The Contract Regulation Club

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the latter part of the 1980s, The Contract Regulation Club1 has been the dominant force in Australian industrial relations. It has brought about fundamental changes to Australian industrial relations, the most recent manifestation being the 762 page Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2005 (Cth). Membership of the club has ebbed and flowed over the years, with changes in the political cycle and the creation of new regulatory bodies to further its objects. It includes major employer/business organisations, leaders of the Liberal and National parties, federal government bureaucrats, the Office of the Employment Advocate, the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, New Right 'think tanks', media commentators, law firms, consultants and academics.

The modus operandi of The Contract Regulation Club is doublethink. It advocates deregulation of employment contracts, while at one and the same time intervening in their operation and demanding more regulation to ensure that such contracts are 'loaded' in favour of employers.

The Contract Regulation Club has a vision of an industrial relations nirvana, a place where workers fully understand and willingly embrace the leadership and decisions of management in pursuing the needs of the enterprise. For example, Angwin (2000: 8, 9 and 10), refers to a technique known as 'managerial leadership' which

   Encapsulates the approach to enabling employees to align their
   efforts with the business., .leadership is about creating the
   circumstances in which all employees of the business are prepared
   to align their behaviours voluntarily ... CEOs want to raise the
   capability of their employees and enable them to contribute their
   best to the business in order to improve the business performance.

The problem for The Contract Regulation Club is that institutions such as trade unions, industrial tribunals, courts and governments, especially Labor governments, with their historical connections to unions, have the potential to impede the realisation of this ideal. The Club wants what it regards as negative regulation to be removed and replaced by positive regulation, to enable the achievement of its vision.

Unions, industrial tribunals, courts and Labor governments can continue to have a role as long as their actions are supportive of this idealised relationship. If The Contract Regulation Club cannot dominate these others, or bend them to its will, action will be taken to nullify them, if not bring about their destruction. In the case of unions, especially if a Liberal National coalition is in power, legislation can be changed, new regulatory bodies, such as the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner created, and cases can be mounted before industrial tribunals and courts to restrict and restrain their activities and drain them of resources. 'Incorrect' or 'unpalatable' decisions of courts can be rectified by legislative changes. In the case of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, its death can be made 'slow and agonising' (Dabscheck 2001 b) by relocating many of its functions to other regulatory bodies, such as the Office of the Employment Advocate and the Australian Fair Pay Commission, the latter being a creation of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices Act 2005 (Cth). This Act, in turn, overcomes the problem of errant State Labor governments doing anything they shouldn't, by abolishing state industrial relations systems.

Formation and Consolidation: 1983 to 1996

The Australian Labor Party won the 1983 federal election. Its electoral strategy was based on an Accord (Statement 1983) it had negotiated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), designed to solve economic problems of the early 1980s. The Accord championed 'consensus'. It maintained that the health of the economy could be restored by a centralised system of industrial relations regulation, where wage rises were linked to changes in prices, to be administered by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) and its predecessor. …