The Government goes soft (once again) on industrial relations reform

So instead of actually implementing the Productivity Commission’s recommendation, the government has taken the soft, easy path of least resistance.

I rise to speak to the Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of Four Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2017.

This Bill seeks to amend the Fair Work Act 2009, purportedly to respond to recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s final report into the Workplace Relations Framework.

Measures include removing the requirement for the Fair Work Commission to conduct 4 yearly reviews of so-called “modern awards”; enabling the Commission to overlook minor errors when approving an enterprise agreement provided it meets the “no disadvantage test”, and to respond to complaints regarding the former Vice President of the Fair Work Commission by applying the Judicial Misbehaviour and Incapacity (Parliamentary Commissions) Act 2012 in relation to past and present Commission members.

If indeed this Bill did simply implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendations, then it would have had my support. However, it doesn’t.

The Productivity Commission recommended that the legislated objective of “modern awards” be changed to remove the objective of higher pay on weekends and public holidays, and insert an objective of regard for consumers.
If this were done, the Productivity Commission proposed that modern awards be only reviewed as necessary, rather than at set, four‑yearly intervals. The recommendation to abolish four-yearly reviews of modern awards was explicitly tied to the changing of the modern award objective.

Unfortunately, the prospect of genuine industrial relations reform appears to have caused the government to experience a sudden loss of bladder control.

So instead of actually implementing the Productivity Commission’s recommendation, the government has taken the soft, easy path of least resistance.

With this bill the Government is retaining the current, flawed legislated objective of modern awards, but is removing the requirement to review modern awards every four years.
This is like rejecting your doctor’s advice that a tumour he just discovered be removed at once, and then cancelling regular check ups with your doctor.

In the absence of changes to the objective, there is no value in changing the review requirement. In fact, there is a positive disadvantage. Retaining these reviews provides an opportunity to reduce the obligations in the awards, and to promote employment.

This Bill increases the likelihood that job-destroying “modern awards” will be retained, and actually runs counter to the whole intent of the Productivity Commission recommendation!

Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats cannot support this relic of the original recommendation to simply remove the four year “modern award” review requirement as though this were a meaningful improvement.

This Fair Work Amendment Bill also has provisions to allow Parliamentary Commissions, which currently investigate judicial misbehaviour, to investigate misbehaviour by a member of the Fair Work Commission. The Bill states that a member of the Fair Work Commission is subject to oversight by the Fair Work Commission President and by the Minister even if the member was first appointed to the Industrial Relations Commission.

Again, the concept of Fair Work Commission oversight by a Parliamentary Commission is a good idea, but again the implementation by the government falls short.

On current wording, it appears that proposed changes in the Bill would imperil members for behaviour in the past, making such measures essentially retrospective. This is hardly reasonable.

However, one Productivity Commission recommendation did manage to sneak into the Bill without being gelded. This is the proposal to allow the Fair Work Commission to overlook minor errors that do not disadvantage employees when it is considering approving an enterprise agreement. This, at least, is a good change.

In summary however, with two out of three of its provisions proving to be clangers, this Bill does not represent serious industrial relations reform and is largely form dressed up as substance.

Since the Liberal Democrats are committed to real labour market deregulation rather than a cardboard cutout of reform attached to a tricycle, I will therefore be opposing this Bill.