Industrial Relations Reforms – Small Business Matters of Public Interest

The concern that we have with the bill that the government is putting forward and the way they have responded to the questions is that there seems to be a lack of understanding that it is not so much government and government programs, but it is small business who are the predominant employers of people in Australia. That means that for a business to be able to employ people and to pay good wages, the business has to be profitable, and the business owner, who is often stumping up their own capital, often putting their own house on the line to get the capital to invest in their business, needs to have the confidence that they will have some control and some rapport with their workforce and will be able to set conditions that are good for both the employees and the employer.

One of the problems with what’s being proposed here is that this is a massive change to our industrial relations system that strips the small business owner and their direct employees—who they generally have a good relationship with, because they tend to work as a team—it strips that relationship away and puts it in the hands of unions, who are representative bodies who have no relationship often with the actual business and their workforce. One of the concerns with this is that this is a change that takes us back three decades. It undoes some of the very productive reforms that previous Labor governments have put in place.

As we look at the rush here, it’s worth remembering that when governments get elected on the basis of a policy position that’s been argued and considered and has been put to the Australian public, there is some grounds for them to rush things through if they believe it’s really important and the Australian people have given them a mandate. But, in this case, it was not an election commitment; it wasn’t discussed before the election. There is no commitment, and even independent media outlets are highlighting the fact that it’s reasonable to ask why the rush. In the editorial in the Australian today, it asks: why the rush? And it talks about the evidence of the haste in that the department, in seeking to rush this through and provide an evidence base, has reached out to sources that even the minister has admitted were not wise. In fact, they’re quite laughable. The source for how much business could be expected to pay to enter into a multi-employer agreement quoted by the department describes themselves as a ‘cross between a business strategist, modern-day spiritual healer and self-development expert’. It’s hardly the kind of robust basis on which policy should be developed in Australia.

The editorial in the Australian goes on to highlight the high costs to business, some $14½ thousand to small businesses and up to $75,000 for medium-size businesses. And it asks the question: why the rush? I think that’s a valid question, particularly when you look at the feedback that business is giving. In my home state of South Australia, Business SA, which is a representative body, is highlighting the fact that there are a number of red flags for business. Currently, you can have enterprise bargaining where multi-employer bargaining can be done where employees choose to bargain together, but, in the case of this bill, it can force people to bargain, so businesses are at risk of being roped into agreements which are not negotiated at all. In fact, the employees may not want it, but they can be roped in, because unions could reach an agreement with a few employers elsewhere and then extend the agreement to hundreds of other employees.

The issue for business is that the Labor government don’t appear to actually understand the impact of costs. We see that even in their Powering Australia plan. Whilst Minister Bowen is saying that sensible economists would support the wind and solar transition that the government is, again, rushing, he ignores the evidence from independent experts, including engineers and economists such as the OECD, which have highlighted, in a report released in April this year, that power prices will only continue to rise, and, in fact, rise exponentially, as we constrain carbon emissions if we insist on relying purely on wind and solar. They have a place, but the OECD has highlighted that wind and solar will not get us to net zero and that we do need to consider other options. Unlike the assertions by Mr Bowen, the OECD and the IEA actually say the cheapest form of electricity is nuclear power.