With less than a week to go in the scheduled agenda for the industrial relations reforms negotiations which have been ongoing since early June, Sally McManus – national secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) – has voiced her displeasure over an apparent breakdown in the talks which have been primarily featuring union groups and the business lobby in their viewpoints.
And moreover, that breakdown concerns the unwritten yet agreed-to policy of confidentiality between all five working groups which has existed since the talks began.
Reports emerging from the bilateral talks in Sydney and Canberra have revealed that a series of employer groups would collectively appeal to federal Attorney-General Christian Porter – who also doubles in the Morrison government as its industrial relations minister – after it has come to light that the unions and business lobbies have reached deals on the prioritising of union agreements in Australia’s workplace system.
And in claiming that such deals would be discriminatory to non-union workers, infringes on freedom of association and creates pressure on employers to lean towards union-affiliated workers in the collective bargaining process, the Master Builders Association (MBA) led the charge followed by the Australian Industry Group (AIG), the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) to come forward and publicly reject the pact reached between the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the ACTU, and thus appeal to Porter’s moderation of the talks.
Porter has stressed since the opening of the negotiations that a confidentiality agreement between all negotiating parties was deemed essential to reaching agreements that would be fair, balanced and bipartisan in nature.
And as the group of four have come forward to unleash their collective displeasure, that confidentiality has been breached, thereby threatening the integrity of the talks and reaching the aimed outcomes, McManus claims.
“We remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached which will benefit working people and the national interest,” McManus said in a statement released by the ACTU on Thursday.
“However, it has become obvious that a number of employer lobby groups no longer wish to respect the confidentiality agreement or engage with this process in good faith.
“It is apparent that some entered this process not wanting to reach common ground and advance the national interest, but simply to use the opportunity to undermine working people’s rights at a time of unprecedented national crisis,” added McManus.
In July, the industrial relations negotiations process was momentarily derailed when it became public knowledge that professional services firm KPMG revealed details of the ongoing negotiations in a document to its staff.
As a result, KPMG were immediately ejected from the talks, only as far as having their invitations to speak and be involved in a couple of key discussion sessions retracted from them.
And as the recent moves of the MBA, AIG, ACCI and AMMA to band together in threatening the process of reaching some accords, the ACTU stands by its agreement to keep details secret until a certain point in time.
“The union movement is committed to ongoing discussions on behalf of working people, and reiterate our position that the national interest will be served by ensuring workers have decent rights and secure jobs in a growing economy,” McManus said.
“We continue to believe that agreements can be reached that benefit working people as well as business, and urge the various employer groupings to put the national interest first,” she added.
The optimism from the ACTU comes as the deadline of the talks approaches – and with that, Porter may exercise the powers in the talks extended to him by the Morrison government to put forth its own legislation should all sides be unable to reach common agreements on any sets of reforms.
“[The] process is winding up, as it was all going to at this time, and then we, the Government, will take away and consider where there has been agreement, where there hasn’t been agreement, where there’s been disagreement inside the business and employer community which has arisen on some issues, and we’ll try and kind of synthesise all of that into a product in each of the five streams,” Porter told 6PR’s Gareth Parker on Wednesday.
However, Porter remains optimistic at this stage, with one more scheduled week to go, that he and the government won’t have to cherry-pick elements among the groups’ discussions to create its own tapestry resembling a patchwork quilt of industrial relations reforms.
“Well, there’s a lot of agreement around the problems. There’s imperfect agreement around solutions,” Porter said about a number of the various issues.
Yet they may be prepared to go down the route of making its own consensus.
“We’ve now exhaustively heard all of those and our job is to work out what type of solution you’d put in place in that situation that is mutually beneficial for the employer and for the employee and fixes the problem. I think there’s ways and parts through that,” Porter said.
Meanwhile, Porter has downplayed any leaks that may have occurred in the last four months of negotiations on industrial relations reforms.
“[Over] literally hundreds and hundreds of hours of meetings, the discipline and rigour that the process was engaged in is actually quite remarkable,” said Porter.
“There are a few people who had complained publicly towards the end about a particular issue, but I mean, I was quite amazed at the level of good faith, the discipline, the abiding by the rule of keeping matters discussed in the room in the room. As these things go, it was a very, I think, healthy, useful exercise,” he added.
Also by William Olson:
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