Abbott claims Coalition will keep framework of Fair Work Act
OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott says "dodgy union officials" are the only ones who should fear the Coalition's industrial relations policy, unveiled on Thursday.
In a clear attempt to remove industrial relations as an election issue, Mr Abbott and his workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz stressed a Coalition government would keep the framework of Labor's Fair Work Act, including unfair dismissal laws and penalty rates.
Accordingly, the 38-page policy document contained only a few major changes and even fewer surprises.
As expected the Coalition would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, create a Registered Organisation Commission to crack down on "rorts" inside unions, impose tougher right of entry rules for union officials and expand the use of existing Individual Flexibility Arrangements.
The policy also contained a four-point plan the Coalition claimed would help small business.
An Abbott government would also ask the Productivity Commission to review Australia's Fair Work laws, but in another sign of the Coalition's cautious approach, it would not seek to legislate major changes stemming from that inquiry without first seeking a mandate at the 2016 election.
But that caution did not extend to criticising union corruption.Mr Abbott said cleaning up unions was at the "heart" of the policy, using the well-publicised problems within the Health Services Union to drive home his point.
"There has been example after example of rorts, rackets and corruption inside some important unions," Mr Abbott said.
"We need the same high standards of governance in unions as we expect in companies and that's why part of our changes will be to ensure that dodgy union officials face the same penalties as dodgy company officials."
He claimed just 13% of Australian workers were members of unions, a figure at odds with the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data which has it closer to 18%.
Mr Abbott spoke about the elephant in the room, WorkChoices, which he repeated was "dead, buried and cremated".
He again made the point that he was one of the few Cabinet ministers who opposed John Howard's controversial law, which effectively cost the Coalition government in 2007.
Mr Abetz said the Coalition had deliberately released its long-awaited policy well before the September 14 election to give voters ample time to digest it.
He said because the policy would not remove unfair dismissal protections or penalty rates, the Australian Council of Trade Unions had no reason to campaign against it in the lead-up to September 14.
"There is absolutely no doubt that unions will shout the house down over this but I don't think that any fair-minded reader of our policy would see anything other than sensible, fair-minded changes," Mr Abbott predicted.
And he was right, as ACTU secretary Ged Kearney honed in on Mr Abbott's comments about flexibility and individual contracts.
Ms Kearney said she did not believe the Coalition when it specifically ruled out a return to Australian Workplace Agreements.
"The Coalition has put individual agreements fairly and squarely at the centre of their industrial relations policies," she told reporters in Melbourne.
"This is very, very concerning to us."
It was also the theme of Workplace Relation's Minister Bill Shorten's criticism of the policy, which he said was light on detail and should "send a shiver up the spine of every Australian worker".
But business groups, led by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the policy was "too cautious".
ACCI chief executive Peter Anderson said the proposals retained too much of the Gillard government's laws.
"It is a serious disappointment to the non-union sector, especially small business, that individual workplace agreements would still not be not allowed, and that collective bargaining and one size fits all rules would remain the mainstay of the system," Mr Anderson said.