Press Conference to announce review of the Fair Work Act, Melbourne, 20 December 2011

20 December 2011

Please read or listen to my press conference announcing the review of the Fair Work Act.

Shorten audio presser re FWA announcement

Subject:  announcement of a review on Fair Work legislation.

BILL SHORTEN: When the Fair Work Bill was introduced into Federal Parliament, the Government made a commitment to review the legislation two years after its full commencement, and that's by 1 January 2012 we'll have reached that two year milestone.  So today I'm announcing the arrangements for the review.

Our Fair Work legislation was intended to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations. Now, our Government, the Labor Government, understands that real economic prosperity and growth do require fairness in the workplace and a fair go all round.

This review will reaffirm our fundamental commitment to this objective. The Gillard Government believes very strongly and very passionately in not only creating jobs but ensuring that the jobs that are created are good quality jobs, that they're well paid, they're secure and with a good measure of work/life balance.

Of course, we need to ensure that we have a system of workplace relations where both employees and employers get a fair go all round, regardless of the size of the business or the size of the workforce, regardless of whether or not a collective agreement's in place or whether or not it's a small business.

The review that we're announcing today represents an important opportunity to have an expert guided, evidence based discussion about whether the legislation as it stands is delivering on the Government's objectives for our Fair Work relations in Australia.

So I'm very pleased to announce the appointment of the following members to the panel to review the Fair Work legislation, they being Reserve Bank board member John Edwards, former Federal Court Judge, the Honourable Michael Moore, and noted legal and workplace relations academic Professor Ron McCallum AO.

John Edwards is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute, an Adjunct Professor with the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University, and a member of the Reserve Bank Board of Australia.  From 2009 to 2011 he's been director of the Economic Planning and Development Board for the Kingdom of Bahrain and, of course, from 1997 to 2009 Dr Edwards was the chief economist for the Australia New Zealand - the global financial group HSBC.

The Honourable Michael Moore was appointed to the Industrial Relations Court of Australia and the Federal Court of Australia in March of 1994 and he retired recently in July of 2011.  He's also been a judge at the Court of Appeal of Tonga since 2006. At the time of his appointment to the Federal Court he was the acting president of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, of which he'd been a deputy president and then a vice president.

He was appointed a presidential member of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 1989. More recently, Michael's been an acting judge in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court.

Professor Emeritus Ron McCallum has written extensively on labour law matters and has taught administration law, public law and labour law at the University of Sydney.  Indeed, he's a remarkably accomplished Australian, being the first totally blind person to have been appointed to a full professorship in any field at university in Australia or New Zealand.

I'm tremendously pleased that these three eminent Australians have agreed to lead the review. They're all highly respected. They're unquestionably independent and will bring a level of objectivity required for a review of this nature.

In conducting the review, the panel members will be guided by the terms of the reference that I'm releasing today.  Amongst the terms of reference they provide for the review to examine, the extent to which the Fair Work legislation is operating as it was intended. And secondly, areas where the evidence indicates that the operation of the legislation could be improved consistent with the objects of the legislation.

The terms of reference also specify that the review was to encompass a significant level of consultation. Submissions will be sought in response to a background paper to be released by the panel, in which respondents will be asked to provide evidence and feedback about the operation of the legislation. This will enable us to judge the performance of the legislation against the Government's objectives.  Key stakeholders will also have an opportunity to outline their experiences with the legislation during roundtable discussions.

Details of consultation and opportunities to present evidence, written evidence, to the review will be announced by the panel shortly. We encourage stakeholders to participate in the process and make constructive and considered contributions to the review process.

But might I just say before we take any questions that this review's being announced consistent with us keeping our promise but it's looking at what we consider to be a robust system and, indeed, recent resolution of some of what's seen to be very difficult Qantas negotiations when management and licensed engineers showed that it is possible to achieve outcomes where there's the effort and the will. It is about meeting in the middle in my experience and putting in the work to get an outcome which sees both employees and employers happily resolved.

We are not a government, and I'm certainly not a workplace relations minister that has an extreme or catastrophic view of industrial relations. I understand and this review understands the inextricable relationship that you can't have employees without employers, that it is possible to both be pro-business and pro employee at the same time.  And sometimes I think there is almost too great a focus on questions of where the regulatory pendulum sits, as important as those questions are, instead of also focusing on the reasonable economic questions of competition, of productivity, of ensuring that the business is doing well.

