Abetz and other Speakers at HRNicholls Dinner

On Friday evening I attended the annual dinner of the HR Nicholls Society and gave the vote of thanks to the speaker, Senator Eric Abetz. His address was highlighted by The Weekend Australian giving it the front page lead story (see below) and the SMH also reported it, but not The Age. Abetz, who was dropped by Turnbull from ministerial ranks (he was Minister for Employment under PM Abbott) and from being Coalition leader in the Senate, used the HRN dinner as an opportunity to criticise Turnbull for failing to make reform of workplace relations a major policy issue at the election on 2 July. He pointed out that, with the ammunition provided by two major reports (the Heydon Royal Commission and the Productivity Commission), a policy advocating further reform had been a “gimme” and he noted that “not even the unlegislated ­elements of the 2013 election policy were taken forward such as changes to right of entry, transfer of business and individual flexibility arrangements”.

My vote of thanks supported the need to do more than restore the Australian Building & Construction Commission and amend the Registered Organisation legislation to reduce corruption within the union movement. I also expressed regret that when Opposition Leader Turnbull had decided not to vote against the Fair Work legislation initiated by Gillard when she was PM.

In the full text of his address, Abetz makes a number of points relevant to the recognition of the unionism of Shorten and the need for reform, including the following:

  • Kimberley Kitching, who is the replacement nominee for the retired Senator Conroy and was “championed” by Shorten, “was found by the Fair Work Commission to have provided false evidence on a number of occasions (something that eminently qualifies her to be a Labor Senator)”;
  • If given the chance, Shorten says “he would govern our nation like a trade union boss”;
  • Officials of the Western Australian Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, publicly admired by Shorten, are “regularly before criminal and civil courts for significant breaches, including for assault in addition to harassing workers with ‘scab’ posters and other breaches of the Fair Work Act”;
  • Shorten has effected “sleazy deals doing the low paid workers out of pay for self or trade union enrichment”;
  • His (Abetz’s) engagement in considerable negotiations with cross bench senators, some successful, showed it is possible to obtain agreement to legislative changes;
  • When Labor was in office Shorten extended “misconceived favours” to the MUA which have resulted in a considerable reduction in the number of major Australian registered ships and in their share of Australian freight. Reform in that area has not yet been started but needs urgent attention;
  • On the basis of advice received before the 2013 election that there was “reform fatigue”, it was decided to limit the proposed reforms for that election.

The final paras of his address are as follows:

“It is vital that the Government advance workplace reform as a top tier priority if it is to achieve its stated desire of pursuing jobs and growth. The hard yards have been done, we have two large reports that don’t only recommend change but make an unassailable case why that change is imperative. And, I can attest, there is a Department of professional and dedicated men and women who could implement this agenda. All that is needed is the political will. A failure of determination will have a lasting effect on our economy, on employers but above all on workers and their families who will be denied a self-sustaining work opportunity. Encouraged by the luminaries of the H. R. Nicholls Society, I will continue to agitate for such vital reform”.

The Weekend Australian report also refers to the promise made by Turnbull, after the Heydon Royal Commission report was published early this year, that the government would publish an assessment. Employment Minister, Michaela Cash, said then that it would “try to implement the overwhelming majority of the Heydon royal commission recommendations”. No such assessment has been released but Cash told a Senate Committee earlier last week that the government planned to introduce reformative legislation next year (see this report by Workplace Express).

Abetz’s address shows that he retains considerable expertise on workplace relations and it makes a strong case for the Coalition to propose a more comprehensive set of reforms in the current Fair Work arrangements even though it would be difficult to get changes through the Senate even with the support of One Nation, whose workplace relations representative, Senator Malcolm Roberts, told the HR Nicholls conference that they would be supportive. Roberts has been given access to the secret document submitted to the government by the Royal Commission. If reformist proposals are backed by justified reasoning and examples of union misbehaviour that should attract public support.

The address to the conference by Victorian Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Robert Clark, provided added support to the case for reforms which reduce the capacity of unions to obtain increases in wages and/or conditions of employment that are not justified for those employed by state governments or their agencies. He gave numerous examples of “concessions” obtained by unions in Victoria which use their political relationships with the Labor government and its ministers ( including Premier Andrews) and threats of various types of disruptions if such concessions are not granted. Clark referred particularly to the dispute over the attempts to exercise union control  over the country fire volunteers and to stop Boral providing cement to construction projects in Melbourne. He praised the decision of the then Labor Minister Garrett to refuse to kow-tow to union pressure on fire volunteers as an example of obtaining public/media support when the lack of substance of union claims is revealed.

Other speakers at the conference spoke in support of a lesser set of regulatory arrangements that allow or require managements of businesses to be more involved. Judith Sloan argued that the attempt in the legislative changes made by Peter Reith to encourage enterprise bargaining has failed and that, outside governments and large businesses, such bargaining agreements are no longer the first choice. I suggested that what had happened was a restoration under the Fair Work arrangements of the centralised intervention system whose role Reith had tried to markedly reduce and that major changes needed to be made to the Fair Work arrangements to put businesses in a position where they are able to prevent union disruptions if they do not have all their demands met.

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