By David Bates

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of being a panellist on ABC Radio National’s Sunday Extra program. 

During the banter between myself, the host of the programme, Jonathan Green, and the two other (rather inspiring) panellists - Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Cristy Clark - I made the observation that more people would participate in the workforce and become net contributors to the tax system if we could just reform our country’s hopelessly complex employment laws.

Unsurprisingly, I was then immediately asked if I really wanted the introduction of ‘zero hour contracts’ here in Australia? 

Zero hour contracts – a type of employment agreement in which the employer is not obliged to provide guaranteed work, and the employee is similarly free to reject any work which is offered, – have been a source of considerable controversy in the UK in recent years. 

There are strong arguments for and against the concept of zero hour contracts, and both sides of the debate in the UK have spent years championing their respective positions.

In Australia however, whenever I endorse reform of Australia’s archaic, inflexible and complex workplace relations system, I am invariably condemned as a supporter of WorkChoices, or asked why I don’t believe Australian workers should have ‘any rights at all’, or told that reform is a slippery slope towards zero hour contracts. 

For the record: I’m not, I don’t, and no, it won’t.

Workplace relations is the only policy area where reform has become virtually impossible because one side of the debate (i.e. the ACTU and their affiliated unions) have successfully convinced both major parties that any change to the status quo will mean a return to WorkChoices.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Many unions simply oppose reform at all costs. Just ask the thousands of young workers who, for years, couldn’t obtain after-school employment simply because unions opposed any reduction to the ‘minimum engagement’ clause of the applicable Modern Award.

Even when a proposed reform is logical, publicly-supported, evidence-based and in the national interest, some unions will automatically stand in the way and scream ‘WorkChoices! WorkChoices! WorkChoices!’

Their campaign has been very effective, so effective in fact, that when I suggest we allow greater flexibility in the system to encourage more stay at home mums and dads to re-enter the workforce, I’m asked by a very intelligent and clearly well-informed opinion-leader whether I really want to see the introduction of zero hour contracts! 

We can reform this broken system while still maintaining protections for employees. We just need to find the courage to rise about the union-funded scare campaign that harms both workers and our economy.