Unfinished IR business cannot be ignored

Thursday 15 April 2021

Opportunities for industrial relations reform are rare in Australia. Through COVID-19, we had the chance to deliver once-in-a-generation change to accelerate Australia’s economic recovery. Regrettably, that goal was missed, with government and industry now nursing battle scars from what was largely a bruising defeat in the Parliament.

Despite the most recent setback, we need to ensure IR reform remains a part of the national political discussion. With an election looming in the not too distant future, we need leadership from both sides of politics on addressing the unfinished business in industrial relations.

Australian IR reform has a chequered history. Our current system remains an enormous, untamed beast with limited achievements on both sides of politics.

We’ve tinkered around the edges over the years, but any substantial changes have quickly become political calls to arms, and the good of the nation has been cast aside for political gain.

All this has resulted in our IR system remaining complex and confusing; an archaic system that limits our growth and investment at a time of enormous economic challenges.

COVID-19 was a catalyst to tackle IR – and, to the government’s credit, the process of bringing together key industry groups and unions to navigate a pathway to reform had great potential.

Casuals, award simplification, compliance, enterprise and greenfield agreements were all on the agenda.

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) was an intimate player in those discussions, and they began in good faith. Even those sceptical of the government’s intentions approached the table with an open mind.

Too often special interest groups have kiboshed sensible change that would lead to economic growth.

But as months of negotiations went by with little consensus, discussions turned sour and many original reform items were dumped in an effort to secure shallow victories.

The bill that ultimately passed in Parliament last month was a far cry from its original form, with certainty around casual employment the only item that was legislated.

From a retail perspective, this was still a significant win. Casuals are a large and important part of the retail workforce and they now have a clear pathway to permanent roles, while businesses are protected from having to pay potentially billions of dollars in “double-dipping” back-pay claims.

As a part of the government’s working group on casual employment, the ARA was pleased to see this item become law.

Despite this specific achievement, the latest IR reform push will overall go down as a major disappointment.

Have we wasted the crisis? Only time will tell. After more than nine months of intense effort during a pandemic, it’s important the progress made through the government’s working group process doesn’t go to waste. Looking at this through a more positive lens, we still have a strong platform to revisit these changes and ensure we deliver an IR system that works for everyone.

Where to from here? One item that was abandoned through the government’s reform process was award flexibility. The current arrangements in the retail award are too rigid and prevent part-time workers from taking on additional shifts at their usual rate of pay.

At a time when more of us are juggling work and childcare commitments, the need for flexible work arrangements is all the more important. Why would we deter parents who are working part-time from taking on extra work and getting extra income?

The ARA and other employer groups have applied to the Fair Work Commission for flexible part-time provisions, along with the ACTU and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) – so there is some consensus here. We’re all on the same page and agree it needs to be fixed.

Australia’s post-pandemic recovery is delicately placed. While the current economic indicators paint a bright picture, with retail sales strong and unemployment trending down, the real analysis will come in the months ahead.

The JobKeeper scheme, which was so critical to keeping businesses afloat through the pandemic, is now gone and we’re yet to feel the full effects of that decision. The threat of the virus is still alive, as we’ve seen with Queensland lockdowns recently, and some businesses – such as travel retailers and operators in CBD locations, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney – are continuing to suffer from international border closures and people working from home.

IR reform would have been a game changer for these businesses and Australia’s economic recovery. Instead, we are stuck with a system that works against the interests of small businesses and their workers. It’s a system few understand, riddled with inconsistencies.

IR reform has been a political football for decades. Too often special interest groups have kiboshed sensible change that would lead to economic growth. With our economic recovery in everyone’s best interests, it’s a reform process worth continuing, and we urge the government to bring all interest groups back to the table to discuss the next steps.

We have unfinished business with industrial relations, and it cannot be ignored.

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