Address to Australian Industry Group Personnel and IR Conference, Canberra

  • Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations

Thanks Innes [Willox, Chief Executive, Ai Group].

Looking at the program for the next two days I see you are covering many important issues that go to the heart of the health of our economy.

This conference is a great way to pool your considerable expertise and share your knowledge.

The Australian Industry Group plays an essential role in the national economic debate.

Governments of both persuasions always look to the Australian Industry Group for advice and counsel on how we can grow this country.

I’m looking forward to continuing that productive partnership.

In this election year, the Government welcomes a mature and informed debate about the nature of our modern workplaces.

What we have got right and what we can do better.

A debate however needs two sides.

And at the moment on workplaces one of them has failed to show up.

We obviously cannot have an informed workplace debate until the Liberals release their policy.

It has now been six weeks since the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, said it was ‘a matter of weeks, not months’ before the release of their workplace relations policy.

We are still waiting.

It is an important debate which deserves more than cheap shots from the sidelines.

It is vitally important to business, big and small.

It will be vitally important to workers and their families. 

The silence of the Liberals says a lot about their priorities.

It speaks volumes of their approach to political debate.

To the Government it suggests the Opposition has something to hide and will promote ongoing contestability and conflict rather than mature leadership.

That they intend to go back to 2005 when what they called Work Choices was foisted on the public without any discussion, without choice and without reference to electors at the 2004 election.

But whatever their policy finally is let me tell you this—the Government will debate it on the merits and on the facts.

In that spirit I want to set the tone for the important workplace debate we need to have—that it proceeds in an informed, mature way.

So let me begin by taking the opportunity to dispel a few myths about the Government’s workplace laws.

This Government removed the unbalanced Work Choices system and we are proud to claim this as one of our finest achievements.

We replaced Work Choices with a fairer and more balanced system. 

The evidence on Australia’s economic performance is compelling:

  • there are more Australians in work than ever before
  • our jobs growth is at least twice as fast as any of the major advanced economies.

And nearly 900,000 new jobs created since the global financial crisis.

Recent labour force figures released by the ABS confirm that Australia’s unemployment rate remains one of the lowest seen in the industrialised world.

Australia’s unemployment rate at 5.6 per cent in March—is still less than half the rate in Europe at 12.0 per cent, and below the OECD average of 8.0 per cent.

The sustained high dollar, subdued global conditions and ongoing uncertainty in Europe continues to weigh on hiring decisions in some sectors, but our labour market remains very strong compared to other developed countries.

Australia has one of the strongest set of economic fundamentals in the world, with solid growth, low unemployment, contained inflation, low debt, and low interest rates.

The Government is committed to ensuring all Australians have an opportunity to find a job.

We support a balanced workplace relations system where collective agreement making, negotiating in good faith and the linking of agreement-making to productivity play a vital role.

The Fair Work Act helps us achieve these aims.

The independent Fair Work Act Review Panel found that the Act is operating as intended and in accordance with the objects of the Act.

One of those objectives is promoting productivity.

The panel confirmed that the Act does not impact negatively on productivity.

Productivity is not about cutting wages or entitlements.

This Government does not support a workplace relations system that allows important protections be traded away, or some employers to cost-shift.

The Fair Work Act Review gave all stakeholders—employers, employees, employer organisations and unions—the opportunity to tell us whether the legislation is working and what can we change to ensure the legislation meets its objectives.

Since I last spoke at this conference in October last year, the Government has passed a number of amendments in response to the Review including changes to the unfair dismissal system, the structure and operation of the Fair Work Commission and a range of technical and clarifying amendments.

The Government has been upfront and clear about our plans for productive and cooperative Australian workplaces.

Unlike the Liberals who are deliberatively avoiding a real debate on workplace relations policy and are fixated with telling unions on how they should run their organisations.

As many of you here today will be aware, the Government passed changes last year with respect to registered organisations which were supported by the Australian Industry Group.

The stronger financial transparency and accountability standards the Government implemented are the toughest laws governing employee and employer organisations that Australia has ever had.

The Government also implemented stronger compliance measures like tripling of penalties and stronger investigative powers for the regulator.

We can discuss the nuances of particular subsections of workplace regulation until the cows come home—but it will never ever be as important as ensuring everyone at work is safe at work.

This is a fundamental workplace right and a fundamental obligation on business and government and all workers—to make sure we get this right.

This is why harmonisation is important.

In the last fortnight workplace safety has been particularly in focus.

On Sunday 28 April, Minister Shorten had the honour of opening the National Workers Memorial here in Canberra.

I believe we have created a special place for our nation in erecting this monument, and I would like to thank the Australian Industry Group and other business organisations for showing their support.

To respond to Australia’s increasing need to boost productivity and remain competitive in the Asian Century, the Government is creating the Centre for Workplace Leadership.

The centre is a flagship initiative of the Government and will play an important role in supporting our aim to increase productivity in the workplace and the quality of jobs by improving leadership capability.

Many of you will know that the Australian Industry Group published a paper last year on high performance organisations.

Some of the characteristics of high performance organisations are that they promote participatory decision making, use teamwork and have quality management.

The Centre for Workplace Leadership will encourage the development of these organisations by assisting managers and leaders at all levels to create workplaces where people give their best through their everyday relationships at work.

I encourage the Australian Industry Group and its members to work with the centre to achieve this.

The Government’s vision is to see high performing workplaces across Australia, led by highly capable leaders and managers. If we can improve leadership capability, productivity will improve through individual actions in the workplace.

The centre will be a partnership of industry and government, with corporate contributions to the centre supporting the ongoing development of leadership in Australia.

It will inform and educate managers and leaders at all levels of organisations on the importance and practice of good leadership, workplace culture and employee engagement.

The centre will focus on small and medium enterprises, and help firms to improve their performance ‘on the ground’.

The selection process for a centre provider is almost complete and I anticipate that it will be up and running this financial year.

I said at the outset today that we need an informed policy debate on the nature of our modern workplaces.

The Government wants to have that debate.

The Australian people deserve as much.

Business deserves as much.

But we cannot have that debate until the Liberals release the workplace policy that they intend to take to the people at the forthcoming election.

I predict the Liberals will seek to avoid policy scrutiny.

They will shy away from having that mature debate that Australians deserve.

And they deserve more than vague motherhood statements.

They deserve more than vague promises of forthcoming detail.

By contrast the Government is not afraid of scrutiny.

Before we implemented our Fair Work legislation we released detailed policy proposals in April 2007—seven months before the November election. We released further details in August—three months before the election.

The amended Fair Work Act has been the subject of unprecedented consultation—carefully considered draft legislation, direct consultation with various stakeholders, due diligence through committee review, miles of newsprint and vigorous public debate.

Because of that process, the Government thinks we have got the balance just about right. That is certainly what the independent Fair Work Act Review concluded.

The bigger questions the Liberals must answer are these: how will their policies make our modern workplaces more cooperative places, where employers and employees bargain with mutual respect and in good faith?

How will their policies help to foster dialogue and consultation instead of provoking confrontation and disputation?

How will they maintain a balanced workplace system that gives both employers and employees certainty?

Until these questions are answered we can’t have that debate.

Enjoy the rest of the conference. [Ends]

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