Confirming what many observers have long-since being thinking, Fair Work Australia (FWA) President Justice Iain Ross admitted the tribunal’s reputation has been damaged in the fallout from the HSU scandal.
In a statement to the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations senate estimates committee, Justice Ross agreed the tribunal’s reputation has been damaged through “sustained criticism” over delays in the HSU investigations. He accepted that criticisms were warranted and conceded there were‘significant lessons’ to be learnt and improvements to be made in relation to the conduct of such inquiries.
Justice Ross also stressed that FWA is made up of two parts – the adjudicative arm and administrative arm, which carries out the HSU investigations. The adjudicative arm has nothing to with the investigations – a point often lost in the public commentary around them, Justice Ross said. “Despite the fact that these investigations have nothing to do with the tribunal, it is clear that the criticism made about the process has significantly damaged the tribunal’s reputation,” he added.
As pre-selection for local seats gets underway this week, many HR professionals have wondered about the longevity of FWA under a possible Coalition 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 earlier this year.
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 reviewed, 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.
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