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I’ve just left a briefing session at Victorian Trades Hall about the upcoming Federal election, and I’m far more alarmed about the future workers face under an Abbott-led government than I was an hour and a half ago. I knew that the Liberal party in general, and Mr Abbott in particular, are not and never have been friends of the worker.

I was a job rep during the WorkChoices era, and I remember protesting against the IR legislative changes that threatened working conditions of not just my profession but those in every industry. But though 2005/2006 fees like last week for me, there are a lot of people working in Australia now who weren’t affected, involved or otherwise aware of what it entailed, so here’s a brief (I promise!) overview.

WorkChoices was promoted as simplifying an over-regulated collection of IR legislation – instead of a number of Awards, and processes for renegotiating Awards once they expired, WorkChoices detailed a set of universally applicable minimum conditions, covering maximum ordinary hours, minimum wage, wage structure, and some leave provisions (minimum hours of annual, parental, and personal or carers’ leave) – everything else was up for negotiation.

The key pillars of WorkChoices were:

  • cutting penalty rates and other Award entitlements
  • the introduction of individual contracts instead of Awards
  • weakening Unfair Dismissal laws
  • reduction in the ability of unions to represent members
  • removing the “no general disadvantage” rule

While the signing of an individual workplace agreement was voluntary, unfair dismissal laws no longer applied to companies with fewer than 100 employees, and could be offered as a condition of employment to new hires.
The key phrase used by the Liberal party was “flexibility” – WorkChoices would allow employees greater flexibility of hours, and allow them more freedom to trade previously-protected conditions. That’s a word Victorian nurses and midwives heard a lot of during our 2011/2012 campaign – primarily about the idea of bringing in short and split shifts, so that we could have the ‘flexibility’ of working only during the busiest parts of the day (four hours from 7AM, for example, and then back in the evening, with an allegedly family friendly gap in the middle of the day), and the ‘flexibility’ to work on different wards or even different campuses of the same network, potentially on the same day.

When WorkChoices was implemented,

Hundreds of thousands of workers were pushed onto AWA individual contracts and:
• 70% lost shift loadings
• 68% lost annual leave loadings
• 65% lost penalty rates
• 49% lost overtime loadings and
• 25% no longer had public holidays [source]

Mr Abbott’s said that WorkChoices is “dead, buried, cremated” and his new policy is more neutral than big business would prefer, but on close examination his recently unveiled IR policy looks awfully familiar.

I’ll briefly expand on what this means for a couple of points. First, Individual Flexibility Agreements (IFA’s) will be a mandatory requirement of any new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, allowing an Agreement-covered employee to opt for individual conditions – a move they can reverse but only 13 weeks after giving written notice.

Under current Fair Work legislation, employers have to sit at the negotiating table in good faith – under proposed changes workers may have to sue uncooperative employers to even start the process.

Not that this will necessarily help. Mr Abbott’s said Greenfields Agreements (which are the business’s version) can be taken to Fair Work for approval if there’s no agreement after three months of negotiations – in essence allowing the employer to stall for thirteen weeks, then unilaterally negotiate conditions. For Victoria’s nurses and midwives that would have meant the death of ratios, the introduction of assistants, and the return (after over fifty years) of split shifts, with nothing we or our union could do about it.

And Mr Abbott’s said he’ll reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission – ostensibly designed to provide oversight, last time around the ABCC served to reduce the effectiveness of the CFMEU, who are predominantly portrayed as a latter-day BLF filled with thugs and stand over men; the ABCC’s sole accomplishment was a sharp jump in the number of deaths in mining and on construction sites, which is unsurprising when you have one side seeing occupational health and safety as a tactic to allow union officials access, and the other side viewing OHS as a way of keeping workers safe. As we’ve recently seen in Melbourne, when OHS mechanisms are compromised (assessing the structural soundness fo a wall before adding a wind-catching load to it, for example) people can die.

But the biggest giveaway is that Mr Abbott intends to institute a Productivity Commission – tasked solely with questions of productivity, including during periods of negotiation, and not taking into account fairness, equity or the livability of conditions, the commission will make recommendations; unless Mr Abbott doesn’t intend to implement at least some of those recommendations (in which case the cost of the Commission is an enormous boondoggle), that means anything is potentially open to change regardless of pre-election promises. And Mr Abbott’s already said that his word isn’t necessarily his bond.