And of course, we have a system which is not just about collective bargaining but needs to also recognise that for many small businesses they operate within the award system and that for them the debates of large business and unions are not always relevant to the regulatory interface of small to medium sized business.

So I think that we do have a strong system but like all systems, it's sensible to give it a good service and to check to make sure that it's working as it should. Concurrent with this review I will be talking - and it's only been about a hundred and twenty hours since I was appointed as Minister - I'll be talking, consulting in the new year with trade unions and employer organisations, employees, workplace relations, peak bodies, individual companies, small business and all of those who have a legitimate view to contribute to the future of Australia's workplaces.

I'd like to thank again the eminent Australians who've agreed to work on this panel.  I'm happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: You've mentioned talks [inaudible] earlier on.  What sort of references [inaudible] review to I suppose stop companies going straight to arbitration if they...

BILL SHORTEN: I don't want to Monday morning quarterback every dispute which has occurred but I think that you'll find that even in the case of Qantas, while we didn't agree with the extreme action of grounding the airline, there had been a long series of negotiations. It wasn't that they woke up Saturday morning and said it's time to bargain now, we'll shut down the airline. There was a process.

But I would also say that in Australia we have a system of workplace relations which unfortunately the conservatives broke with Work Choices. It created too much uncertainty.  People weren’t sure about their rosters or their dismissal rights. People were just not sure about their proper payment of rates. Grandparents wondered if their kids starting in the workplace would get a decent go.

So you know, for people who are advocating extreme solutions, I don’t think that's the Australian way of cooperation in the workplace.

Evidence will be able to be submitted by participants about how their experiences have gone. We should understand that nearly two and a half million Australians are currently covered by collective agreements. There's been literally thousands of agreements made since the Fair Work Act came in.  And of course, disputation sells newspapers, good news doesn't and there is a lot more good news going on in the Australian workplace than I think sometimes gets currency.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible].  Do you see areas for specific improvement?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, if I've got a panel of smart experts in to give us a view, I might let them tell me rather than...

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible question]

BILL SHORTEN: Productivity's always a part of the Australian workplace.  We're going through the minerals boom, which is good but the minerals boom, the high terms - trade will eventually ease off.  Any economist is reporting that.

So we need to make sure that in our modern diversified economy that we're seeing value created in Australian workplaces. We are a modern Australian economy, which has moved distinctly from the 1960s and '70s. We have a viable manufacturing sector, which is eight to nine per cent. We have an agricultural sector which is two and a half per cent. We have a construction and mining sector which is nine per cent and north of our GDP and employment numbers.

We have seventy per cent of people working in services. Half of our Australians work in small to medium enterprises and many work in large enterprises. There's no question in my mind that productivity and the creation of value is an important ingredient in the modern workplace system balanced with a fair go all around.

In my experience, most employers - ninety-nine per cent of employers - want to know the rules of the game, they want to be able to make sure they're treating people properly and they also want to be able to make a profit. We believe the current system engenders that but this is a timely review consistent with the Government's promises which we keep.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible question]

BILL SHORTEN: You could interpret it that I'm not going to pre-empt the review.

JOURNALIST: Is the Government going to [inaudible] submission...

BILL SHORTEN: I think we'll see what comes in through the other submissions. We haven't turned our mind to whether or not we submit to ourselves what's happening. I would suspect that we're interested to hear the views of other people in the first instance.

JOURNALIST: I was just wondering about the changes to ALP platform over...

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, I see what you mean. In terms of...

JOURNALIST: They will be promoted by the Government...

BILL SHORTEN: Well, we'll see what the parties submit. The good thing about industrial relations and workplace relations, it's a bit like the - it's a bit like Saturday sport.  We're a democracy.  Everyone's got a view.  No doubt this review's not the only forum whereby people will be putting their views forward.  I even take attention to read the pages of The Australian and the AFR to see what editorial advice I'm receiving there.

This review panel's an important process but it won't supplement - it won't replace all other forms of communication and consultation, and I'm being very clear just as all of the Government does engage with business and unions, I'll certainly be doing that actively as well.

But we are looking for - we've got some really smart people who are independent and objective, who are able to give a view based on long experience, both of workplace relations and the economy, and there's an opportunity to make sure that the objects of the Act are being fulfilled in the operation of the Act.

Mr Shorten’s Media Contacts:

Adele Holman 0413 513 306                                                      

DEEWR Media: [email protected]

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