Springing a Leak


Is this the kind of hubris that the Prime Minister has been warning his troops against?

A confidential meeting had been arranged for 12 July between Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews and representatives of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI). It was risky business for ACCI Chief Executive, Peter Hendy.


It was politically risky because Hendy and the ACCI were urging the Minister to make a raft of amendments to the already unpopular WorkChoices package amendments that would make the legislation even more employer-friendly. This was not part of a new union-friendly consultative approach by Hendy, who rose to prominence as Chief of Staff to former Minister Peter Reith. The ACCI’s suggestions, if accepted, were sure to inflame the union movement and create further disquiet among voters.

And it was logistically risky because the suggested amendments were contained in a confidential discussion paper that was faxed to Andrews’s office in preparation for the meeting.

But somebody wanted to put a stop to talk of further amendments. The discussion paper ended up at the ACTU , and on 20 July the story made it into the newspapers. Whether the papers were leaked or just fell off the back of a truck, the fact that the papers were misdirected may be as significant as their content, because there’s no doubt that the ACCI didn’t want them made public.

Perhaps it’s a sign that the peak employers’ organisation’s gung-ho advocacy of attacks on workers’ rights has gone too far for some employers. Certainly the slow take-up by employers of WorkChoices’ legislated individual contracts must be disappointing the more zealous of the brethren. Even the Office of the Employment Advocate cannot estimate the figure above 4 per cent.

The recent survey by software manufacturer MYOB, which found that three times more small businesses believe WorkChoices will harm productivity than those who believe it will be of benefit, is a blow from a key Coalition constituency.

ACCI has always been assiduous in its public support for WorkChoices.

Mr Hendy told The Australian on 7 July 2005:

The big lie peddled by unions is that proposed workplace changes are a win for employers and a loss for working people, as if it is an ‘us or them’ game. It isn’t. The class war ended years ago, but unions still hanker for it.

But it does look like class war when one reads the content and also the tone of the papers. The changes sought would make even more of a mockery of the limited minimum ‘standards’ which WorkChoices provides. An example is the proposal that where an employment ‘agreement’ allowed it, excess working hours over 38 would be presumed to be reasonable ‘unless an employee complainant can prove otherwise’ effectively rendering the standard irrelevant. This was described as a ‘rebutable (sic) presumption of reasonableness.’

The ACCI discussion papers made similar proposals for stand down provisions, annual leave, and no-cooling-off time for AWAs for casuals. Further proposals from an individual employer group affiliated to ACCI (and also leaked at the same time) focussed on personal leave, parental leave and minimum wages. These would impose further cuts on the legal minimum standards included in WorkChoices.

The ACCI papers warned the Minister that the relevant sections of the legislation should be amended because their effects were either ‘unintended or the intention of which has not been discussed with industry.’ One wonders what the private legal firms (engaged at massive public cost) were doing for six months during the drafting of the new laws not considering their effects and not consulting industry (read employers)?

Thanks to Bill Leak.

In a statement which sought to end the controversy, Peter Hendy issued a scintillating media release on 20 July entitled ‘Business Clarifies Ongoing Workplace Relations Dialogue with Government.’ In denying the claims of the ACTU, the release becomes a paean of praise to WorkChoices which again seem to confirm the view that the package is fundamentally class-biased. In the media release, Hendy says:

Many of the key measures in WorkChoices directly accord with the policies of Australian employers, and are precisely the approaches we endorse as the way forward.

You can’t do much better than that. But if their policies accord so ‘precisely’ why have meetings about changes? The proposals in the papers are described as ‘issues of interpretation and application’ and ‘unremarkable’ given that WorkChoices is already such a ‘major package of changes.’

Hendy then goes on to deny that employers had sought the changes the ACTU alleged, although he didn’t deny all of those included in the list and the denials were very slippery. For example, the media release denies that employers had sought ‘to change the 38 hour working week’ because the change sought was to remove the right to claim unreasonable hours above 38. Get it?

One of the more interesting changes sought in the confidential papers was the restoration of online publication of certified agreements which Minister Andrews had previously cancelled, due to copyright concerns. This information has been the basis of studies that show that unionised collective bargaining produces higher wages and conditions than any other mechanism. The cancellation was criticised by unions as a denial of important public information.

The ACCI wants the certified agreements published again because they are ‘an important resource for employers’ and, the ‘ACCI has used this information to rebut union claims, and to show individual unions agree to things the ACTU represents as objectionable.’

This one measure seems to have bipartisan support, but the fate of the ACCI proposals generally is unlikely to be known prior to next year’s Federal election.

Minister Andrews’s office later confirmed that a meeting did take place with the ACCI and went on to say: ‘The Prime Minister has said in the past that some fine-tuning may be required to address drafting problems and the like, but the Government has no interest in any proposals by this organisation.’

The Coalition is becoming increasingly alarmed at the unpopularity of WorkChoices so much so that more changes to bolster the employers’ hands might even test the resolve of the Senate.

In the meantime the leaks have given the ACTU and the Opposition a rare free kick.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.