UK United Kingdom

Abbott announces soft touch workplace policy

Unions' power would be curbed under an Abbott government, with more restrictions put on their right of entry to workplaces and a time limit imposed for concluding “greenfield agreements” for new projects…

Opposition leader Tony Abbott at the launch of his politically cautious industrial relations policy today in Sydney. AAP/Paul Miller

Unions' power would be curbed under an Abbott government, with more restrictions put on their right of entry to workplaces and a time limit imposed for concluding “greenfield agreements” for new projects.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has released a politically highly cautious industrial relations policy that promises to “retain and improve the Fair Work Act”.

“The only people with anything to worry about from this policy are dodgy union officials and their supporters,” Abbott said.

While the policy does not seek to alter sensitive provisions such as the unfair dismissal law and would not bring back statutory individual contracts, it would limit the scope of union activities.

The Coalition would remove the ability to restrict the use of the present individual flexibility arrangements in enterprise agreements.

“Many unions do not like individual workers and their employers agreeing on employment conditions that are different from anyone else,” the policy says. “To appease union interests Labor ensured that the Fair Work laws allow enterprise agreements to restrict the use of IFAs.”

“The ability for an IFA to be restricted by the terms of an enterprise agreement will be abolished.”

The policy says that the Fair Work laws effectively give unions power of veto over new projects by requiring an employer to always negotiate a greenfield agreement with a union - and some unions have exploited this with delays and setbacks and others have used it to demand exorbitant conditions.

A Coalition government would require negotiations for new project agreements to be finished within three months. If this time limit was not met, the Fair Work Commission could make and approve the agreement.

An Abbott government would “ensure union right of entry provisions are sensible and fair,” the policy says, adding that it would take them back to the model Julia Gillard promised as spokeswoman in 2007.

“While it is important to allow workers access to industrial representation, the current rules have been abused and exploited by some unions. This is unfair to workers and businesses that simply want to get on with their jobs, rather than dealing with unreasonable attempts by unions to access their workplace.”

Abbott anticipated that the unions would “scream the house down” but emphasised his moderate credentials on industrial relations. He said he had been a successful minister for workplace relations in the previous government and had listened carefully to all sides of industrial discussions.

“Famously I was one of the few ministers around the cabinet table who had some significant reservations about the former government’s 2005 workplace relations changes,” Abbott said.

“There won’t be another WorkChoices - it is dead, buried and cremated. The past is the past and we will not go back to it,”

He had been a union member himself, and when he was a journalist in the late 1980s had actually moved a movement to go on strike on one occasion.

“So I understand unions. I respect well run unions. I understand and respect unionists, but I also understand and respect the 87% of [private sector] workers in this country who choose not to be members of unions.

“We need a workplace relations system for everyone and that’s what the Coalition intends to deliver,” he said.

According to 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, 18% of all workers were union members in their main jobs in 2011, with 13% of private sector workers belonging to a union. The proportion of public sector workers belonging to a union in 2011 was 43%.

A Coalition government would have the Productivity Commission inquire into the industrial relations system. Recommended changes which were supported by the Coalition would be taken to the following election.

The policy goes out of its way to stress that a first-term Coalition government would not introduce changes that had not been foreshadowed.

Abbott said the Coalition would reemphasise the importance of productivity in enterprise bargaining. It would ensure that in order to have protected industrial action, the parties would have to have been “talking first and striking later.”

He said the heart of the policy was ensuring that the “rule of law operates in our workplaces and that unions and industrial organisations are run honestly and in the interests of their members.”

The Coalition would reestablish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which will please business. The rule of law mattered particularly in vital industries such as construction, “I think all Australians were appalled by the scenes in Melbourne a couple of months ago, there were violent protests, including attacks on police and police horses.”

And a registered organisations commission would be established to ensure high standards in governance of unions and other industrial organisations. “There has been example after example of rorts, rackets and even corruption inside some important unions,” Abbott said.

The Coalition is aiming at the creation of one million new jobs and two million within 10 years.

The Business Council of Australia said the proposed changes went some of the way to address issues in the current Fair Work act, they did not address all of them. The proposed Productivity Commission Inquiry would provide opportunity to look at the others and look at recommendations.

The Greens attacked the policy and called on Labor to guarantee it will join with the Greens in blocking proposals if they came before parliament.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said the policy should send “a shiver up the spine” of workers. It would make it easier for workers to be signed up to individual workplace contracts.

