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March 26, 2006

Australia\’s new controversial workplace regulations come into effect this week

Australia’s new controversial workplace regulations come into effect this week

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Australian Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has urged the federal opposition Labor Party to focus on industrial relations (IR) as significant changes come into force from Monday 27th March. The legislation was passed in a row of controversy by parliament in December last year.

The contentious WorkChoices measures aim to move workers onto a federal industrial relations system and increase to the use of individual workplace contracts – under which conditions such as overtime and penalty rates can be set. The new WorkChoices arrangements include scrapping of unfair dismissal rights; the control by Federal government over state-based IR systems; more encouragement of individual contracts; award-cutting of award rates; secret ballots for industrial action and removal of the no-disadvantage test in new contracts.

The union movement has launched a fresh campaign to protest this week’s changes. ACTU secretary Greg Combet warns that some employees will feel the effects as soon as they come into force, because they will no longer be protected by the previous unfair dismissal laws. He says with the changes becoming enforced this week, the Federal opposition party must now concentrate on industrial relations and not on “political infighting”.

Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, says he’s prepared for a union scare-mongering over the IR laws, but assumes the campaign will fail. “I predict the scare campaign will go on,” he said. “I also predict that the scare campaign will fail.” Mr Howard says workers should wait and experience the new system for themselves and that the changes will give workers greater flexibility. “Over time it will be beneficial,” he said.

Greg Combet, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions

Combet feels different about the effects. “It’s likely, somewhere around Australia tomorrow, someone is going to be sacked unfairly and they’ll be the first victim of the new laws,” he told the ABC. “The really significant thing is that the balance of power in the workplace is shifting sharply to the business community, to the employer.”

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews told reporters last week that “the sky would not fall, because people would go to work next Monday and not detect any difference.” He described union protests as “hysterical outbursts”. “There is nothing in this legislation that people need to worry about in the ordinary course,” he said.

Despite the Howard government’s increased majority in the Senate, the passing of bill has not been smooth. In November last year, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rallied across the nation to express dissent of the IR legislation. Ex-Finance Minister, Senator Nick Minchin, said most Australians “violently disagree” with the recent IR changes and there was a real prospect that the High Court could overturn the Work Choices laws.

The HR Nicholls Society, described as one of Australia’s most politically conservative organisations, has likened the new federal laws to the former Soviet system of “command and control.” Society president Ray Evans says he does not like the centralised power being handed to the government under the changes, nor its encroachment on states’ rights.

Evans says the myriad of complex new laws would create a system where “so-called IR professionals would stand to make a lot of money sorting through it… every economic decision has to go back to some central authority and get ticked off,” he said . “There is a lot of that sort of attitude in this legislation and I think it is very unfortunate.” Kemalex Plastics owner Richard Colebatch of the HR Nicholls Society said the changes are “very complicated for anybody to decipher… The professionals will spend a lot of money, the employers’ money, working their way through the mire trying to create the new rules people are going to work towards.”

November 05: 150,000 turnout for Protest in Melbourne

But the Prime Minister says “more jobs will be generated in the small business sector as a result of the removal of the absurd job-destroying unfair dismissal laws, and the greater flexibility for people to make workplace agreements at the enterprise level will lift productivity,” he told reporters in Melbourne. “Sure some people will complain, but a lot of people will benefit through getting job opportunities. Young people, who will get an opportunity to put their step on the bottom rung of the ladder for the first time, will benefit enormously.”

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) said WorkChoices regulations do not go far enough in clarifying who can legally issue medical certificates for sick leave. AMA vice-president Dr Choong-Siew Yong said WorkChoices regulations meant employers and employees faced uncertainty and confusion over sick leave.

“The regulations fail to acknowledge two very serious failings,” Dr Yong said in a statement. “One, if people are seriously ill, they should be seeing their medical doctor. Two, opening up medical certification to a whole range of non-medical practitioners will make it difficult for employers to take sick leave seriously.”

