By David Bates

Australian employers know our employment relations system is simply not working in our nation’s best interest.

It’s not working for SMEs, which are denied the flexibility they desperately need to ensure their enterprises are viable. It’s not working for big businesses, which all too often find themselves backed into a corner during protracted and costly industrial disputes with the nation’s largest unions. 

And it’s certainly not working for those agile, innovative and disruptive start-up entrepreneurs – so lauded by our Prime Minister – who face a baffling array of employment-related rules and regulations once they expand and begin to employ workers and engage contractors.

The sheer complexity - and the frankly bewildering intricacies - of our workplace relations system is astonishing.

No other developed economy on Earth saddles its employers with over 120 different ‘Modern Awards’, over 1000 pages of employment laws and associated regulations, and a complex web of differing workplace health and safety laws. 

And no other first-world nation still allows unions to so brazenly dominate public discourse around employment laws despite union membership having been in freefall for decades.

No, all of these things are unique to our nation. And employers who come here from NZ, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, or the UK are amazed (read: incredulous) at the mess we seem to have created for ourselves.

They’re also surprised to discover neither side of politics appears interested in rebalancing our laws.

But the reason for this malaise is simple: one side of politics remains largely beholden to the union movement, while the other is still haunted by the ghost of Workchoices.

But two recent events prove change is possible if the case for it is properly and precisely presented to the Australian people.

Firstly, you may recall that earlier this year, Parliament abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT). This Tribunal – established during the Gillard government as an apparent favour to the militant Transport Workers Union – had lost all credibility after imposing crippling minimum rates exclusively for owner-drivers. 

Parliament approved the abolition of this unfit-for-purpose tribunal because both the Prime Minister and the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash made the case. They shared the harrowing tales of families devastated and livelihoods destroyed by the RSRT’s reckless and ill-informed ‘safe rates’ ruling.

And they explained – in a simple, clear, and consistent narrative – that the RSRT’s abolition was in the nation’s interests. The electorate listened, the cross-benchers were persuaded, and the bill passed.

More recently, Parliament has this week finally passed laws protecting Victoria’s volunteer firefighters from a hostile takeover by the militant Fire Fighters Union.

It was a promise made during the last federal election campaign, and one that could only be kept because the Government’s message was clear, its case well-made, and the people persuaded that stopping the UFU was the right thing to do.

Plenty more positive changes remain firmly within our grasp – we just need the courage to make the case, and to make it well.