Page 3877 - Week 12 - Wednesday, 19 October 2005

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employees. Really, in the 21st century, different workplace relations systems seem to make as much sense as different railway gauges did in the 20th century. The current system was designed in the 1900s to solve industrial problems of the 1890s. Quite clearly, we have to move on. We need to have further reforms.

It is interesting that the government’s proposed changes really are the next evolutionary step in a process of change from a centralised award system to one based primarily on bargaining at workplace level. The Keating government in 1993 began the process. The Howard government, with its 1996 reforms, continued it, and these are a natural extension of those. I am not going to repeat what one of my colleagues said about Paul Keating’s vision for his new system in 1993. Certainly I commend his vision to those opposite. Basically the principles he espoused in his speech to the Institute of Company Directors on 21 April 1993 are the same as those underlying the government’s current reforms. Keating, to give credit where credit is due, realised that the IR system was out of date and, like the rest of the economy, needed a major structural modernisation. The job was only half done by his government in 1993, indeed by the Howard government in 1996.

The Labor Party likes to refer to research conducted by Access Economics. Research conducted by Access Economics and released earlier this year estimated that in 2004 the benefits of changes to the workplace relations system over the past decade as a result of the Keating reforms and then the Howard reforms of 1996 were equivalent to $4,200 in additional income per person per year and the equivalent of over $80,000 in wealth per person. Had it not been for reforms to workplace relations, the average unemployment rate in 2004 would have been 8.1 per cent and not 5.8 per cent. We have heard that we are currently enjoying record low unemployment rates and record low interest rates compared with some of the horrendous unemployment rates and interest rates we have seen in the past.

The Access Economics report goes on to estimate that, if the economy could continue to grow at four per cent per annum over the next 20 years, as opposed to 2.4 per cent, the average Australian would be $74,000 better off and the gap between low growth of 2.4 per cent and strong growth of four per cent could be achieved by building on existing reforms, including workplace relation reforms. The Labor Party often trots out figures from Access Economics, and they seem keen to embrace workplace reform.

Labor policy would return Australia to the fairly dark old days of a very rigid one-size-fits-all industrial relations system that would discourage enterprise bargaining and effectively abolish individual Australian workplace agreements. I think that would be a sad step indeed, as would most Australian workers. The ALP’s current industrial relations platform imposes on the party a policy that would not only roll back the Howard reforms since 1996, but also would undo the enterprise bargaining reforms implemented by the Keating government in 1993.

Paul Keating’s former economics adviser, John Edwards, described this platform as one that had the potential to “reverse Labor’s own reforms of 1992-94 and to reintroduce the worst aspects of the old awards system”. Access Economics, the ALP’s preferred economic consultants, concluded that:

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