Join the conversation

26 Comments sorted by

  1. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    Some of the proposed changes could be far-reaching, despite the deliberate attempt to say that the Fair Work Act would be retained.

    (1) 'The ability for an IFA (individual flexibility arrangements ) to be restricted by the terms of an enterprise agreement will be abolished.'

    This makes it easier for the return of individual workplace agreements, as per Work Choices.

    (2) 'A Coalition government would require negotiations for new project agreements to be finished within three months…

    Read more
    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Lee Emmett

      The transparency of EBA's are attractive to many employees/voters. All wages and conditions are laid out and accessible within them.

      Tony would do well to understand this fact.

    2. wilma western

      logged in via email

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      So it seems as if Tony is advocating even more "regulation" re workplace relations - something many employers don't want. Also it is fair to ask what are the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission Investigation .

      Michelle certainly seems to be doing her best for Mr Abbott on these policy announcements .

  2. margaret m

    old lady

    Productivity = lower wages =individual contracts flexibility means importing cheaper labour if you want a job you will have to accept what they are offering. Each time there is a request for the lowest paid workers business resist it with cries of poverty and hardship for their profits.
    Big business can squeeze the maximum profit for their product but workers are vilified if they want to get the bet profit for their own product their labour.
    If you really think you will get a better deal without…

    Read more
    1. Peter Carabot

      Self Employed

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret, how wrong can you be! Those are assumption bred by a socialist view of the world. Low productivity= few jobs=High unemployment= less taxes= Greece!
      I can see from your comment that you have never run a business and dont have a clue on what the situation is out there. You want to maintain your ideas and have the knowledge as well? Good open up a small business and start employing people. You will soon change your mind.

    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Carabot

      Nah, Adam Smith nailed it in Margaret's favour.
      High wages induce labour saving devices which increase productivity.
      Low wages mean higher profits which mean higher interest can be paid on borrowed money and greater income for the "Idle Rich", who live off their investments, at the expense of workers who live from the sweat of their brows.
      Taken to the extreme, this results in slave societies such as ancient Greece and Rome founded on exploitative, unsustainable debt ans slave wages.
      As wages…

      Read more
    3. Ben Picton

      Project Manager

      In reply to margaret m

      Productivity only equals lower wages relative to quantity of finished outputs. Discrete wages need not be lowered at all.

      ie. I get paid $50 an hour to make 2 shirts but all of a sudden I create a better way of making the shirts that means I can make 4 shirts per hour. Productivity has doubled, my wage per unit has halved, but I'm not actually any worse off because I'm still getting my $50 per hour.

      Now the business makes more profit because unit costs are lower so they can invest to expand operations which means more jobs and so on and so forth.

      To me flexibility means the ability to vary working hours, or trade off some work entitlements for others. Not such a bad thing as long as the no disadvantage test holds up.

    4. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to Peter Carabot

      No Peter the assumptions is not bred by socialist views it is bred by experience via my fathers generation I was the lucky one who benefitted from all that his generation fought for but remember the examples when staff workers were considered just a number and expendable. .. True I have never run a business but feel the real battlers are also the local shop the family farm is far more at risk via an Abbott led government if we are unfortunate enough to have them voted in. I believe that good…

      Read more
    5. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to James Hill

      I don't think the rich are idle but there seems to be a them and us I think very much promoted by Mr Abbott and his team to produce more division and a minimising of scrutiny of what he is actually offering and the fact that we have only staged theatrics, rhetoric and very little debate by any one. The media is content to sit and let them both talk and appears that the presenter have been handed the questions to ask by the Liberal Country Party Marketeers. I have no issue with criticism but I have a real problem if I think there is dishonesty and manipulation of information not matter what side or political shade.

    6. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to Ben Picton

      This is the problem as long as the no disadvantage test holds up. You are a self starter and have the talent to innovate etc but the majority of workers are neither academic or motivated for anything but to work to feed their families etc and have a life and that is acceptable unless you want us to go down the track of the Japanese live to work and if you are lucky get a bit of life in.
      After the Howard government got control of both upper and Lower houses the flooding of the IPA mantra even…

      Read more
    7. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to James Hill

      James, you are actually drawing on Marx, and his version of the labour theory of value, which was wrong. Smith would be turning in his grave if he could read you buggering him so.

