The industrial relations landscape saw a significant change of pace in 2009 when the federal government dismantled WorkChoices and installed Fair Work in its place – and despite FWA coming under much scrutiny, the opposition has vowed to keep the legislation should it come to power, ending speculation that HR could yet again be charged with learning a new set of laws and regulations.
After weeks of attacking FWA over its bungled investigation into the Health Services Union and embattled Labor MP Craig Thomson, Senator George Brandis, opposition legal affairs spokesman, publically stated the Coalition would not seek to dismantle the workplace watchdog if elected. “We've made the commitment to maintain Fair Work Australia should we win government,” Brandis told Network Ten's Meet The Press.
The public declaration came as a surprise to many IR commentators, as opposition leader Tony Abbott has repeatedly signalled that if elected to lead government, he would revisit IR and lead a return to individual workplace agreements. “I think we ought to be able to trust the businesses and the workers of Australia to come to arrangements which suit themselves. Now, there's got to be minimums; there's got to be fairness; but there's also got to be freedom,'' Abbott recently commented on 3AW.
While Abbott has backed away from a return to WorkChoices – the controversial Howard-era policy that the Coalition has now distanced itself from – he has also said the current laws are problematic and must be solved.
According to IR expert and employment lawyer Peter Vitale, Abbott's political strategy to distance himself from WorkChoices while gradually moving back to confront the issue of IR at the urgings of the business community has been tactical. Additionally, he expects the Coalition's policies would attack "soft targets" first, such as unfair dismissal laws for small business, general protection laws and what can and cannot be introduced in an enterprise bargaining agreement.
While Vitale didn’t believe the Coalition would again support a long list of prohibited content as it did under WorkChoices, he said the biggest push would likely involve a re-introduction of individual workplace agreements. Vitale added that under Fair Work, the “only avenue” to individual agreement-making is an individual flexibility agreement under an award or an enterprise agreement.
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