Federal Politics

The Coalition's industrial relations policy agenda has 'failed'

Tony Abbott came to power promising to shake up industrial relations laws and return them to the "sensible centre" in a policy document that made 14 key pledges.

But in the two and a half years since the September 2013 election the federal government has failed to pass any significant industrial relations laws and at least half of those 14 promises have not been met, prompting one of Australia's foremost workplace law experts, professor Andrew Stewart, to declare the Coalition had largely "failed" to deliver its election agenda.

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Government's IR agenda a failure

The Coalition under Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull hasn't passed any significant industrial relations laws, in two and a half years, despite promises made.

At the same time, Australia's three biggest business groups - the Business Council, AiGroup and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry - have also expressed their disappointment with the Coalition's inability to pass key policies.

Since September 2013, just four pieces of industrial relations legislation have been passed into law.

The Fair Work 2014 bill amended the rules around unpaid parental leave, how interest on unpaid wages was dealt with, changed so-called "strike first, talk later" provisions and, most significantly, changed the rules on negotiations between employers and unions on so-called "greenfields" agreements for new building projects.

Two other bills dealt with Comcare arrangements, and the fourth law extended already-existing witness protection provisions for the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate.

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In contrast, the list of failures and delays is long.

The Coalition's 2013 policy promised to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission to police building sites and to establish a Registered Organisations Commission to monitor unions, but both bills have been blocked by the Senate, leaving the government with double dissolution triggers.

A promised "urgent" review of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal took place, but the report has never been released, and no action has been taken.

A pledge to introduce a "genuine paid parental leave scheme" - one of Mr Abbott's signature policies - was dumped, as were plans for an appeals body to be attached to the Fair Work Commission.

Proposed changes to union right of entry laws, individual flexibility agreements and other recommendations have stalled in the Senate.

The most significant promise that has been kept was a Productivity Commission review of the Fair Work Act, with the government expected to respond to the report as part of its 2016 election policy.

Other 2013 promises to "provide practical help to small business", ensure workplace bullying is dealt with, and "give underpaid workers a better deal" have not been backed up by legislation, either.

Professor Stewart said the long list of unmet promises "said something about their ability to deal with the crossbench".

"There are not a lot of achievements. Yes, they have failed, but the key test remains what will they propose from the Productivity Commission review – the action is yet to come," he said.

Workplace Minister Michaelia Cash, who replaced Eric Abetz when Malcolm Turnbull took over as prime minister, said that in relation to Australia's industrial relations framework, "clearly there is scope for improvement. However proposed changes, no matter how logical, are too often met with an irrational fear of change, unwarranted suspicion and scare campaigns".

She said the government, following the royal commission into unions, was committed to passing the ABCC and Registered Organisations bills and that any proposed changes arising from the PC review would be taken to the next election.

AiGroup chief executive Innes Willox said the lack of progress on workplace relations reform was "disappointing but the government is not to blame for this. The government had a modest IR agenda for this term which it communicated very clearly to the community before the last election. Despite this, many key IR reforms have been blocked."

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Kate Carnell agreed the failure to pass laws was disappointing, "especially to the extent that the Parliament has not permitted the government to fulfil its policy mandate, as set out in the Coalition's pre-election document".

And Business Council chief Jennifer Westacott said industrial relations reform and the re-establishment of the ABCC, should be government priorities,despite its failure to pass workplace laws.

Labor workplace spokesman Brendan O'Connor said Labor and the non-government Senators had "refused to support the government's ideological pursuit of attacking workers' rights and conditions, but the Liberals will not relent in their attempts as it's in their DNA".

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