Leaked comments made in a speech by former Prime Minister John Howard have reignited the Fair Work vs. Work Choices row. Labor MPs are insisting that a coalition government led by Tony Abbott would almost certainly involve a return to elements of the defunct Work Choices industrial relations laws.
While Tony Abbott has this morning publicly rebuked the claims, saying that Work Choices is “dead, buried and cremated”, at least one liberal MP has publicly backed a return to elements of the controversial system.
The IR argument was reignited after the Financial Review quoted comments made in a speech by John Howard to a Westpac forum earlier this month in which he called for changes to unfair dismissal laws and a return to individual contracts. Howard reportedly backed a return to the laws before Work Choices removed the “no disadvantage test”, and added that it’s time to properly address the issue of IR reform. He also argued for changes to unfair dismissal laws, and claimed small businesses struggle to dismiss workers without having to make huge payouts. “There is no reason why this country should not go back to the workplace system we had between 1996 and 2005, where you had individual contracts,” Howard is quoted.
The coalition has so far refused to reveal its official IR policy until closer to the federal election, but Abbott has flagged changes which would increase flexibility and crack down on so-called union militancy. In this morning’s statement, Abbott was also emphatic that the coalition would not go back to past IR policies. “The Labor Government under the Fair Work Act has put in place individual flexibility agreements. I think these agreements need to be made more workable, but there's no going back to the past. We want the Fair Work Act to work better,” he said at a press conference in Mackay. Liberal backbencher Steve Ciobo was more militant in his calls for change, and told Sky News that it was ridiculous that individual contracts between employers and employees were illegal.
Workplace Relations Minster Bill Shorten has called on the coalition to release its policy and publicly say what changes it would make to the landscape of IR laws.