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Australia’s workplace relations and employment laws

  • Written by Angus Bower

Since 2009, Australia’s workplace relations and employment laws have become a finely tuned construction. With bodies like the Fair Work Ombudsman in place serving the way we work and employ workers, the opportunities in Australia have not only increased, but the longevity and enjoyment of careers has too. But who is to thank for these standards? Is there a glimmering figure in the Australian governmental history to whom we can give our gratitude? The truth is that the Australian workplace is as it is due to the efforts of numerous – though most noticeably, the figureheads who have lead this country.

Employment relations specialists (Employsure), have collated the efforts of each Prime Minister into an interactive timeline which can be viewed at the bottom of this article. From a macro perspective, the most interesting thing to note from this is that mid-way through the 1900’s, the agenda by and large was to increase production and trade with foreign nations. That being, the benefit for Australia’s workers would be seen in their profitability from international trade relations. As time has progressed, the agenda has shifted to be more micro-focused, that is, improving the day to day regulations that protect these workers. We’ll go into detail on the changes made by individual Prime Ministers, though it’s important to note on this macro to micro shift that without one, we could not have the other. And despite the fact that more recent Prime Ministers have defined what workplace relations means in Australia now, it would not be possible without the foundations being laid by their predecessors.

In 1949, Robert Menzies was elected for his second term as Prime Minister, earning him the title of Australia’s longest serving leader (15 years). A well-liked individual, Menzies’ time was laced with positive workplace impacts like full employment, increased opportunities for workers, and overall raised living standards. On top of these, there were two key aspects to Menzies’ leadership directly pertinent to workplace relations. The first being his splitting of The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration into two separate bodies - The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the Industrial Relations Court. The initiation of these bodies, both non-Commonwealth by name and nature, was a strong step toward deference from Commonwealth rule in workplace relations. Arguably more important than this was Menzies’ staunch belief in the vital role women played for Australia’s industrial relations.

Following Menzies’ time, Harold Holt was voted into Parliament in 1966, and despite only being Prime Minister for one year (due to his then controversial disappearance), he was noted to have had strong relationships within the government, the courts, employers and trade unions. More important than these relationships, though not mutually exclusive, was his work to give minimum wage entitlements to Aboriginal pastoral workers. By working through the powers of Menzies’ Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, Holt strived to force the decision that Aboriginal pastoral workers were to be paid the same minimum wages as white pastoral workers. In 1960’s Australia this was big move forward and it was a decision that laid the foundations for what we today may take for granted as equal pay for all.

Nicknamed ‘Black Jack’, John McEwen became Prime Minister following the disappearance of Harold Holt. Serving for just one year, McEwen oversaw the finalisation of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission’s decision to give equal pay to Aboriginal pastoral workers. Though a short term, this wasn’t his only contribution to Australia’s workplace and industrial relations. One of his key focuses was to rejuvenate the Administration of Primary Industry. What this meant was that primary industry and products would be brought closer under government control, thus encouraging industry leaders to increase and maintain the standards of their goods sold overseas. While a minor initiative, this rejuvenation lead to the modeling of Australia’s trade and tariff policies, which for a nation reliant on goods exports, heavily influenced the working lives of many.

Australia’s next Prime Minister, John Gorton (1968-1971), played an equally important role in shaping the population’s working lives. Being the only PM voted into power as a member of the Senate, Gorton had served in roles of government under Menzies, Holt and McEwen, giving him a rounded perspective on leadership. His key contribution to workplace relations came by way of the establishment of the Australian Industry Development Corporation in 1970. The primary objective of this body was to develop and prevent foreign control over the industries which relied on Australia’s natural resources. Its introduction meant more jobs were created for Australians and gave the government a stronger control over workplace relations, thus creating better environments for all to work within.

After John Gorton retired from the Liberal Party in 1971, he was succeeded by William ‘Billy’ McMahon. McMahon’s time as Prime Minister was a relatively turbulent one, and he wasn’t noted to have affected a huge level of change to the country’s workplace legislation. That being said, there were two important events that have helped shape the modern Australian workplace. The first of these being the establishment of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and the first Aboriginal legal service in 1972. While the WEL wasn’t directly relevant to workplace relations, or women working, what it did do was put a strong foot forward for women in the political realm. Stemming from a dissatisfaction with the roles women played in political affairs, the sentiment both of their establishments caused an echo for equality in the workplace to gather steam in more modern times.

Arguably one of Australia’s most controversial Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam was responsible for a lot of changes; universal health care, free university, legal aid programs and abolishment of military conscription are all things he led the country through. Though more relevant were his contributions to the 1972 Equal Pay Decision and the renaming of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. As its name would suggest, the Equal Pay Decision was an incredibly important legislative result as it acted to enforce equal pay for equal work. This meant that for the first time, there was legislation which supported pay rates which corroborated the amount and type of work being done. Further to that, it instated the same basic rates of pay for both men and women.

