On Wednesday, the 10th of August, the ANU College of Law hosted an installment of its Labor Law Lecture Series. The ANU College of Law hosted it in conjunction with the Australian Labor Law Association and the Australian Labor Employment Relations Association. Professor Anthony Forsyth, Director of RMIT’s Juris Doctor program and leading expert in collective bargaining under the Fair Work Act, was the guest speaker.
The theme of the night was the political strategy behind the Abbott Government’s industrial relations and labor law reforms. Forsyth stated that “The Abbott Government’s legislative agenda in its first term is closely linked to its political strategy. The plan is to tarnish Labor through its links to dodgy union officials”, and particularly with officials in the Construction, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Furthermore, this legislative agenda aims to limit the power of unions through increased red tape. These tactics are evident in several bills currently before Parliament.
The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 will re-establish the former regulator, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The regulator will be given full investigative powers. In addition, it will have the authority to investigate illegitimate union activity with regard to the transportation of goods to construction sites. This bill is a clear response to the CFMEU’s disruptive picketing of the Myer Emporium Grocon project in 2012 and the subsequent blockade of Boral in 2013.
The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 will create a new regulator for unions and employment organisations registered under the Fair Work Act. The legislation will require increased disclosure and reporting obligations for union office holders. The Bill will also increase penalties for breaches of the Act, including the possibility of being charged with criminal offences. This Bill is the Government’s response to what it claims to be the Fair Work Commission’s inadequate investigation into Craig Thomson and corruption within the Health Services Union.
The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 will change the conditions for a union’s right of entry to work sites to make them more restrictive. Furthermore, the individual workplace agreements of Work Choices make a comeback as Individual Flexibility Agreements (IFAs) under this Amendment Bill. This incarnation, however, is a voluntary opt-out option, allowing for awards and employment arrangements to vary where individual employees agree to those variations.
On the question of whether the bills will pass the Senate, Forsyth stated that political observers can expect cross-bench Senators to support the Government. Senator David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democrats holds free-market views on labor laws, arguing for a six month exemption from the minimum wage for first-time job-seekers . Senator Bob Day of Family First has a similar position, arguing that workers should be able to opt-out of pay rates and the framework of protections delineated by the Fair Work Act. Given the anticipated support of Day and Leyonhjelm, the passing of these reforms is contingent upon the Palmer United Party and Motoring Enthusiast voting block.