Related news

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian industrial relations legislation, 2005
  • “Work Choices Fair Pay Chief heavily criticised” — Wikinews, November 15, 2005
  • “Hundreds of thousands rally in Australia against IR legislation” — Wikinews, November 15, 2005
  • “New Australian industrial relations legislation passes House of Representatives” — Wikinews, November 11, 2005
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November 15, 2005

Thousands of Australian workers set to rally against IR reform

Thousands of Australian workers set to rally against IR reform

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Melbourne, Australia 150,000 turnout for Protest

Police and union leaders across the country expect big crowds during today’s National Community Day of protest against the Federal Government’s WorkChoices proposed changes to industrial relations laws.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) predicts hundreds of thousands of people will demonstrate in Sydney and Melbourne. Protest meetings in other capital cities are expected to attract workers in their tens of thousands. The rallies will take place in 300 regional sites across Australia.

Labor’s opposition spokesman on industrial relations, Stephen Smith says, “The more people become aware of the nature of the changes and the detail of the changes, the more they realise how vulnerable they are and the more they want to do something to prevent the changes.”

Mark Bethwaite, from Australian Business Ltd, believes most people will go to work as usual. “Because frankly they are not convinced by the scare campaign the ACTU has been running,” Mr Bethwaite said.

The Federal Government has been accused of instructing agencies to refuse staff leave to attend the rallies against its IR changes and says it will not be affected by a rally of one person or a 100,000.

The Federal Department of Workplace Relations has issued advice to other departments that employees wanting to attend the National Community Day of Protest should be denied leave.

State and territory leaders intend to mount a High Court challenge to the Federal Government’s proposed industrial relations changes.

The ACTU say, “the IR changes are not just an attack on workers – they fundamentally undermine the values that make Australia great. Beneath all the glossy advertising are proposals that will unfairly curtail your rights at work, cut the amount of time you can spend with family, and erode your job security.”

The federal government have spent over fifty million dollars on promoting the radical new changes.

Unions say the changes will make it easier for workers to be sacked; cut take-home pay and reduce minimum standards; change the way minimum wages are set to make them lower; replace the award safety net with just five minimum conditions; restrict access to unions; make it harder for employees to bargain as a group; and reduce the powers of the independent Industrial Relations Commission.”

In Melbourne, Australian Education Union’s Mary Bluett said the IR legislation “is not the legacy we want to leave our children.” About 12,000 public servants, 10,000 building workers and hundreds of nurses are also expected to join the protest, but workers operating road, train, tram and bus services will remain on duty to allow commuters to travel free to the rally.

Sky News estimated the number attending the rally in Melbourne as 175,000.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry labelled the rally “a tired union stunt”.

Related news

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian industrial relations legislation, 2005



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Hundreds of thousands rally in Australia against IR legislation

Hundreds of thousands rally in Australia against IR legislation

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

An estimated 150,000 protesters in Melbourne fill Federation Square blocking roads in all directions.

People rallied in 300 locations across Australia today to protest the Federal Government’s proposed changes to industrial relations laws, WorkChoices. According to police, around 150,000 people congregated in Melbourne, from where speeches were broadcast throughout the country. In Sydney, thirty thousand gathered in Belmore Park and Martin Place to watch the broadcast before marching to Chifley Square.

Sharan Burrow, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), said that under the changes many working conditions would be under threat, including “penalty rates, public holidays, overtime pay, control over rostered hours, shift penalties, even 4 weeks annual leave.” The government has claimed, despite various expert assesment to the contrary, and opposition from major Australian religious and charity organisations and some concern from its own backbench, that the IR changes will improve the economy and ultimately benefit workers, and dismissed the protests as having “little effect”.


Ms Burrow said that the union movement was “standing up for the values that shape the way we care for each other,” and criticised the proposed legislation, calling it “an attack on living standards, community, family life and wages.”

The IR changes were also criticised by a number of church leaders. George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, said “I’m not a supporter of the radical weakening of the unions,” and Anglican Bishop Phillip Higgins called them “disturbing and unwise.”

Ms Burrow also criticised the Government’s public relations campaign, calling it a waste of money. “They spent $55 million of our money trying to convince us that everything was okay,” she said.

Greg Combet, Secretary of the ACTU, linked the struggle to past wars in which Australia has fought. “They fought and died in wars for this country. They do not deserve to have their rights taken away.” He said that, for many, workplace changes would come quickly, especially for the most vulnerable. He also argued that some employers would be forced by competition to reduce wages and working conditions. “Even the best employers can be driven by competition to lower their labour costs. We will end up with an army of working poor, like the US,” he said.

