The Future Industrial Relations Agenda - Enough to Make You Go Green at the Gill(ard)s

We have a hung Parliament - creating in its wake circumstances the likes of which we have not seen since the 1940’s.

Our Parliament is now formed with a minority Labor Government, who in the House of Representatives hold 72 seats in their own right.

The Coalition also holds 72 seats, with 6 seats now being occupied by cross-bench members.

Of these 6 cross-bench seats, three are held by what the media refer to as ‘the three independents’, being Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Katter.

Then there are a WA National Party MP, Mr Tony Crook; Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie, and Greens MP Adam Bandt.

In the Senate, where I am Opposition Leader, the make-up of the Chamber remains the same until 1 July next year at which time the Australian Greens will then assume the balance of power with increased numbers.

We will be joined by Senator John Madigan representing the Democratic Labor Party – the first DLP Senator in 36 years.

Now the detail of this Parliamentary makeup may excite political junkies but most people I meet simply want to know what it means for them.

They want to know what the future looks like for the issues that impact them and their daily lives.

Put simply – from the 1st of July 2011, all legislation will need to have the agreement of the Australian Greens for legislation to pass successfully through the Parliament. Without it the Labor/Green alliance could wobble!

Most Australians are used to political battles being fought between the left and the right; between Labor and the Coalition.

But from 1 July 2011, the fight is more likely to be between the left and the extreme left; between Labor and The Australian Greens.

Let’s hope some Independents in the House will show courage. Believe it or not we will rely on the House to restrain the excesses of the Senate. Who would have thought?

Today I want to discuss what this might mean for workplace relations policy.

In doing so, I want to pay particular attention to some of the policy positions held by the Australian Greens and what this could mean after the changes in the Senate in the middle of next year.

Now we all know some of the famous views expressed by the Greens on broader policy areas; indeed some are infamous.

There is of course their desire to reintroduce death taxes, ensuring that the ATO haunts you after death, as opposed to the other way around.

They also want to go soft on illicit drug taking; increase the highest marginal rate of income tax to 50%; increase company tax to 33%; and abolish the private health insurance rebate.

They want to close down the coal and uranium industry, which combined is worth almost $950 billion to the Australian economy. To put that amount in context, the total budget of the Commonwealth of Australia is about $400 billion each year, so there would be severe economic consequences from such a proposal.

Many astute commentators have labelled The Greens as ‘watermelons’ – meaning they are green on the outside but red on the inside. Others have called the Greens focus on environmental issues as a political ‘Trojan horse’ as cover for a socialist left agenda. I fear both are correct.

That real agenda covers a number of areas as I have already mentioned, but importantly includes a workplace relations agenda.

The Greens interest in this field is growing as their funding from the unions increases, particularly the unions from the traditional hard left.

I mentioned before that there is a new Greens MP in the House of Representatives, Mr Adam Bandt. You might be interested to note that Mr Bandt received a donation from the Electrical Trades Union during the election campaign worth over $300,000.

Of course, the seat of Melbourne came down to a contest between Labor and the Greens. So this was money paid by a traditionally left wing and militant union to a candidate to stand against Labor. It is also interesting that the candidate in that seat for Labor was Cath Bowtell, who until recently was the Chief Legal Officer for the ACTU.

In fact, since around 2005, the Australian Greens have accepted donations of over $750,000 from various unions who are traditionally militant and hard left; and also concentrated in the Building and Construction industry.

As an aside – what would our impartial media be saying if the Coalition were to receive funding from a business fined $1.3 million for thuggery, standover tactics and generally unconscionable behaviour? But if a union cops such a fine, the donation is untainted and not worthy of scrutiny. (I digress).

Unsurprisingly, one of the first things the Greens have done in the new Parliament is to introduce legislation to abolish the Building and Construction industry watchdog, the ABCC, an issue to which I will shortly return.

You might also be interested to know that Mr Adam Bandt has been an employment and industrial lawyer for about 10 years. He actually worked in the same law firm that Julia Gillard came from, and is well known for acting on behalf of militant unions.

Prior to his lawyer years, Mr Bandt was an active member of a group called The Left Alliance. This organisation is basically a Marxist forum and has in the past been critical of other activist groups like the Socialist Alliance and Resistance for not being “left-wing enough”.

At that time Mr Bandt even went so far as to accuse The Greens of being too middle class, describing them as “bourgeois” and also went on to proclaim that the ALP was too right-wing, describing them to be almost as bad as the Democratic Party in the United States.

In his maiden speech to Parliament a few weeks ago, Mr Bandt effusively thanked the ETU and the CEPU. That is nothing unusual, you might think, particularly given the hefty donations they made to his campaign.

Except that these militant unions received a mention before Mr Bandt got around to thanking his very own partner! They took priority.

As an aside, you might also find it interesting that Mr Bandt’s partner was in fact a workplace relations adviser working in the Federal Labor Workplace Relations Ministers office up until the election began.

And Mr Adam Bandt is now the Greens spokesperson for industrial relations.

Now if the relationships and personnel in this brave new world concern you, wait till you hear the policies.

Greens IR Policy

For example, they want to make it compulsory for employers to hand out newsletters to workers on behalf of trade unions, and compulsory for workers to receive trade union training at the employer’s expense and on the employer’s time.

But there are some more insidious positions that the Greens maintain and, in this new political environment, there exists the very real possibility that they will become law before too long.

As I mentioned earlier, The Greens want to abolish the ABCC, the construction industry industrial relations watchdog.

Anyone familiar with the ABCC will know of the problems on construction sites and the excellent work it has done to address those problems.

