Gillard’s victory in today’s leadership spill may have settled one leadership question, but as the calls for an early election grow louder amid all-time polling lows for the Labor government, HR is left to deliberate would happen to industrial relations under an Abbott-led collation government?
Tony Abbott has signalled that if elected to the top job he would revisit IR and lead a return to individual workplace agreements. For this reason he has won the support of many employer groups and industrial relations experts alike. “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 commented to 3AW.
While Abbott has repeatedly 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, and in that mission he has the public backing of the Australian Mines and Metals Association and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, both of which have called for a return to individual agreements.
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.
As the review of the Fair Work Act continues, liberal Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu last week called on the panel to “make it easier to sack underperforming workers”. This was backed by his party and perhaps indicates what the IR direction would be under a federal coalition government.
Speculation aside, an expert in HR management, employment and industrial relations, Dr Paul Gollan from Macquarie University, said that HR must ensure they are across the fundamental principles of IR. “In some ways that [lack of IR knowledge] has contributed to the disputes we are seeing today,” he said, adding that if HR were better equipped to handle industrial disputes, many workplace issues could be settled or addressed before getting into more expensive legal procedures.
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