Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Unions emboldened by WA's over-regulated IR system

Julia Gillard was in Esperance last week. It provided a good opportunity for the Western Australian Minister for Transport, Troy Buswell, to claim the Port of Esperance lost 260,000 tonnes of iron export from strikes under federal law and that Ms Gillard's industrial relations (IR) changes were hurting WA.

Recently the Business Council, the Productivity Commission, new MP John Alexander and the Reserve Bank have all made similar points on the need for labour market reform.

The unions are also fighting to widen the impact of Ms Gillard's Fair Work Australia (FWA) legislation and had a major win in the Federal Court, giving them the opportunity to unionise the Pilbara. In Perth, the unions are collecting cash to bolster their strike fund; possibly to target the new Children's Hospital.

A lot of these issues fall within the federal jurisdiction and Buswell's point, essentially about productivity, needs to be made. But productivity is not the sole responsibility of the Federal Government.

WA has a relatively large state system covering about 450,000 people, most of whom are in the private sector. Whilst welcome, WA calls for reform of federal IR laws would carry a lot more credibility if WA acted to reform its own system as well.

For example, WA could promulgate a code of conduct for the building industry to help moderate poor behaviour on government construction sites. When this proposal, currently being drafted for Victoria, was suggested for Perth the WA Premier Colin Barnett said that WA did not have a problem.

WA's industrial relations system is one of Australia's most over-regulated state systems. Premier Barnett could introduce a very moderate reform bill. His stated reason for doing nothing was that the Amendola Report, commissioned by Mr Buswell, contains "recommendations along the line of the WorkChoices path and that's what the government is not going to do".

Not surprisingly the Premier's comments had the immediate support of WA unions, but anyone reading the report would know it is not about WorkChoices. Adopting a novel tactic, Barnett was using Labor's scare campaign against the Federal Coalition to justify his inaction.

The Amendola Report's comments on minimum wages, awards, industrial action and statutory standards reflect FWA and have nothing to do with WorkChoices and as WA has had individual agreements since the early 1990s, that bone can't be pointed at WorkChoices either.

If the WA Government does nothing to reform its state system, put in place by the last WA Labor government, then it can hardly support the resource sector's call for a better federal system. The WA approach will only embolden WA unions to focus their energies against the resource sector and will ensure that the problems in Esperance will spread.

The WA Government is supporting an archaic compulsory arbitration system with some conciliation, which the Fielding Review thought was outdated 16 years ago. By retaining one of Australia's most regulated state industrial relations systems, WA also makes it that much harder for local businesses who are trying to compete with foreign companies supplying to the resources sector.

Various provisions of the existing state legislation deny workers their basic rights in a manner more restrictive than FWA. The only collective agreement currently available is with a union. No vote of employees is mandated, so employees have no say in the agreement. So, if the union boss says an agreement is okay then why ask the employees for their opinion?

WA will keep the 66 pages of ridiculous over-regulation for an individual agreement thereby effectively ensuring they will not be used. In the past the WA Liberals lead the way on individual agreements and gave great support for individual agreements in the mining industry but now they are in the "too hard basket".

The current unfair dismissal system in WA is unnecessarily two-tiered. There is a time limit within which an individual can exercise their rights to make an application although the period can be extended. But a union is also given standing to bring an unfair dismissal application, with no time limit applying, because of the breadth of the definition of industrial matter which is ridiculous. Small business will be disappointed to hear the Government refuses to introduce a small business exemption.

The current laws are as good as an open door policy for unions. Why is it fair that a union boss can walk into a small business that has no union members and where unions are not wanted? And just about anyone nominated by a union can get a state entry permit. No notice has to be provided before entry and they can come in and talk to anyone about just about anything. This law is one of the reasons why people like Joe McDonald of the CFMEU can get into WA sites although he cannot hold a federal permit.

WA's small unincorporated business sector constituency seems set to remain hostage to a complex, irrelevant and over regulated industrial relations system, unless Mr Buswell decides to take up the cause of small business and the resource sector inside the WA Cabinet.

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