Duncan Fletcher: IR changes a blast from past

The politics is clever.

The optimistically titled: Working Future: The Australian Government’s White Paper on Jobs and Opportunities has been released less than two weeks after the Government sent a collective shiver down the spine of the business community with the introduction of its ambitious third wave of changes to workplace relations laws.

Business remains worried that the changes will reduce productivity, increase disputation, and make the burden of compliance even heavier.

The message is that we should all be excited about “jobs and opportunities” and getting closer to a zero-unemployment rate and not worrying about the things the Government is doing to toughen the rules of employment and make the jobs “safe, secure and free of harassment”. The problem is that the third wave changes look a lot more like the heavily regulated and unionised private sector of the late 20th century than the exciting 21st-century workplace of the White Paper where anything is possible.

Those of us old enough to have been around workplace relations since the end of the last century might be feeling a sense of history repeating itself.

In 1996, the newly elected Howard government acted on its election promise to introduce changes to Australia’s Federal system of workplace relations. The goal was to get business on track after a punishing recession in the early 1990s. Amendments were negotiated in the Senate, the reforms worked well and helped set the scene for a record run of productivity improvement and the gradual movement of the majority of Australian employers from the State to the Federal workplace relations system.

In 2004, a re-elected Howard government got a Senate majority for first time and introduced WorkChoices in 2006. This second wave of changes was not popular with the public and unions developed the Your Rights at Work campaign which was one of the factors contributing to Howard’s defeat in 2007.

Fast forward to now and we are seeing a similar chain of events.

In 2022, the newly elected Albanese Government acted on its election policy to “get wages moving” amid rising cost of living pressures.

A jobs summit was held, and amendments were negotiated in the Senate to kick start enterprise bargaining and enhance the safety net. Early signs are that wage growth is increasing but not yet impacting inflation. For now.

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