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Federal Election 2022 – Will Australia's major parties make the case for industrial relations reform?

13 April 2022 | Australia
Legal Briefings – By Nicholas Ogilvie and Mitchell Brennan

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With elections looming and cost-of-living dominating the headlines, we ask if the main parties will seize on meaningful IR reform

The Prime Minister has visited the Governor-General and the federal election has now been called.  Candidates from both the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Liberal–National Coalition (Coalition) will tell voters that their party is best placed to ease cost of living pressures in the lead up to election day.  Will either of the major parties announce meaningful industrial relations reform agenda to be taken to the election?  Will industrial relations reform be sold to the electorate as means of offsetting the impact of increased petrol and grocery prices?

The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, has called for the federal election to be held on 21 May 2022.  The outcome of the recent South Australian state election and the Federal Government’s 2022/2023 Budget have previewed where the battlelines will be drawn: cost of living. 

It is clear the electorate’s concerns about job security, wage growth and inflation will be front of mind at the ballot box on election day.  Concerns about these issues are supported by economic data showing wage growth falling behind inflation and political research suggesting that cost of living is now the key concern among voters as concerns about COVID-19 wane.  SA Labor’s resounding win at the recent South Australian state election indicates that a government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic now means little in the face of increasing cost of living pressures.  The Federal Government is alive to the electorate’s concerns with measures to ease cost of living pressures central to its recently released 2020/2023 Budget.

Addressing cost of living pressures will be central to the major parties’ messaging during their respective election campaigns.  The ALP will decry that workers’ real wages continue to decline while their employers pocket the benefits of Australia’s post-pandemic economic prosperity.  The Coalition will continue sounding its ‘superior economic manager’ mantra, warning that Australia’s post-pandemic economic recovery should not be put at risk by adding to the cost of doing business.  The Coalition will also warn that projections the unemployment rate will soon reach a 50-year low and forecasts that wage growth will increasingly outpace inflation for the next four financial years will be put at risk by an ALP Federal Government.

However, now the federal election has been called, will either of the major parties announce meaningful industrial relations reform agenda to be taken to the election?  Will industrial relations reform be sold to the electorate as a means of addressing cost of living pressures? 

There is clearly an appetite for industrial relations reform on both sides of the industrial relations fence.  On one side, the Business Council of Australia argues in its federal election statement that Australia’s current workplace relations system is not working as intended and the highest and most urgent priority is fixing a collapsing enterprise bargaining system.  On the other side, the Australian Council of Trade Unions similarly claims that the enterprise bargaining system is broken, but claims industry-wide bargaining is the tonic to cure to low wage growth.  However, there are indications that the hunger for industrial relations reform may continue to go unsatisfied. 

Whilst the ALP National Platform outlines its position on a wide range of industrial relations matters (amongst other things), it does not necessarily proclaim an industrial relations reform agenda to be taken to the upcoming federal election.  The ALP will be minded to tread carefully, given Bill Shorten’s so called ‘referendum on wages’ and radical reform agenda were ultimately fatal to the ALP’s election hopes in 2019.  Anthony Albanese, who replaced Mr Shorten as Leader of the Opposition following the ALP’s 2019 election defeat, appears to have learned from his predecessor’s missteps, doing all he can to make himself a small target in the lead up to the election.

It is also unclear whether the Coalition will take a meaningful industrial relations reform agenda to the federal election.  Whilst the Coalition is yet to publish any industrial relations polices, there have been some soft indications it remains committed to the outstanding reforms contained in last year’s industrial relations Omnibus Bill.  The Omnibus Bill (as originally drafted) contained a range of modest legislative reforms to (amongst other things) criminalise the most egregious instances of deliberate wage underpayments and to revive an ailing enterprise bargaining system.  However, most of the proposed reforms were abandoned by the Coalition Federal Government when it became clear the Omnibus Bill faced certain defeat in the Senate.  It appears the spectre of Work Choices continues to loom large over the Coalition when it comes to meaningful industrial relations reform.

Whatever form the major parties’ industrial relations reform agendas ultimately take, they will be touted as a necessary part of easing cost of living pressures for working Australians.  However, it is important to keep things in perspective.  Industrial relations reform alone is not a panacea to easing cost of living pressures.  The factors currently putting upward pressure on inflation are multifaceted and dynamic.  The much-publicised and wide-spread impact that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and major flooding events in Northern New South Wales are having on petrol and food prices demonstrates this.  Putting downward pressure on inflation and upward pressure on wages will require intervention on a number of fronts, with industrial relations but one piece of a much larger puzzle for whomever forms government following the federal election.

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