The Prime Minister says it’s time for everyone to put down their weapons. But nowhere has the division polarising Western democracies been more obvious than in Australia.

His bold ambition is to end the tribalism, conflict and ideological posturing that he argues has been apparent on all sides. It’s good politics and good policy. It’s also a big bet that its possible to recreate the sort of consensus and co-operation overwhelmed by the sense of division polarising Western democracies in recent years.
Good intentions and better personal relationships wont fix a rigid and complicated IR system not only frozen in time but frozen back into a pre-Keating mould.
And nowhere has that division been more obvious in Australia than in the arcane workings of a sclerotic industrial relations system that as the Prime Minister politely puts it is not fit for purpose.
The IR aspect of the governments JobMaker strategy is for five different working groups to try to reach agreement in five key areas by September. These include award simplification, getting back to basics on enterprise agreements, the distinctions between casual and permanent employees, compliance and enforcement and improved greenfields agreements for new projects.
Morrison calls this finding the pathway to sensible, long-lasting reform with just one goal make jobs. It’s time, he says, for everyone to put down their weapons.
Ultimate test
The need for reform in all five areas is certainly glaringly obvious. As the Prime Minister noted, decades of economic growth had created a complacency that left unions fighting for marginal benefits and employers trying to close down risk.
The extent of the damage wrought by COVID-19 on the Australian economy, and the enormity of the challenge we now face to get Australians back into jobs, means the policy priorities for recovery will be different to those in place before this crisis, he said. We now have a shared opportunity to fix systemic problems and to realise gains as a matter of urgency to get more people back into work.”
Yet hammering out a grand national bargain of trade-offs in industrial relations seems to be the ultimate test of Morrison’s argument he is not interested in ideology and will work with anyone on practical solutions.
Yes, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has been able to call the ACTU’s Sally McManus for a chat any old time as everyone tried to save as many jobs as possible by ensuring the operation of awards and agreements were suddenly much more flexible.
But the emphasis was always on such arrangements being purely temporary. As the sense of COVID-related panic recedes, there has been little evident interest among union leadership in making permanent changes in exchange for government or business commitments about building a stronger economy of the future.
“Its in all our collective interests to get this system working,” says BCA boss Jennifer Westacott. Alex Ellinghausen
Morrison remains optimistic his approach can bring people together. It has been a privilege, he says, to work with people across the spectrum despite some disagreements citing the success of the national cabinet of state and federal leaders. A Labor Party clearly apprehensive about again being rendered politically irrelevant, as it was by national cabinet, has been predictably quick to criticise Morrisons speech.
But McManus is more positive, saying unions will participate in good faith. She still warns the ACTU will measure the process against two benchmarks whether it makes jobs more secure and whether working people get their fair share.
And interpreting what that means in practice will be key. Good intentions and better personal relationships wont magically fix a rigid and complicated IR system not only frozen in time but frozen back into a pre-Keating mould.
Rigid mindset
Even the former prime ministers signature industrial relations reform of enterprise bargaining has fallen into ever more disuse, because enterprise agreements are now so difficult to negotiate most companies give up and revert to the underlying award.
This is largely due to the Fair Work Commissions strict interpretation of a test to ensure every single employee will be better off overall. In the arcane world of Australian industrial relations, the test’s acronym is the BOOT an unfortunate example of black humour.
In the ACTU mindset, the version of flexibility championed by business has amounted to code for cutting wages and conditions along with union influence. That Australia is the only country in the world with such an intrusive award system (even New Zealand gave it up) had only confirmed unions’ sense of moral righteousness about the need to maintain this in all its complexity in the name of fairness.
Business groups are obviously enthusiastic at the chance of breaking out of the parallel “grooves Morrison described. According to Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott, getting back to the relative simplicity and focus of enterprise bargaining as envisioned by Keating will be good for productivity, for wages and jobs and for making enterprises successful.
Its in all our collective interests to get this system working, she said. Times a-ticking.