The federal Abbott government will launch a sweeping inquiry into workplace laws. Leaked terms of reference show the anti-worker nature of the inquiry with the Productivity Commission asked to look at penalty rates, pay, conditions, working hours and so-called ‘flexibility’. Also to be investigated is ‘industrial conflict’, ‘red tape’ and impacts on ‘productivity, competitiveness and business investment’.
In a nut shell the government is seeking to lay the basis for counter reforms to IR laws in the same way the Howard Liberal government did with its WorkChoices legislation.
The Howard government’s 2005 WorkChoices laws were the most the wide-ranging attack on pay and working conditions seen in many years. One of the corner stones of the laws was ‘Australian Workplace Agreements’ (individual contracts) that undermined awards and collective agreements. The right to strike was eroded as were the rights of elected union officials.
On the back of a mass union led campaign industrial relations dominated the 2007 election that saw Howard resoundingly defeated. He even lost his own parliamentary seat! Labor led by Kevin Rudd came to power and after dragging their feet for two years they made some very minor changes to the laws and introduced the Fair Work Act 2009.
Unfortunately the Fair Work Act retained most of the main planks of WorkChoices. The legislation continues to hamper workers ability to fight for a share of the wealth they have created. This is not only seen in the increasing gap between rich and poor but also in the strike figures which show some of the lowest numbers of days lost to strikes on record.
In the lead up to the September 2013 election, the Abbott-led Liberal-National opposition repeatedly promised not to revive WorkChoices. The Productivity Commission review – which they promised would not go into WorkChoices territory – was scheduled to be launched on March 7, but was cynically delayed so as not become an issue in the 15 March South Australian and Tasmanian state elections.
Now this delaying tactic will be extended beyond the April 5 Western Australian Federal Senate re-run. The leaked terms of reference asks the commission to report back by April 2015. The next federal election is not due to be held until August 2016. Although the government has tried to create the impression there is ‘community’ pressure on backbenchers for this review, polls show that people most oppose regressive changes to IR laws.
Given this push by Abbott it is imperative that the workers’ movement begins a counter-campaign. To maximise its effect, it should be built from the ground up, based on ordinary workers, union members and shop-stewards, and lead up to co-ordinated national action.
Already there is a growing movement against the Coalition government that was expressed in the 110,000-strong March in March rallies around Australia, the biggest since the 2005-7 anti-WorkChoices rallies. With the participation of the organised labour movement Abbott could be brought down just like Howard was. The question at hand though is what should Abbott be replaced with?
Given that both the Liberals and Labor support pro big business and anti-worker policies the trade union movement needs to strive to build an alternative to the major parties. A new party that genuinely stood on the side of ordinary people could fight for a workers government that could reshape society based on people’s needs rather than profit.
By W. van Leeuwen