Since the tumultuous federal election and its aftermath, and Labor’s re-election as a minority government, industrial relations issues have been as much about the personalities involved as matters of policy substance.
We have a new federal Minister for Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator The Hon Christopher Evans, supported by the Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations, Senator The Hon Jacinta Collins. In recent speeches to conferences held by the Industrial Relations Society of Victoria and Australian Industry Group, Senator Collins has lauded the government’s achievements in “bedding down” the Fair Work legislation. For example, the Senator indicated that the new bargaining framework has produced over 7,000 enterprise agreements, with minimal recourse to Fair Work Australia (eg there have been 121 applications for bargaining orders arising from breaches of the good faith bargaining requirements, with only 18 orders made, in the first 12 months).
Senator Collins also reiterated the Government’s intention to proceed with securing passage of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2009. The Bill, which (among other things) would abolish the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner (ABCC) and install in its place a new Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate with modified powers, will soon be reintroduced into federal Parliament.
On this issue, another of the new players on the industrial relations scene is likely to be prominent. Greens MP Adam Bandt (whose support in the lower house is critical to the Gillard Government’s survival) is the party’s new spokesperson on workplace relations. In his maiden parliamentary speech on 30 September, Mr Bandt made reference to the Greens’ policy of making all Australian workers “truly equal before the law” by abolishing the special laws and regulator that operate in the building and construction industry. The Greens’ position is reflected in their private member’s bill, the Building and Construction Industry (Restoring Workplace Rights) Bill 2010, introduced into the Senate on 29 September.
As the Greens are likely to oppose the Government’s re-introduced building industry bill, and (for different reasons) independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott could also be expected to do so, the regulatory framework under the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 (Cth) may remain in place for some time to come. This includes the ABCC, which recently had a change of leadership with the appointment of Leigh Johns as the Commissioner (replacing John Lloyd). Mr Johns was previously Chief Counsel at the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman, and has also served as a Deputy Commissioner at the ABCC. It remains to be seen whether his appointment results in any significant change in the focus of the ABCC’s activities.
Amidst all of this, the federal Opposition has continued to push for the retention of the ABCC with its current statutory powers. Senator Eric Abetz remains the Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Media reports on 6 October indicated that Senator Abetz, along with two other senior Coalition frontbenchers, was pushing for re-consideration of the Opposition’s pre-election policy commitment to make no change to the Fair Work laws. While the Coalition is sticking to its position that “Work Choices is dead”, areas such as the impact of unfair dismissal protections on small business and some aspects of the new modern awards may be re-assessed as the Opposition further develops its industrial relations policies.
In the meantime, the Fair Work legislation – and the regulatory framework and institutions it introduced – look set to continue in operation for at least as long as the Government retains its slender parliamentary majority.
* Anthony Forsyth is co-author, with Val Gostencnik, Jacqueline Parker and Rosemary Roach, of “Navigating the Fair Work Laws”, to be published by Thomson Reuters in November 2010. The book includes a full chapter on the regulation of workplace relations in the building and construction industry. For more information, click here.