Australian Economy

An antiquated workplace system awaits another visionary

Yet EBAs were re-bureaucratised and effectively rolled back by Mr Keating’s own party under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in 2010, with the broad fairness test of no-disadvantage replaced by a better-off-overall-test – a painful, legalistic line-by-line comparison that argues about hypothetical workers on hypothetical shifts. Employers have largely stopped trying to negotiate them – even the award system looks more attractive. Yet workers on EBAs earn more than those who are not. Mr Keating himself despaired here last year that EBAs in their present form are not going to drive pay growth. And it’s the bigger opportunities that are lost. The award system, the FWC and the whole industrial relations club are hangovers from a 19th century age of capital versus labour, a framework to run an inevitable and eternal conflict that in reality is long dead. It was former ACTU vice president and Fair Work commissioner Anna Booth who rumbled the system as “essentially an attempt to institutionalise conflict, not to forge productive workplaces”.

Successful workplaces are now high-performance, high-wage and globally competitive. That’s the opposite of what the award system represents. Unions rant against a changing world by denouncing “insecure work” in the gig economy, though mainly because the flexibility these workers seek does not fit with their organising model. Labor’s only other workplace ideas are that expensive childcare subsidies will somehow trickle down into higher productivity. Labor governments are not going to change their spots because they are dominated by their union history and factions that maintain institutional power through the party even as the grassroots shrink. And ironically it is the power of capital that now sustains union influence, as workplace settlements funnel default super savings into industry super funds.

The rigid protections designed for sole male breadwinners in smokestack industries no longer work for Australia, or for workers. That change began in Hawke and Keating’s time, before the digital age made it more acute. The only thing the industrial relations system offers now is stagnation and false security. You can’t imagine Paul Keating settling for that. It awaits another visionary government to change it.

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