however, is asking them to think of the collective – the greater good – by arguing that while some individuals might be disadvantaged by WorkChoices, the legislation makes Australia more productive and generates more jobs.

Economic theory tells us the Coalition is right. Its only problem is that it is asking employees to think of the greater good after stressing the virtues of individuality. What’s that old saying? “Be careful what you wish for – it might come true.”


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