Working Life

Workplace looms as an election battleground


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By Mark Phillips

Tuesday, 02 February 2016

THEY wouldn’t, would they? Could the Coalition be planning to make workplace relations a central thrust of their re-election campaign in 2016?

Could Malcolm Turnbull be prepared to go where Tony Abbott wouldn’t dare to tread, onto territory seen as one of Labor’s traditional strengths?

The signs are definitely there, which would make this a most unusual election as Labor is also planning to go strong on industrial relations, but from the opposite direction.

Make no mistake, it will be on core issues like workplace relations and the economy, rather than the peripheral ones of a republic or marriage equality, where the election will be won or lost in the marginal seats that determine who is in government.

Still, it would be a bold move for the Coalition to take the initiative on an issue that has been electoral poison in the past.

Second time lucky on ABCC?

When Parliament resumes on Tuesday, one of the first orders of business will be the reintroduction of a bill to bring back the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was rejected by the Senate just six months ago.

There is no guarantee the bill will be approved with the government needing the support of at least five of the eight cross-bench Senators, with only two definitely locked in.

Failure to get the bill passed would give the government another double-dissolution trigger should it need one.

But Employment Minister Michaelia Cash is confident that this time around she will get enough support to push the bill through, and she is armed with a secret weapon: an unreleased extra volume of Dyson Heydon’s royal commission into trade union corruption.

The volume is said to contain explosive allegations of criminal and corrupt behaviour on building sites, but as it has not been made public, it is impossible for building unions to defend themselves.

The government’s determination to push ahead with the ABCC bill is part of a wider strategy to use the royal commission as ammunition in this year’s election campaign.

The willingness of Malcolm Turnbull to have a fight over workplace relations is a sign of his supreme confidence – many would say arrogance – that he has Labor’s measure and will be easily re-elected.

But it is also a sign that the royal commission has achieved its desired effect of damaging the union movement and, by association, Bill Shorten’s Labor.

The crude political narrative that will be employed by the Liberals will be along these lines: Bill Shorten is a puppet of the union movement, and a vote for Labor is a vote for the corrupt and thuggish union leaders who pull the strings.

While there are many unionists who continue to insist that (rightly) TURC identified some isolated cases and did not find systemic union corruption, and so the findings will blow over, out in voter land the damage has been done.

People at the top of the ACTU get this and realise there is no point in burying heads in the sand; but there is hope the fall-out can be minimised if unions continue to improve governance and meanwhile focus on genuine workplace issues.

Turnbull is likely to attempt to wedge Labor and the unions further by proposing other new regulations on union behaviour.

Coalition takes aim at penalty rates

The more crucial question is how daring will Turnbull be in seeking to exploit a weakened union-Labor nexus by acting on the recommendations of the Productivity Commission inquiry into the workplace framework that came out just before Christmas?

This will be a real test of the government’s commitment, as it will take them closer to WorkChoices territory.

The most controversial of these recommendations is for Sunday penalty rates to be reduced from double time to time-and-a-half so they are brought in line with Saturdays.

This would result in pay cuts of potentially hundreds of dollars for tens of thousands of Award-dependent retail, hospitality, and entertainment workers.

The business community is agitating for Turnbull to adopt these recommendations, but would he dare?

Turnbull wants to paint himself as an economic reformer, so the temptation will be great for him to take on one of the great sacred cows of the workplace system. He will argue that “archaic” workplace structures are holding Australia’s economy back and inhibiting growth.

Will the public believe him, or will they simply see this as a push to cut wages?

Will either of the major parties take on what is really the biggest workplace issue of all:  the growth and spread of insecure work?

Buoyed by polling that shows the vast majority of Australians believe penalty rates should be left alone, the union campaign to defend them is already in full swing.

The campaign is closely modelled on the successful Your Rights at Work campaign, which influenced the result of the 2007 election.

However, there are some critical differences that will determine its effectiveness in 2016.

The most obvious is that a decade ago the union movement had not been through the traumatic and damaging experience of a widespread royal commission like the Heydon inquiry. The ACTU was thus able to campaign from a trusted and respected position in society; it is arguable the same could be said this time.

Another key difference is that because of WorkChoices, there was clear and tangible proof of the damage that the Coalition’s workplace policies were doing to vulnerable workers and their families.

The ACTU was able to produce countless cases of people whose wages had fallen dramatically overnight under Australian Workplace Agreements, or who had been unfairly dismissed or in other ways had their rights undermined.

Every worker in Australia could relate to those experiences and felt that their jobs and their pay could also be at risk.

This time around, there is a lack of visceral experience for unions to campaign on. Instead, rather than the impact of change, it is the fear of change that is at the core of their argument.

But there is also a risk that the majority of working Australians will look at penalty rates and shrug with indifference because they would not be affected by a change to Sunday rates because they don’t work on Sundays or in the industries that are under scrutiny.

Crackdown on dodgy bosses

Meanwhile, Labor is also shaping up to fight the election on workplace issues, particularly focussing on the undeniable evidence of widespread exploitation and underpayment of migrant workers exposed by the 7-Eleven and Baiada cases.

On Monday, Shorten announced a suite of policies aimed at dodgy bosses, including increased penalties for employers who underpay their staff, better protections from sham contracting, and more power to the Fair Work Ombudsman to pursue employers who deliberately liquidate their businesses to avoid paying workers’ entitlements.

These are all worthy – if overdue reforms – and it is difficult to see how the Coalition could oppose any of them.

But will Labor also back changes to restore the power of unions, such as right of entry and the right to strike, which have been neutered over the years. Or will it be too timid to go that far?

And will either of the major parties take on what is really the biggest workplace issue of all (and the hardest to fix): the collapse of permanent employment and the growth and spread of insecure work?

So all the signs are that the workplace will be a crucial battleground in this year’s election, with both parties attacking the issue from contrasting directions. Who would have believed it?

The author was the founding editor of Working Life. All views expressed are his own.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


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We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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