    8. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret, your father's generation were an unproductive, middling, primitive backwater. Having spent a generation fixing up their mess, Australians are now the most prosperous people on earth, with the highest standard of living. As my grandfather says, "I saw the good old days, and you can shove them down your backyard dunny".

    9. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret, Smith was merely pointing out the difference between people who have to labour to make a living and those who do not have to labour to acquire the money they live on, and who so are rich without working, ie "idle".
      In history of course those who do not have to work for a living have done a lot of work, they just have not done it to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads.
      Smith argued that wealth was created by a combination of "capital" in the form of raw materials and…

      Read more
    10. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to David Thompson

      David, for a reply could you please read my reply to Maragret above.
      I got my view from reading Smith's Inquiry into The Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations.Like most people, I haven't read Das Kapital except in snippetts, but if you can support your claims from information from both authors good luck.
      I think Marx was plagiarist of Smith and wrote for the illiterate factory fodder of industrial Europe, knowing that his theft would be very hard for them to detect.

    11. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to James Hill

      Lest there be quibbles, substitute "unread" for illiterate, but Marx spun his message for his audience postulating a "scientific" economy, with all the borrowed kudos of the times that might donate to his utopia, but which has foundered on what Smith emphasised as self -interest prevailing over any group instinct for co-operation.
      People are a little untrusting of others, didn't saint Paul recognise this by saying that if people wanted to eat, let them work as that early Christian charity was overtaxed by the idle?

  3. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    The context of this is purely to appease internal LNP pro WorkChoice regressive MPs, put under pressure by vested interests who only view productivity gain and economic growth through the prism of screwing workers instead of lifting the game on best practice people management, financial/project/risk management, innovation and creativity. The aim is to follow the LNP traditional obsession which is to diminish the union movement, and thereby cut into the ALP's election campaign donations.


    Read more
  4. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    I've already commented about this issue in another site in this group of articles. If you believe that Abbott has the interests of the workers at heart and maintains that he can achieve that by ridding us of the power of unionism, then you are as naive as many who have foregone their union membership only to find themselves powerless when faced by issues threatening their employment and conditions. Abbott cares more for the environment that he does for the worker, and we know what he thinks about the environment.

    1. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Unfortunately the majority of unions are hamstrung by Mr Howards restrictions and it is a pity that the Hung Parliament did not reverse it. I think Mr Abbott is playing a game to win but unfortunately he has the what I call the killer instinct win at any cost and he certainly will be infamous in my book.

  5. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Abbott is clearly saying as little as possible about anything before the next election and what he is saying is/will be very moderate so that he gets elected. After that he can do what he thinks is best despite a commitment to something else. Labour have set a new benchmark this term for this. The 7.30 TV programme delights in repeating their volte-facisms (to coin a noun.)

    1. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      I agree that he is continuing the "small target" strategy and this entails him promising nothing except sweetness and light until/ if elected and then The real Abbott who is mentored by Howard and sponsored by the IPA, and George Pell, will be revealed.

    2. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      It's interesting that a guy in his own party recently was on TV complaining about Abbott's parental leave policy. I suppose by now someone has told the guy- "look this won't be happening it's just a ploy to prove Tony loves women."
      Politics- what a game.

  6. Hardy Gosch


    Is the "traditional" media just pushing WORK CHOICES by another name?
    The answer is obviously YES! Murdoch's mates want it, his minions supply it!

    Checked out another failed "tea party" policy yet?
    Foxtel Fraudband versus NBN.
    It is an eye opener!

  7. Hardy Gosch


    I feel that some writers are trying very hard to defend the indefensible. Is a noble gesture but ultimately fruitless.
    It is becoming ever more obvious that Progressives (Independents, Labor, Greens etc.) are the future
    and Regressives (Murdoch’s IPA mates and minions) represent the past.
    Let’s face it, Julia Gillard is a strong, intelligent, inspirational and determined woman.
    And then there is Tony.
    Does anybody in their right mind really want to see someone like that representing Australia overseas?

  8. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    Conservative governments worldwide follow their main policy which is the “slave & master” rule. They truly believe that the worker “the vast majority” lives to serve the employer and they claim that anyone who is against them are Communist and don’t want to work. No matter what Abbott and gang say, they will force a “work choices” style IR law.