A critical assessment of the Work Choices laws in addressing its stated aims and objectives

The 2005 legislation, Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act represented one of the most fundamental shifts in industrial relations laws and Commonwealth-State relations since Federation. With the principle aim of Work Choices to “unleash a new burst of productivity growth”, John Howard described industrial relations reform as “an article of faith for the Coalition parties”. This “article of faith” statement was also allegedly repeated in a speech to the 2005 Liberal Party Federal Council, although this appeal to ideology was not repeated in later public statements.

Using the corporations power in the Australian Constitution (Section 51(xx)), Work Choices sought to introduce a single national workplace relations system, overriding most state industrial relations systems. This in itself was remarkable, upheld by the High Court; until Work Choices it was widely believed that the Commonwealth’s direct role in industrial relations was limited by Section 51(xxxv), limiting powers to make laws to “conciliation and arbitration for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes beyond the limit of one state”.

Work Choices elevated individual statutory agreements (Australian Workplace Agreements, AWAs) as the pre-eminent form of workplace agreement, with enterprise level workplace agreements (collective agreements) and state and Federal Awards relegated to lesser status. The arbitration system, encapsulated by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) that had been a feature of the Australian workplace relations system since 1904 had its role greatly reduced, with new Offices and Commissions responsible for overseeing the application of workplace agreements, setting of minimum wages and settling of industrial disputes.

When introduced to Parliament in November 2005, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews MP said: “the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 moves Australia toward a flexible, simple and fair system of workplace relations.” The central objective, according to the then-Government was to “encourage the further spread of workplace agreements in order to increase productivity and hence the living standards of working Australians.”  For the Howard Government, Work Choices was not merely an economic argument, “it is a moral argument”, with the new laws to create a “good society” and a “brighter future”.

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A critical assessment of the Work Choices laws in addressing its stated aims and objectives by Alexander White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.

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