The Guardian May 28, 2003


Federal Budget signals escalation
of war on workers' rights

by Bob Briton

Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the recent Federal Budget has 
focussed on what sort of lunch a $5 a week tax cut might buy, and the 
potential for a Federal Liberal leadership change to leave us with an 
"Abbott and Costello" government.

Far more serious are proposals that will attack workers' pay and conditions 
and fund changes that will ensure more of the same into the future. For 
most of this year, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott has had 15 
Bills before the Parliament that promise to deliver bigger, easier profits 
to the bosses and to tie the hands of unions. The Budget has been used to 
good effect to advance this agenda.

One of the more obvious measures is to deny access to any of Australia's 38 
public universities access to $404 million worth of Commonwealth capital 
grants if they do not force their staff onto individual contracts 
(Australian Workplace Agreements  AWAs). With these contracts, 
universities will be expected to take away their staff's rights to take 
industrial action and be represented by their union.

Clearly, Abbott has become frustrated with the slowness of his plans to de-
unionise the workforce and has taken this opportunity to press forward. 
Government policy papers foreshadow similar treatment for workers in health 
and community services and in the rest of the education sector.

The Minister is also revisiting a proposal put to Cabinet last year to 
increase the proportion of Commonwealth public servants subject to non-
union AWAs. Abbott finds it disappointing that only 1.2 per cent of these 
employees are covered by AWAs and that unions have been "misusing" secret 
ballots to defend workers' interests.

It seems that, on a number of occasions, unions such as the Community and 
Public Sector Union (CPSU) have applied successfully to the Australian 
Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to recommend a secret ballot of 
employees on their preferred form of agreement before the commencement of 
negotiations. Not surprisingly, virtually all the various agencies' workers 
involved wanted unions to negotiate on their behalf.

"This culture of collective decision making does not easily co-exist with 
the maintenance of professional standards and responsibility", the Minister 
laments.

Unfair dismissals

The Budget sets aside $16.8 million to pay for another 12 federal 
industrial relations Commissioners. They will be needed to handle the extra 
caseload resulting from the Commonwealth's plans to wrest nearly all unfair 
dismissals powers from the States.

Abbott is looking to use the "corporations powers" given to the 
Commonwealth by the Constitution to remove the consideration of unfair 
dismissal claims of workers employed by incorporated businesses from the 
States' industrial relations systems.

This would leave the states responsible for about 15 per cent of workers 
employed by small, unincorporated businesses. The expectation is that the 
States would eventually give up on maintaining their own industrial 
relations commissions and hand the remaining workers over to the 
Commonwealth's "care" in the same way that Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff 
Kennett did in 1997.

Naturally, Abbott is keen to disguise these "reforms" as a perfectly 
innocent push for a simplified and unified system. He loves to taunt the 
unions as they resist these moves, describing them as latter day "states 
righters". The issues at stake, however, are to do with workers' rights to 
protection from unfair dismissals and how to keep them out of the clutches 
of a minister hell bent on stripping away all such safeguards.

Regrettably, it looks as if the Democrats are set to blot their industrial 
relations copybook once more. While the issue has not come before the 
Democrats' party room, Federal Leader Senator Andrew Murray favours the 
overall intent of the Government's Termination of Employment Bill. Most 
legal opinion has it that any challenge from the States against the 
Commonwealth's grab for power would, most likely, fail.

Also part of Abbott's "single national workplace relations system" drive is 
a Productivity Commission inquiry into the possibility of setting up a 
national framework for workers' compensation and the formulation of 
occupational health and safety laws.

The Minister's centralising zeal had been contained for a while when a 
Parliamentary inquiry into workers' compensation fraud failed to produce 
the evidence needed to justify his "reforming" touch. The report of the 
Cole Royal Commission into the building industry  widely regarded as an 
anti-union witch-hunt  has resuscitated these plans.

Workers' Compensation

The bosses are keen on this one. One labour hire firm was quoted in The 
Australian Financial Review last week as looking forward to reducing their 
workers' comp bill from $15 million to $12 million under a Commonwealth 
scheme. Abbott would have us believe that these savings would come from 
lower costs of administration.

He has further said that opposition from the different state trades and 
labour councils has to do with an image problem  that their 
representation on state workers' compensation boards is needed to justify 
their existence.

He maintains that a "generous benefit structure" would be available under 
his proposals. By the way, this is the same minister that claimed that the 
striking Morris McMahon employees  expected to work for between $11 and 
$12 an hour without paid breaks  are being offered a "Rolls Royce" deal 
from their employer.

Building industry

The building industry remains the focus for much of the Federal 
Government's anti-worker push. The Commonwealth will deny contracts for the 
$5 billion a year's worth of infrastructure and other building work to 
those behind "building employer-union cartels".

He is referring to negotiated agreements that cover the wages and 
conditions of all workers on a site, regardless of which contractor or 
subcontractor employs them and to the practice of what is known as "pattern 
bargaining".

Pattern bargaining involves the simultaneous negotiation of enterprise 
agreements in different workplaces, and the attempt by unions to gain 
uniform basic conditions across the industry.

The Budget will provide $6.9 million to fund an extension of the interim 
building industry taskforce until June 30 next year and another $17 million 
to carry on the work started by the Cole Royal Commission.

The failure of the very first case arising from the Royal Commission 
against CFMEU Victorian Secretary Martin Kingham has not discouraged the 
Federal Government. It seems prepared to gamble a lot of our money on 
putting the boots into the unions.

Abbott has already announced the establishment of the provisionally named 
Australian Building and Construction Commission to police unions and 
workers in the industry. It will have the power to compel witnesses to 
testify, bring prosecutions, enforce judgements as well as "police" inner-
city building sites.

In the meantime, the Commonwealth says it does not want powers to control 
executive pay levels, which have grown from 22 times average weekly 
earnings to 74 times that figure since 1992. An "honour" system will 
suffice for them.

The Government does not appear embarrassed, either, by Parliament's own 
$85,000 per annum superannuation scheme. Former National Party Senator Bill 
O'Chee was a notable beneficiary of this selective lack of Federal 
Government reforming vigour when he received a $1 million super payment at 
age 35!

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