By David Bates

As regular readers will know, I rarely have much good news to share when it comes to Australia’s employment laws and the associated regulatory authorities. However, this week is an exception to that general rule.

Last Thursday something wonderful happened: Fair Work Commission Vice President Michael Lawler finally resigned. 

For those who may have missed the backstory, vice-president (VP) Lawler had taken roughly a year off from the commission on fully-paid sick leave. Under the terms of his appointment, he was entitled to unlimited paid sick leave at his annual salary of $435,000.

While absent on sick leave, he was busy assisting with the legal defence of his partner, Kathy Jackson, the disgraced former Health Services Union official who has now been ordered by the Federal Court to repay $1.4m to her former union.

Last year, VP Lawler made the extraordinary decision to appear with Ms Jackson on the ABC’s Four Corners program. In what must surely be some of the most cringe-worthy television ever broadcast, VP Lawler proudly demonstrated how he used two mobile telephones to secretly record conversations about his sick leave with his boss, Fair Work Commission President Ross.

You may (quite reasonably) be wondering why VP Lawler wasn’t simply sacked? The answer is simple: his removal required a vote in both houses of our federal parliament. 

The final straw for VP Lawler seems to have come last Wednesday evening when a man’s body was found at the house he shares with Ms Jackson.

No, you really couldn’t make this stuff up.

Lawler’s decision to resign will be met with deep and widespread relief. It marks the end of a tawdry and deeply embarrassing saga that has inflicted incredible damage to the commission’s reputation and further weakened community confidence in its authority.

President Ross and his colleagues – as well as Minister Michaelia Cash – now have an opportunity to begin reforming this costly and much-maligned institution. They needn’t start from scratch because the commission’s own Future Directions initiatives chart a clear way forward. But progress on their implementation has been slow to date, and many Commissioners don’t appear receptive to the higher standards of service and accountability these bold initiatives demand of them.

Still, the Commission is clearly in better shape today than it was last Thursday morning before VP Lawler’s long overdue resignation was finally received. So yes, some good news at last.