Blood on all sides – what HR needs to know about IR

Girard Dorney


written on September 14, 2017

The head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission has quit, and the CFMEU has been slapped with $2.4 million in fines. And as wages remain stagnant, speculation increases that Labor will push more deeply into an IR fight.

Australian industrial relations had a turbulent start to the year, and it seems that the tension will continue through to the year’s end. The question now is, what will the situation look like going into 2018 and beyond?

The head of the ABCC quits

Nigel Hadgkiss, chief of the ABCC, has quit after admitting he contravened the Fair Work Act. During his tenure as head of a Fair Work office, he allowed website material to be published that suggested employers could prevent union officials from exercising their right to meet employees in their place of work. And, when staff raised concerns, he failed to correct the material.

As reported by ABC news, Liberal senator and former employment minister Eric Abetz argued the crime was menial, and was now being capitalised on by unions who have committed far worse. “That which Mr Hadgkiss is alleged to have done pales into absolute insignificance, it is literally in the parable, they are pointing out a little speck in Mr Hadgkiss’s eye,” he said.

However sympathetic you might be to that point of view, it’s obvious why Hadgkiss had to quit. This April, after fines were laid against the CFMEU for unlawful industrial action, Hadgkiss said, “The ABCC will continue to work towards ensuring all in the industry, whether workers, unions, or employers, comply with the law. Flagrant disregard for workplace laws cannot be tolerated.”

The ability to deliver such a line with a straight face is absolutely crucial to the role Hadgkiss has stepped down from. The now former-chief has been a consistent lightning rod in the IR sphere and, as any HR manager knows, integrity in a public-facing leadership role matters. When it’s not there, you risk your organisation’s reputation, and encourage finger pointing.

Which is why it’s no surprise that the Labor party is making political hay out of the issue, and saying that Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash – who knew about the breach allegations a year ago – should also be stepping down.

CFMEU fines

In a blistering decision, Federal Court judge Geoffrey Flick has hit the CFMEU and its officials with record fines totalling $2.4 million. The judgment is about unlawful strikes that took place on July 24-25 2014, where 1000 Barangaroo construction workers walked off the job.

Explaining his decision, Flick mentioned that the CFMEU were repeat offenders and that, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to envisage any worse conduct… the prior imposition of penalties — some nearing the maximum — against the CFMEU has not ­deterred it from engaging in ­clearly unlawful industrial action”.

It couldn’t come at a worse time for unions. Trying, as they are, to maintain their relevancy despite declining membership numbers and a struggle to find their place in an economy that is rapidly changing. With the government seeking to pass laws that will stop the merger between the CFMEU and the Maritime Union, this new decision only gives them more political ammunition.

Enterprise bargaining agreements and the continuing IR fight

Low wage growth, and the changing demographics of employee relationships are posed to make sure that Australia’s IR tensions continue for some time.

Also, the number of workers moving from being under enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) to being under Award rates is increasing. Just this month the Murdoch University in Western Australia took the ‘nuclear’ option and won the right to terminate its EBA with staff – a highly unusual and contentious decision, especially for a public institution.

Given these underlying problems and the tone and tenor of the political debate, HR professionals should be wary. With the Coalition government focused on what it perceives as overly powerfully and disruptive unions and the ALP’s employment spokesman recently giving a speech wherein he made increasing the bargaining power of workers an election pledge, it seems likely that industrial relations will be unsettled for some time.

Photo credit: Corey Oakley via / CC BY-NC-SA

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3 thoughts on “Blood on all sides – what HR needs to know about IR

  1. The biggest obstacle to proper reform of the IR landscape is our political process, and the media. Let’s look at the Senate. During the coalition’s period in govt over the last 4 years, there have been about 5 or 6 bills that the Senate has blocked and refuses to pass. These bills are simply aimed at restoring a level playing field in IR. That level playing field was decimated by Gillard, Rudd, and Shorten, who unwound over 20 years of IR reforms and took us back to the bad old days of the 70’s. This isn’t just my opinion – I am echoing the comments of prominent unionists such as Martin Ferguson. However, we have been stymied by Senators with a god-like complex who have completely trounced the principles and role of the Senate, We vote in a govt to pass legislation, yet over the last 20 or so years the Senate has increasingly believed they can block whatever they want. It is destroying the country, and is also the reason why we will never see proper budget repair aimed at reducing this woeful deficit, and govt’s continuing to spend like drunken sailors.
    Consequently, the CFMEU and others continue on their merry way. The above example is but one incident. There have been a few cases in Qld this year in which they have also been fined for similar behaviour and the presiding Judge, Magistrate, etc, has called them out for their outlaw behaviour. However, you hardly ever see this reported in TV and online news articles. The only forum in which I see the reporting of this appalling union behaviour is in the Courier Mail and The Australian newspapers, as well as Andrew Bolt and Paul Murray on Sky Channel. Then again, the bias of journalists at 7, 9, 10, etc is now almost on a par with the ABC and SBS. We no longer have proper independent journo’s. What we have are activists masquerading as journo’s.

  2. Howard destroyed, what up until that point had been fair changes to our IR system, when he removed the No Disadvantage Test from AWAs. If he had not removed this protection, its probable the Labor landslide which ushered in Fair Work would not have happened.

    The biggest problem with our IR system is that every time we have a change of government, they change as much of the IR law as they can.

    There is no other piece of law that is so constantly ravaged by politics. Like any legislation it should provide fairness for all; not partisan politics. We have to address how we can have non partisan IR legislation.

    Our IR Commission is equivalent to the US Supreme Court in its partisanship.

  3. Unfortunately the Labor government seems to be in my view, just another arm of the Labor union movement and the ABC are sometimes referred to as “LUPA” ( Labor Union Propaganda Arm) for a good reason.

    Criminality is sometimes viewed as a badge of honour amongst union officials. Police don’t like getting involved in IR matters and Tribunal decisions are often determined by who is hearing the matter rather than the facts of the case.

    The reality is that things like embezzlement, assault and corruption within the unions are not viewed as being important by the media (unless the mainstream media outlets gain traction on the story). We call it unionism in Australia.

    I am sure many HR professional would agree the CFMEU easily meets the definition of a criminal organisation. However the Courts and Tribunal do not believe they have engaged in sufficient crime to de-register them and the crimes they have committed in the past quite serious. Again, unionism.

    I doubt the IR field will change in Australia while there is a Labor union government however it keeps us employed.

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