For a detailed, referenced guide to the Liberal party’s IR policy, check out Robert Corr’s concise but meticulous examination.

And though Mr Abbott’s trying to downplay the impact of his legislation, this collection of quotes from his colleagues (courtesy of This Working Life) rather gives the game away:

•    According to Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, “Australia desperately needs industrial relations reform…collective bargaining for small and medium-size employers is just not reasonable”.
•    Liberal MP Josh Fydenberg says, “Now is the opportunity for the Coalition to go on the front foot and put forward proposals that make unfair dismissal laws less of a burden on small business”.
•    Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi is on the record as describing unfair dismissal laws as “useless”.
•    Former Prime Minister John Howard offered the following advice to Tony Abbott: “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’s advice was then welcomed by Liberal MP Steven Ciobo.
•    Liberal frontbencher Eric Abetz MP wants to make it more difficult for workers to join unions by imposing new restrictions on the ability of unions to visit workplaces.
•    Liberal MP John Alexander has said he wants guaranteed penalty rates to be abolished.

In the words of Independent Australia writer Luke Williams

Abbott knows his IR policy is a litmus test for many swinging, somewhat egalitarian suburban voters on what kind of society the Coalition thinks we should live in — therefore radical change is likely; sneaky, incremental reform is a definite; and, despite the oft-repeated claims of the business lobby, arguably the pendulum has already swung.

Is he right? The pendulum may be swinging, but the election outcome’s still in the balance – current projections are an even split, with Independents holding the balance of power. There are 38 pivotal seats, three (Corangamite, Deakin and McEwen) in Victoria, where the outcome is down to a couple of thousand votes.

What can we do to protect workers’ rights? The biggest tool any of us has to effect change is discussion – talking with friends, family and colleagues about what an Abbott-led government would mean for them, their families, their colleagues and their futures. Face to face is best, but using social media platforms like Facebook to spread information is also effective.

And for those who want to do more, ACTU-affiliated unions are campaigning hard – you can visit their website, or contact your own union to ask about door knocking, manning an information stall, making calls to members, or otherwise getting out the word. And if you’re not currently a member of union? There has never been a better time to join – there really is nobody else who’s loooking out for the best interests of you and your industry or profession.

I know that this is a difficult election decision for many – internal friction has done the ALP no favours, and Mr Rudd’s asylum seeker policy has disenchanted many on the Left, and the Liberal’s continuous attacks on the strength of our economy, while inaccurate, have been convincing, if only by sheer repetition. We have a potentially unique case of two leaders who’re unpopular with much of the electorate in general, and with many of those traditionally aligned with their party. I know a number of people who are genuinely undecided, and several who intend not to cast a valid vote. To the latter I say this: in an election this close, a wasted vote is a vote for the Liberal party, and that means it’s a vote for IR inequity.

For undecided voters it’s a decision about what’s best for you, for your family, for your community and for your country, in whatever order of importance you have. Know that nowhere in the world has disadvantaging workers stimulated an economy – the less people have to spend, the less they spend, so business savings offsets of reduced employee wages and conditions are countered by the fact that those employed by businesses around you have less money for your goods and services. Know that the public services cut by conservative governments are those you will need (transport, hospitals, emergency services, maintenance, TAFEs), and they’re far more expensive to reinstate than to maintain. Know that conservative governments have and continue to privatise public assets, which gives coffers a short-lived boost in exchange for less oversight, no ongoing revenue, often poorer service, and almost always for a higher cost. And think about the kind of future you want our children to have – the education and training opportunities available to them, the safety supports if they develop mental and/or physical illnesses, their options if their employment’s unfair, and the safety of their workplaces.

When it comes down to it, the difference between my position and Mr Abbott’s on industrial relations is this – I start from a premise that many employers are fair, and committed to balancing their profit against the best interests of their employees, but we have to have inbuilt protections to safeguard against those who will jeopardise the wellbeing (financial, psychological, physical) of workers for their own gain; Mr Abbott believes that “Bad bosses, like bad fathers and husbands, should be tolerated because they do more good than harm.” Some bad fathers rape, abuse and kill their children – and we have laws in those cases to help protect the vulnerable and punish the guilty.