How ambitious is WorkChoices?

Bradon Ellem

In July 2005, the Howard government secured control of both houses of parliament when the Senators who had been elected in the coalition's triumph at the federal poll in October 2004 prepared to take their seats. No government had had such parliamentary power for a generation. No prime minister was less likely to throw away the opportunities this presented than John Howard for whom industrial relations 'reform' has been an article of faith throughout a lifetime in politics.

Whereas the deliberations concerning the first national law to regulate industrial relations (the Conciliation and Arbitration Act passed almost exactly 101 years earlier) had consumed the Commonwealth parliament for years, Howard moved quickly. His government's policy was formally outlined in late May 2005 and on 7 December, WorkChoices, as the legislation was now badged, was passed by parliament after a hurried Senate inquiry and with only minor amendments.

Of course, it is the case that, amid a raft of social, economic and legislative changes, many of the structures and processes developed under the legislation of 1904 had been eroded since the late 1980s, beginning with the introduction of the 'two-tier' wage-fixing system. Does this mean that WorkChoices was a mere continuation of these trends and a corollary of those other policy changes? To answer this question, to decide just how far-reaching are the changes in and consequent upon the legislation, is the core task that this commentary sets itself. To do so, it is necessary to explain and contextualise the new Act.

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[Image: Adapted from Bill Sanders' cartoon representing the efforts of the authorities in Poland to crush the Solidarity labour movement in the 1980s.]