Traditionally one of the battle grounds of the Australian Federal Elections, the focal point of this year’s workplace relations debate is penalty rates. In recent timess, this has proven a crucial policy area, with the Howard Government losing the 2007 elections when his Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was attacked repeatedly by Kevin Rudd, who looked to champion the Labour Party as the party of working people. It is worth noting that while penalty rates have been the flavour of this campaign when it came to this key policy area, it was the failure to pass the reestablishment of the ABCC that forced the double dissolution and brought about one of the longest election campaigns in this nation.
The Coalition has once again looked to reintroduce Howard’s building industry watchdog, the ABCC. Its inception came about to focus on a number of areas within the building and construction industry such as unlawful industrial action, right of entry for building firms, as well as workplace entitlements. Not only does Turnbull want to bring back this independent department, he looks to further expand its powers, adding assessment of transport of building goods to its portfolio. The Coalition also looks to reinforce its crackdown on corruption and tax evasion as shown in its budget release by proposing legislation- the Registered Organisations Bill which looks to make union officials subject to the same transparency obligations as company directors.
While the official line the Coalition is adopting in its stance on industrial relations is based around anti-corruption measures, there has also voices within business, traditionally a key Coalition support base, calling for cuts to penalty rates, which would largely affect hospitality and retail workers. Going hand in hand with its ‘jobs and growth’ rhetoric, the Coalition argues that increased wages on weekends and public holidays contribute a great extent to the costs of small business owners. The idea is to reduce the overhead cost for retailers, especially on weekends, so that it remains profitable for them to operate then, creating or ‘saving’ jobs and stimulating growth within the struggling retail sector. However, while there are many Liberal Party allies in the business community publicly supporting such cuts, Turnbull’s official party policy is to adhere to the recommendations and evaluations of the Fair Work Commission.
As indicated by the double dissolution earlier in the year, the ALP is strongly against the Coalition’s efforts to re-introduce the ACCC, arguing that the public should trust instead in Fair Work Building & Construction, set up as a replacement body after the ACCC was abolished in 2012. Essentially tasked with the same portfolio, the Fair Work Building & Construction watchdog has oversight of the use of coercive powers, but does not go as far as the ABCC once did. Labor argues that while such powers are subject to permission from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, it allows for better policing in the industry.
Regarding the debate on penalty rates, Bill Shorten has had a hard time making promises to both the business owners that are likely to benefit from such cuts as well as the unions that form the ALP’s base. This has led to Shorten publicly labelling the Labor Party as the ‘party of penalty rates’ in one instance, only to backtrack and state that there are no guarantees that such penalty cuts will not occur. Essentially, the ALP sees penalty rates as a ‘fundamental part of a strong safety net for Australian workers’, but are willing to follow their counterparts in abiding by the Fair Work Commission’s ruling on the matter.
Like Labor, the Greens are also against the reestablishment of the ACCC but unlike Shorten who trusts in the new body created by his predecessors, the Greens are proposing a national broad-based anti-corruption watchdog that cracks down on all forms of corruption, regardless of the industry. In February, prominent Greens MP Adam Bandt argued that both blue collar and white collar workers should be subject to such watchdogs and that previous governments have ‘turned the other way’ when it came to corruption in the corporate world.
Amongst the three parties, the Greens appear to have the clearest mindset when it comes to penalty rates. The party believes that ‘penalty rates are a recognition of unsociable hours that many people work’. Furthermore, Bandt has stated that young workers and university students, who are typically casual workers on the weekends, are particularly susceptible to such cuts as the penalty rates represent a substantial amount of their living wage. Instead of waiting for the Fair Work Commission to make an official independent ruling, the Greens want to protect Sunday penalty rates with legislation through parliament, diverging from the policies of the two major parties.
Overall, all three parties have similar goals when it comes to the operations of unions and workplace relations. They are looking to crackdown on corruption and promote the rights and safety of Australian workers; albeit in differing ways. As for penalty rates, both the Coalition and the ALP have opposing views on the matter, but unlike the Greens, they are unwilling to make a full commitment on this contentious issue. It is perhaps likely that penalty rates will remain a key bone of contention in the next Parliament, regardless of who forms government.