'Choice' and 'fairness': the hollow core in industrial relations policy

Policy Press
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Australian public policy: Progressive ideas in the neoliberal ascendency, 2014, pp. 97 - 114
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Over the last 20 years, few policy areas in Australia have been contested as fiercely as industrial relations (IR). In 1993, the Keating Labor Government implemented the Industrial Relations Reform Act, which severed a 100-year Australian tradition of centralised wage fixing and state involvement through the conciliation and arbitration of industrial disputes. In its place was a new decentralised and deregulated regime, centred on enterprise bargaining. Rather than establishing a new consensus, the effect of the Industrial Relations Reform Act has been to shift the parameter of IR policy further to the right. The Howard Coalition Government argued that the changes were not severe enough, and with its 1996 (Workplace Relations Act) and 2006 (Work Choices) interventions continued to dismantle what remained of a unique liberal collectivist experiment in IR. Labor’s 2007 response, the Fair Work Act, remains true to the spirit of Keating’s 1993 Act and keeps in place many of the reforms adopted by the Howard Government, intended to erode the collective institutions of IR policy. Consequently, the policy debate in IR has become one relating to a choice between an unregulated marketplace, where employers are free to set the terms, and a system where collective bargaining at the enterprise level is propped up by a residualist safety net. Neither option has the capacity to address rising insecurity in the labour market or the production and reproduction of skills, two of the biggest issues (in terms of economic and social costs) confronting the contemporary Australian labour market.
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