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Govt defends Fair Work Act after widespread criticism
03/08/2012 - The federal government has defended its workplace relations system after a review of the Fair Work Act was roundly criticised by business and industry. Paul Osbornem Andrea Hayward
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Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten released the findings of an independent panel that reviewed the act, which replaced the Howard government's Work Choices regime after Labor came to power in 2007.
The panel — Reserve Bank board member John Edwards, former Federal Court judge Michael Moore and workplace relations expert Ron McCallum — received 250 submissions and made 53 recommendations for changes to the act.
"In our view, the current laws are working well and the system of enterprise bargaining underpinned by the national employment standards and modern awards is delivering fairness to employers and employees," the panel's report said.
One of the key recommendations is to allow Fair Work Australia (FWA) greater power to step into disputes at greenfields sites such as new mining projects.
Under current law, unless a dispute is about a single enterprise agreement, FWA can only deal with it with the agreement of all bargaining representatives.
The report rejected unions' bid for an expansion of the "allowable matters" for enterprise bargaining and strikes, as well as a proposal by business to extend individual flexibility agreements to four years.
Since the act came into force Australia had experienced favourable wages growth and levels of industrial disputation, strong jobs growth and flexible work patterns, the report said.
But productivity growth had been "disappointing" over the past decade.
Shorten said the first tranche of legislative amendments, but no "sweeping changes", could be introduced in the spring session of parliament, after consulting industry and unions.
"I'm heartened that the core conclusion of the panel is that our Fair Work laws are working well and as intended," he told reporters.
Opposition workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz said the review was a costly exercise at $3000 a page and the report was a major letdown and lacked insight into Australia's productivity problems.
"Having stacked the panel and skewed the terms of reference, ex-union boss Shorten ensured the Fair Work Act was delivered a clean bill of health," Senator Abetz said.
"Members of the review panel were hand-picked by the government and included a former Labor adviser and others who had made glowing favourable comments about the laws on the public record."
Shorten challenged the opposition to outline its IR policy and said it was shooting the messenger before listening to the message.
Abbott told reporters in Brisbane the review was not "fair dinkum" and should have been conducted by the Productivity Commission.
He said the coalition supported "careful, cautious, prudent" changes.
ACTU president Ged Kearney said any further changes should improve job security, rights and protections for Australian workers, not hand more power to employers.
"They should start with strengthening the bargaining system, with powers for the independent umpire to step in where employers only pay lip service to the notion of collective bargaining," Kearney said.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Peter Anderson said the review dashed employers' hopes that changes would be made to reduce labour costs and the damage caused by "speculative union activity and legal claims".
Minerals Council chief executive Mitch Hooke said the panel's recommendations "merely tinker at the edges of a regressive transformation in workplace relations" and failed the test of good policy.
The Housing Industry Association described the review's funding as "underwhelming", while the Business Council of Australia said it had failed to come to terms with the fundamental challenge of supporting Australia's competitiveness in a vastly changed economic landscape.
The government's response will be released later this year.
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