After Gough Whitlam’s dismissal by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, Malcolm Fraser came into leadership in a caretaker capacity, though was later voted into the position in 1975. Between his instatement and final year of term in 1983, there were 3 key changes to workplace legislation which Fraser conducted. The first was the Ombudsman Act in 1976 – an establishment of the Commonwealth Ombudsman; a body which served to decipher and preside on complaints made against the governance of various Commonwealth departments. Following this Act was the introduction of the Commonwealth Employees (Employment Provisions) Act of 1977 – an Act which allowed for the dismissal and suspension of pay for employees who engage in industrial actions. The third key change came in 1979 by way of the introduction of Paid Maternity Leave. This legislative progress meant that women working in full-time roles were entitled to 12 months of paid maternity leave – resonating his predecessor’s initiative to equalize working standards for men and women, this move was an incredible social progression.

Voted into office in 1983, Australia’s next leader in office, Bob Hawke, held a level of popularity not seen before. This popularity wasn’t limited to only the public though, as both trade unions and employers favoured him. There was one key change which Bob Hawke instigated to workplace legislation – the renaming of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to the Australian Industrial Relation Commission. More important than the aesthetic name change was the fact that this lead to a shift toward enterprise bargaining as a resolution process. What this meant was that both working conditions and wages became negotiable by individual organisations – negotiations which were legally binding. This is something we may currently take for granted, though in the climate of the times, it was a process causing a categorical shift toward more independence for businesses in Australia, as well as freedom to negotiate for employees.

Gough Whitlam was challenged for his leadership twice in the early 1990’s, the second time being successfully defeated by his challenger, Paul Keating. Despite Hawke’s popularity, one of the key factors that contributed to Keating’s succession was the increasing unemployment rates – sparking Keating to act on attacking the then proposed goods and services tax. His other important contribution to workplace relations was the Industrial Relations Reforms Act in 1993. This Act allowed for workplace disputes to be negotiated and settled within the workplace environment by employers and unions, rather than through an external body. This, in combination with Hawke’s induction of enterprise bargaining on working conditions and wages as a means of negotiation, meant that employers and employees had unprecedented freedom and flexibility in managing workplace disputes. The resolution process though wasn’t limited to workplace negotiation though. If disputes were unresolved, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission still maintained the capacity to settle.

Another popular Prime Minister, and also Australia’s second longest serving, John Howard came into power in 1996, with his administration ending in 2007. The Workplace Relations Act of 1996 was his first major contribution to employment legislation; an Act presided over by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission which provided for a minimum set of employer requirements. As well as this, Howard worked to expand the federal industrial relations system by way of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choice) Act of 2005 – an Act which brought a huge number of workers and employers under federal industrial relations laws rather than state.

Coming into the understanding of workplace relations as we know it today, Kevin Rudd held his first term in office between 2007 and 2010. In this time, his Prime Ministership saw the commencement of what is arguably one of the most important pieces of employment legislation – the Fair Work Act of 2009. This Act served to consolidate 1,560 state and federal awards into 122 modern awards. It also meant the formation of Fair Work Australia to take the place of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, as well as the establishment of the Fair Work Ombudsman to act as the presiding bodies over this new system.

Rudd then held a considerably shorter second term in 2013 – a time in which he oversaw the Fair Work Amendment Act of 2013, which allowed for the expansion of flexible working arrangements, improved entitlements for parents on unpaid parental leave, and anti-bullying jurisdiction extended to the Fair Work Commission. Though between his two terms, there was another key figure who played a crucial role in all of Rudd’s employment relations endeavours. Before her time in office, Australia’s first female Prime Minister (2010-2013), Julia Gillard, worked under Rudd as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and was almost directly responsible for the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009. While this has been credited to Rudd’s time as leader, Gillard’s leadership takes acclamation for numerous other employment relations changes. Most notably, the Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment Act and the Fair Work Amendment Act of 2012. Both of which included vital stipulations and extensions of the Acts’ encompassment to improve the working life of those Australians falling within them.

After a period of relative political turbulence, Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister in 2013, following the end to Rudd’s second term. Before being Prime Minister, he held office as the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business – a position which ostensibly would gear him up for significant development to the workplace relations system. During his 2-year term though, the most notable of these developments was the Fair Work Amendment Act of 2015. This Act allowed for good faith bargaining rules to apply to Greenfields negotiations, as well as the implementation of restrictions on the ability to commence industrial actions before any bargaining had occurred. This alleviated pressure from employers who were previously urged into bargaining under the duress or threat of some form of industrial action.

Concluding with our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the amendments he has made to workplace legislation in Australia are arguably not the most important to our day to day working lives. His contributions have included the Territories Legislation Amendment Act of 2015, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act of 2016 and the Fair Work (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Act of 2017 – all of which contain varying minutia in workplace law development (see the below timeline).

All leaders mentioned have made some form of contribution to Australia’s workplace relations, and without each of their efforts the employment system as we know it today would not be what it is. While this article is a summary, it is important to remember that no one Prime Minister has made more or less of an impact than any other as context of the times plays a huge role in what these leaders focused on. Click through the timeline below at your will, there’s a lot of interesting information I have summarized, with dates and specific legislative changes detailed to a much more educational degree.

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