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Labor's voice is needed on industrial relations reforms

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ACTU secretary Sally McManus has been in negotiations with Attorney-General Christian Porter over IR reforms (Image by Dan Jensen)

Negotiations are taking place between the Government and ACTU for IR reforms, but Labor is remaining strangely silent, writes William Olson.

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has become a stage for some events that would have otherwise seemed quite unlikely to occur. Take, for example, the seemingly endless fight between the LNP Government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on industrial relations reform.

After Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter offered ACTU secretary Sally McManus and the union organisation’s president Michele O’Neil the carrot of killing off the much-maligned and much-defeated Ensuring Integrity Bill, Porter proceeded to invite McManus and the ACTU – the nation’s governing body on unions and their governance – to the bargaining table last month.

Currently, there is a series of ongoing negotiations behind closed doors in Sydney and Canberra to hammer out a bipartisan solution on IR reforms whose outcome would result in suiting benefits to both sides of employers and their workers.

Once seen as two diametrically opposed sides at loggerheads over the issue, McManus has formally accepted that invitation of Porter’s, with both sides harbouring hopes that any aforementioned solutions can be reached by the end of September.

“Working people need to be at the centre of rebuilding our economy,” McManus said on behalf of the ACTU last month as the formation of the upcoming negotiations was being unveiled.

It could be said that even the most astute political minds in Canberra would not have seen this coming, even if Porter and McManus had been engaging in ongoing dialogue around the time of the pandemic’s declaration — negotiations which resulted in the Federal Government’s initial JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes.

McManus has pointed out in outlining the organisation’s objectives for gaining a beneficial result:

The ACTU will measure any changes to industrial relations law on the benchmarks of: will it give working people better job security, and will it lead to working people receiving their fair share of the country’s wealth?

 

The work of job creating will involve much more than industrial law changes and we will continue to put forward ideas on how Australia can create good, secure jobs for workers.

However, one party with vested interests in a beneficial result remains missing — the Australian Labor Party. The ALP is represented by – among countless others – leader Anthony Albanese, Shadow Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke, senate opposition leader Penny Wong, freshman Victorian senator and one-time United Voice leader Jess Walsh, even former party leader Bill Shorten (given his strong past union leader ties), or anyone else aligned with a progressive Left-wing path in Australian politics.

And they should be there, for reasons of tradition, fairness, equity, objectivity and balance. Not to mention the know-how and reputations of those listed above in all matters regarding unions and industrial relations. They represent deep resources in the buried treasures in those areas which need to be unearthed desperately.

Any student of Australian history will attest that the ALP and the nation’s union movement possess histories which are innately connected.

To this day, the ALP and the ACTU have affiliations with one another — a relationship going back to the days of colonialism prior to Australian Federation in 1901. The two are intrinsically linked and therefore one feeds off of the other. No reasons exist where this would ever cease being the case.

Therefore, amid Porter announcing the LNP Government’s intentions for cementing IR reform legislation and practice, is the invitation of McManus on behalf of the ACTU an honest attempt at pursuing a bipartisan approach, beyond a cynical take at mere tokenism? And if it is, why not have a greater number and volume of progressive groups at the table? The ALP would be among them — arguably, outside of the ACTU, speaking loudest on behalf of the nation’s working class.

Meanwhile, Porter has offered an olive branch to those on the Left, the ALP and ACTU included.

In laying out the objectives of the talks, Porter said:

“...it is critical that all sides of the debate lay down their arms and commit to work together during this process to find ways to get our economy moving again and urgently regrow the jobs so many Australians have lost as a result of COVID-19.”

Whereas Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s LNP Government has already been under attack for not including Albanese and the ALP within the National Cabinet that has successfully crafted the deliberate step-by-step process for Australia’s post-pandemic recovery, Porter deserves proper scrutiny for following suit.

Burke, who holds out hope that the ALP can still have a direct say on future IR policies, in the process of direct negotiations, said:

‘But let’s be clear: all the Government has done so far is book a room. This is not an IR agenda — it’s a series of meetings.’

The groups, outside of the ACTU, that Porter and the Morrison Government have invited to partake in the IR reforms constitute a who’s-who of pro-business organisations — and moreover, groups with reputations of being traditional donors to LNP election campaigns. 

Aside from the Australia Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, the Government has sent out invitations to the likes of the Australian Resources and Energy Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Master Builders Australia.

All those groups, and others, against the ACTU and without the ALP in a setting where partaking in acts of negotiation, lobbying and compromise are the expected codes of conduct towards hammering out accords that will shape the practices of industrial relations for the extended future? At present, there’s a gross imbalance at the negotiating table without the ALP’s presence.

And by extension, it is weighted heavily against the working class, a mass group at the heart of the constituency of the ACTU and the ALP.

Which does not bode well for what was previously stated as the general objective — to strike up a bipartisan outcome suitable for both workers and business types alike.

Yet Burke gives credit to his opposite number Porter for engineering the all-important first step.

And assails their previous inactions simultaneously:

‘For years, Labor has been urging the government to bring workers and unions to the industrial relations negotiating table in a bid to deliver those sorts of reforms.

 

It’s a shame it took a global crisis for them to finally realise that workers’ voices are worth listening to.’

If politics make strange bedfellows, as the old axiom goes, then hopefully the meeting of minds between Porter, McManus and Albanese, along with others within the ALP, will result in fewer sleepless nights beyond the end of September. Because at present, unless a more balanced representation occurs from the progressive Left, we may be left looking squarely at a pro-business approach to industrial relations legislation.

Burke has warned:

‘The demands business groups have been making in recent days – including a return to WorkChoices-style individual contracts and the scrapping of awards – suggest it will be extremely difficult to forge an IR consensus. Those sorts of changes would be a disaster for workers and for the economy.’

William Olson is a freelance journalist and hospitality professional. You can follow William on Twitter @DeadSexyWaiter.

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