Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The NSW Green Paper Twenty Years On: A Reflection on the Future

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The NSW Green Paper Twenty Years On: A Reflection on the Future

Article excerpt

The 1989 Green Paper Transforming Industrial Relations in New South Wales, advanced 99 recommendations across a range of concerns. Some were quite prosaic, such as the scope for legal representation in tribunal proceedings and redrafting the regulations to the enabling legislation. Other measures, such as those to do with union amalgamations, OH&S in small business, and pay equity addressed problems specific to a system that was, at that time, the least reviewed in Australia. A third group of recommendations, which are more interesting in the current Australian policy climate, addressed the key design features of how an industrial relations system could be best made fit for purpose in a competitive world.

Most of the proposed changes were implemented, either through ministerial actions or through two pieces of legislation: the Industrial Arbitration (Enterprise Agreements) Act 1990 and the Industrial Relations Act 1991. By applying a green paper process, these changes followed periods of submission-taking and considerable consultation, with extensive debate.

The general effect of these reforms (or retrograde steps in the eyes of some) was subsequently described as 'the thoroughgoing decentralisation of the NSW industrial relations system', boosting the place of enterprise bargaining and the 'radical curtailment of the Commission's own role' (Shields 2005: 3). To O'Brien (1990: 546-47), 'the Niland project ... can be located somewhere between the overt ideological and common law based assaults on the third party system of the New Right ... and the model of managed change, pursued by the ACTU and the Federal government ...'. To Shaw (1992: 35) it was a 'new path to conflict' and Gittens (1991) spoke of enterprise bargaining as a 'snake oil for the national malaise', while to O'Donnell (1995: 203) it was all 'a journey up the garden path'. Not to be outdone in colourful imagery, I saw enterprise bargaining as 'the light on the horizon' (Niland 1990: 182-201).

The integrating theme throughout the Green Paper was the need for a lower centre of gravity for processing industrial relations, primarily through devolving responsibilities where possible and encouraging enterprise bargaining. Certainly this approach contrasted with the more 'tribunal-friendly' reviews of the era: the Kelly Report (1978) for Western Australia; the Cawthorne Report (1982) for South Australia; the Hancock Report (1985) for the Federal system; the Marshall Report (1986) for Victoria; and the Hangar Report (1988) for Queensland. This should have come as no particular surprise, given where I had been in the collective bargaining versus compulsory arbitration debates among industrial relations academics in the 1960s and 1970s (Isaac 1979).

For obvious reasons, editors do not ask authors to review their own books and perhaps the same should apply to the agents of public policy reviews! Be that as it may, I am pleased for the opportunity offered to reflect on the key elements in the Green Paper, and to link these, where relevant, to the current policy climate in Australia. This can be addressed through four of the main themes, each a building block for a lower centre of gravity.

1. An enterprise focus, by developing a framework of institutions, skills and practices to promote collective bargaining at a decentralised level, with minimal pattern setting.

2. An 'industrial calendar' which recognised the reality of the right to strike by allowing certain direct industrial action at particular times of the bargaining and agreement cycle.

3. A balancing of equity and flexibility by assigning to the tribunal responsibility for setting certain minima, and vetting non-union agreements before they can override awards.

4. A rationalisation and integration of the Federal and State systems of industrial regulation.

Enterprise Bargaining

The rationale for the emphasis on enterprise bargaining was to introduce a process more likely to produce better relations and productivity in a workplace by focussing on that workplace, away from the 'one size fits all' tendency characterised in the hallowed principle of comparative wage justice. …

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