Building sites had been the hotbed of unlawful militancy and thuggery for years, which became the subject of the Cole Royal Commission.

After identifying hundreds of instances of unlawful activity in a report of considerable length, it was decided that a special regulator should be formed to stop the industrial relations practices that belonged in the dark ages and help building sites become more like most normal workplaces.

With this brief the ABCC has operated successfully since 2005, with very significant benefits to our country.

As a direct result of the ABCC’s work industrial action and days lost through strikes in the sector has reduced significantly, resulting in industry productivity increasing by over 10%.

Because of the massive contribution the building sector makes to our economy, the improvements caused by the ABCC has actually reduced inflation by 1.2% and resulted in a level of GDP which is 1.5% higher than it otherwise would have been.

In real terms, these improvements translate to an economic welfare gain to Australia of over $5.5 billion per year, - i.e. five thousand five hundred million dollars per year.

Of course, the construction unions, including Mr Bandt’s donors, hate the ABCC and it is therefore now in real jeopardy.

Labor too has held a long term hatred of the ABCC. They are shortly to re-introduce legislation to dramatically water down the powers of the ABCC.

Senator Fielding, to his credit has stood with us in the Coalition to block this unprincipled, job destroying move.

Another Greens policy is to increase the standard casual loading to 30% and place a limitation on casual employment of not more than three months before mandatory conversion to a permanent status.

There are obvious job destroying consequences, not to mention cost implications to business of such a proposal. More importantly, it ignores the fact that many workers themselves enjoy being engaged and paid on a casual basis. It suits many people, particularly those re-entering the workforce or those who wish to work irregular hours.

Fundamentally, however, these types of ideas erode the ability of an employer to exercise managerial prerogative and make decisions about how to best utilise staff in their own business – which in turn leads to economic growth and further job opportunities.

I’m sure we are all agreed that safety is extremely important for our workplaces. The Coalition, like all Australians, believes in the need for a strong workplace health and safety regime. But, unlike the Greens and Labor, we also recognise that safety is a shared responsibility between workers and employers alike.

The Greens want to introduce national industrial manslaughter legislation, allowing criminal charges to be brought in circumstances where there is a workplace death.

Employers shouldn’t automatically be found guilty where they have done as much as they can to make a workplace safe, unlike here in NSW where employers are legally guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

In recent times, unlawful and illegal actions of some unions have been disguised under the cover of safety concerns, or, in other situations threats are made to close down workplaces using safety concerns unless other demands are met.

So in this context, the Greens industrial manslaughter proposal can only been seen as giving unions another option with which to flex industrial muscle.

(Ironically, if industrial manslaughter laws had been in place during Labor’s roof insulation debacle, then former environment Minister Peter Garrett may possibly be sitting in jail!)

The Greens also believe that there should be no exemptions from unfair dismissal laws. Not even for workers serving a probationary period, casuals or those only employed for a set period. Everybody should be able to bring a claim, according to the Greens, and they want the remedy to be reinstatement back to the workplace, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The Coalition recognises that there are bad employers and that workers should have avenues of recourse available to them if they are badly treated at work, but, there must be a balance.

Who listening today would be so keen to grow staff in your business if you knew that you could be bogged down, at great cost, in a tribunal for months for sacking a worker, even if they have been employed for only one day?

And if that isn’t bad enough, the Australian Greens also believe that workers should be able to engage in strike action at any time, for any reason, and without any warning.

The ramifications of this are obvious. But of even more concern, is that the Greens believe that strike action could be taken for any reason at all. And this includes issues that are not even vaguely related to the workplace.

So under the Greens proposals, workers in an abattoir in my home State of Tasmania could go on strike action in support of trade union activities in Portugal. Workers in the mining sector in WA could take strike action in support of anti-whaling protests, or ambulance drivers could go on strike to protest against genetically modified foods.

As unrealistic as this might sound, these are the stark realities of their policy positioning.

They believe that the ability to strike is a fundamental human right, and that a business should be captive to issues that in no way have any relevance to them or which they can’t impact.

The Greens one policy to reduce red tape in this area is to remove all barriers for unions to enter workplaces.

In fact they want provisions to strengthen the right for unions to enter your business and recruit members.

This would have the effect of giving unions even more powers to enter private premises than any State or Federal law enforcement agency.

The truth is that these extreme job and economy destroying positions of the radical left are now well and truly on the national agenda and there is a very real danger that they might become law.

Don’t believe me? Remember that on the day before the last election, Julia Gillard ruled out a carbon tax absolutely.

After the election, as a result of the Greens influence, the carbon tax was immediately back on the agenda.

The true extent of Greens influence on Labor is yet to be fully tested, but, the signs are ominous.

It will be a challenge for Labor to resist this lurch to the extreme and radical left, particularly as both they and the Greens now compete against each other to attract union dollars. And let’s not forget that union support is valuable, with it being a $1 billion per year industry throwing tens of millions of dollars of donations behind left political parties and causes.

So, the future? Industrial relations in Australia will once again be ideologically founded and argued leaving behind the commonsense and practical approach which began to develop even under Hawke and Keating.

The Greens ideology is to take and redistribute power from capital to labour as quickly as it can. Every single one of its industrial relations policies are aimed at this outcome. Not one of its policies in this area considers the needs of the common good, the economy, or employers, or the long term well being of employees.

Gone will be the days when we consider the practical consequences of regulatory change. Instead, policy will be based solely on ideology – extreme, dogmatic and impractical ideology.

And that is why those concerned about our country’s economic future and welfare, and the human rights of individual workers and small businesses need to speak out and take a stand before its too late.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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