Next month it will be thirteen years since the Howard Government introduced WorkChoices. It was then the most radical change in employment laws in Australia for close on a century. It amounted to a full throttle deregulation of the labour market. The union movement hated it and ultimately WorkChoices played a major role in the defeat of the Howard Government in the November 2007 federal election.
When it was introduced the WorkChoices legislation effectively gutted the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The Rudd/Gillard governments restored the Commission under a new name: Fair Work Australia (later renamed as the Fair Work Commission). However the power of the Commission to impose decisions on employers, unions and employees was much reduced.
Will that power return if a Labor Government is elected in May 2019? Although the Opposition is being deliberately vague on detail (frustratingly so) you would have to think the Commission wants more power than it has at the moment. The current situation where the Commission can only arbitrate disputes if everyone agrees to cop the decision is NOT something the Commission enjoys.
Will a revved up power base for the Fair Work Commission be a good thing for Australia? Australia is exposed to all the movements and changes in the global economy. Empowering the Fair Work Commission to decide wage outcomes seems incompatible with Australia’s participation in the global economy. To some extent the Commission does a bit of that now with its power to determine the National Wage Case. We saw what that can mean with the July 2018 decision of the Fair Work Commission to move the minimum wage up by 3.5% in part on the rather dubious ground that regular minimum wage increases have no effect on employment. This writer is still struggling with that notion.
The election will soon be upon us. Most of the campaign will be about refugees and taxes. It will be interesting to see if the issue of industrial relations gets much of a mention. Hopefully it will because I think the changes that Labor will bring will be of huge importance to us as a country.