Statement by Australia’s Private Sector on Industrial Relations

1. Australian business and industry are extremely concerned about attempts by some trade unions to overturn some of the more constructive reforms of labour relations legislation in recent years.

2. In recent years the framework for labour relations in Australia at the federal level has evolved significantly. Change has been in large measure a matter of bipartisan practice, and has arisen out of the perceived need to reform labour relations in order to assist Australian industry to become competitive and productive, in order to maintain the Australian standard of living.

3. In October 1991 the Australian Industrial Relations Commission introduced a focus on enterprise bargaining, as opposed for example to industry bargaining, with the agreement of the then ALP federal government, trade unions, and employer and business associations.

4. This emphasis on enterprise bargaining was given substantial legislative force by the enactment of the Industrial Relations Act 1993 by the then ALP federal government.

5. The Workplace Relations Act 1996 introduced by the new Coalition Government both continued this emphasis on enterprise bargaining as opposed to industry bargaining, as well as introducing for the first time in the federal labour relations system a statutory procedure for the registration of individual agreements between an employer and employee, known as Australian Workplace Agreements.

6. The provision of individual as well as collective agreements was an important improvement to the previous system which was based on collectivism only.

Individual common law contracts have existed and proved effective for employees covered by awards for some time in many sectors of the economy, including banking, engineering, professional scientists, and other areas. However, prior to the Workplace Relations Act, the formal labour relations system effectively pretended that these individual approaches did not exist or should not exist. The system was, in other words, completely out of step with what was actually happening in the economy.

7. The emphasis on enterprise rather than industry level bargaining was based on a recognition by all political parties, and by both the private sector and trade union movement, that a central emphasis had to be placed on the need to reform workplaces to improve productivity, efficiency and international competitiveness. The employment relationship takes place in the workplace, not at other levels, and without productivity improvement in workplaces the Australian standard of living could not be maintained or improved. Wage increases which are not based on productivity are not sustainable. The experiences of the past showed that wage breakouts resulting from industry level union campaigns severely damaged the interests of employers and employees.

8. The attached associations call on all political parties to continue the bipartisan process of emphasising enterprise rather than industry level bargaining. Any backward step on this issue could have very serious adverse consequences for the Australian economy and the Australian standard of living. Wage breakouts leading to inflation and unemployment are not the answer for Australia as a nation.

9. They call on all political parties to maintain the system of Australian Workplace Agreements, and not to prevent the real potential of these agreements from being undermined by restrictions and conditions which discourage their use.

10. We need a forward-looking approach to labour relations which enables Australian business and industry to compete in international markets and improve productivity and efficiency.