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Scott Riches: To fix productivity, get real and lose the sensationalism

What impact are the changes to casual employment, union delegate rights and the right to disconnect really going to have?

What impact are the changes to casual employment, union delegate rights and the right to disconnect really going to have? Photo: Getty

Robert Gottliebsen last week rang an alarm bell for Australia’s business community with a story in The Australian titled “Labor’s business blueprint brings all dangers and no certainties”.

Gottliebsen’s article referred to changes to the Fair Work Act that are due to commence on August 26.

In it he says that “The Australian business community is totally unprepared for the unprecedented challenges they face”.

The changes Gottliebsen is lamenting are some of those included in the Closing Loopholes bill that passed Parliament earlier this year.

Saying that the new laws will “require union representatives in businesses with one employee” and that changes to “rules for those employing casual labour” are akin to “a form of legalised wage theft”, Gottliebsen sets out, albeit in scant detail, how the world might be about to end come August 26.

Are the changes really a cause for alarm?

Although the story includes the disclaimer “my advice to the owner of a business is to see a lawyer rather than rely on me”, it makes a number of disastrous, and in my view inaccurate, claims about the laws which are due to commence.

So what impact are the changes to casual employment, union delegate rights and the right to disconnect really going to have?

I’ve written about the right to disconnect in TND previously. In the main, it doesn’t appear to be a change that will have drastic impacts, albeit that it will create a shift in attitude and sentiment.

As for changes to casual employment, the changes are essentially a reversal of amendments made to the definition of casual employment by the Morrison government in 2020. Hardly something that would meet the definition of “unprecedented”.

They also provide a right, but not an obligation, to request conversion to permanent employment under certain circumstances. Again, not unprecedented in Australian workplaces.

The union delegate rights are in some sense an extension and clarification of rights that already existed (and have done so for a long time) in Australian workplace laws. They also create offences for failing to recognise a union delegate, or for misleading or obstructing them.

What they certainly don’t do is establish any requirement that a workplace must have a union delegate. That remains, as it always was, a matter for each workforce to determine both whether they have one, and who that person would be.

But here’s the real problem with this story.

What Gottliebsen wrote is sensationalist. Describing changes to the landscape of work with dramatic and devastating language, his article stands as an example of all that is wrong with Australian labour relations.

This is an endemic problem that stands in the way of legitimate progress, and of the harnessing of big ideas, to resolve actual challenges like the cost-of-living crisis and productivity.

This is by no means limited to the Gottliebsen story, but the usual base narrative goes something like this: The Labor government has introduced changes to the workplace. They must be bad, the economy is at risk of closing down, and the impacts are irreversible. Australia is doomed, so be scared. Be very, very scared.

Then, in other times an alternative will be put by the same commentators: The Coalition government has introduced changes to the workplace. They must be good, the economy will thrive, and the world order has been restored.

Commentators on the other side of these issues make essentially the same arguments, only in the reverse. I may have been guilty of this myself.

But this wildly swinging pendulum of sensationalised and at times ill-conceived commentary, and the policy outcomes that result from it, does nothing other than to exacerbate the underlying problems in a relationship that at its core contains quite a simple dynamic.

Businesses want to make money and spend less than what they bring in.

The wider the gap between what comes in and what goes out, the more prosperous and successful they are.

Workers want to earn a living and cover the costs of the lives they lead.

The wider the gap between what they need to live and what they earn, the more prosperous and successful they are.

Article 36 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic sums that well, going so far as to create a workers’ “right to a remuneration commensurate to the quantity and quality of their work and in any case such as to ensure them and their families a free and dignified existence”.

To have both of those things, businesses need workers, and workers need businesses. The relationship is symbiotic and at the pinnacle of that relationship, they prosper together.

And political ideologies aside, irrespective of the means by which we get there, isn’t that ultimately the world that we aspire to be living in?

It seems clear that, en masse, we do. The “right” have their way, the “left” have theirs. But the chances of either of them being correct all the time and on every issue are, at best, slim.

The problem is then that the object gets lost in the sensationalised peripheral commentary, occurring outside of the real business of getting things done, which demonises one side or the other with what is often little more than ideological dog whistling, pleading to the commentator’s echo chamber.

And that should stop.

Winston Churchill once said, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”.

It’s time now for those in the game to set aside the fanatics, and deal with the issues whichever side they are aligned with, because the base objective should be the same.

Scott Riches is an employment lawyer and former union official. He is also director principal of Capacita

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