UPFRONT IR reforms: milestone or millstone?

They’ve been variously hailed as milestone in economic reform or assault on democratic rights, lauded by business groups but condemned by churches – and last month Australian prime minister John Howard’s proposed industrial relations reforms prompted some of the biggest protest demos ever seen in city streets.
An estimated 200,000 crammed into central Melbourne to vent their opposition to reforms that amongst other things abolish state systems in favour of unitary national regime, exempt businesses that employ less than 100 people from unfair dismissal laws, and prompt more workers to change to individual workplace agreements. Thousands also took to the streets in Sydney and around New South Wales and Queensland.
Meanwhile legislation paving the way for the reforms has passed Australia’s lower house but five-day senate inquiry into the Workchoices Bill saw it being condemned by state and territorial industrial relations ministers as well as church ministers and the legislation seems unlikely to pass the Senate unamended.
The process is being watched with interest from New Zealand with Business NZ chief executive Phil O’Reilly warning the reforms will give Australia competitive edge.
He says the proposed changes will bring increased productivity and choice to Australian workplaces.
“Some of its provisions will make Australia more competitive – by removing some of the red tape associated with individual contracts, protecting firms with less than 100 staff from unfair dismissal entrapment and protecting new projects and industries from industrial action during their startup period.”
While New Zealand doesn’t necessarily want the same elements in our employment law, the reforms send signal that we should look hard at the Employment Relations Act and think about ways of getting more choice and productivity from our industrial relations laws, said O’Reilly.

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