“We will hold the government to account for the human cost of these laws,” Mr Combet said.

Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke said that the struggle was about what he called “the essence of Australian character – the fair go.” Opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley declared that if returned to government at the next election, Labor would repeal the legislation. “This legislation is gone with the election of a Labor government,” he said.

Government response

Prime Minister John Howard predicted that the protests would have little effect. “It is my view that after they (the laws) have been implemented for a period of time, most Australians will look back on the criticisms and objections … with a sense of bewilderment,” Howard said.

“The sky will not fall in, weekend barbecues will not be abolished, parents will still be able to spend Christmas Day with their children.”

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, echoed the Prime Ministers sentiments. “Well the Government’s not going to be distracted by rallies and hysterical overreaction,” he said. Mr Andrews defended the Government’s record, arguing that it has been responsible for an increase in wages over the past ten years.

“Well what I would say to Australians, whether they were the people on the streets today or the probably 95% of Australians who were in their workplaces today working, is that firstly, look at the record of this Government over the last 10 years. That record speaks for itself. We’ve seen a 15% increase in real wages and we’ve seen a 1.7 million increase in jobs in Australia,” he said. Mr Andrews also said that the industrial relations changes were about creating the conditions for a strong economy.

“So what we’ve been on about is bringing about the economic conditions that we can have a strong economy which ultimately is the only guarantee of jobs and wages in Australia.”

Debate over proposed legislation

The claims of the Government are highly debated and not supported by some independent expert assesment. Professor Mark Wooden from the Melbourne Institute said, “There is no economic sense in it.” A report issued by 17 independent experts in industrial relations from Australian tertiary institutions stated that there “is no convincing evidence that the proposals will generate jobs,” and that the “claim that individual contracts deliver a higher productivity is highly questionable.”

The IMF said in its 2005 review of the Australian economy that “the implementation of this package of reforms to widen employment opportunities and raise productivity by enhancing flexibility in work arrangements” was important for Australia’s economic future, contradicting Prof. Wooden’s claims.

The OECD also supports reform to the Industrial relations system, claiming in its 2004 Review of the Australian Economy “To further encourage participation and favour employment, the industrial relations system also needs to be reformed so as to increase the flexibility of the labour market, reduce employment transaction costs and achieve a closer link between wages and productivity.”

Melbourne protest

Melbourne, Australia 150,000 turnout for Protest

Before marching to the Carlton gardens, a live video hook-up was established between the major state capitals of Australia, plus smaller regional centres.

Melbourne’s city streets are denuded of traffic to allow the protest against IR reforms

According to police, some 150,000 marched from Federation Square to Royal Exhibition building to protest the proposed IR legislation and voice opinion, vastly in excess of original union estimates of 60,000. Organisers estimated a crowd up to 245,000 while a report from Sky News from aerial observation estimated 175,000 people attending the protest. The crowd spread through as far as the eye could see – a seemlingly endless mass from the ground. The march stretched eight city blocks; when the first marchers had reached the end at the Carlton Gardens, the tail end was just starting.

For the marchers, the consensus was that the negatives of the legislation outweigh the benefits; that it will affect the poorer working class and the middle class long into the future unless the legislation is rolled back. One issue of concern was that the Government has not accepted that the minimum wage needs to rise with inflation, rather its position appears to be to allow for the possibility that the minimum wage could fall in real terms. Another was the loss of the safety net protecting workers from contacts offering less than award conditions.

Public transport was stretched to capacity and car parking was almost impossible to find. Inclement weather ultimately became fine. See the photo gallery for more photos

Sydney protest

March proceeding through Sydney streets

At 10am the estimated 30,000 protestors moved from Belmore Park down Hay St onto George St, chanting slogans and waving union banners.

Led by a fire truck, traditional Korean drummers and the Unions NSW campaign bus, they stretched nearly six city blocks along George Street, chanting their opposition to the changes.

Meeting with the rally from Martin Place, the combined march then moved on to Chifley Square, where another stage was set up, and more speakers were heard, including Peter Garrett, Federal member for Kingsford-Smith.

Garrett spoke mostly about the dispute between Boeing and 28 aircraft engineers at its Williamtown site. The workers are on strike to obtain the right to enter into a collective agreement negotiated by their union, rather than independent agreements. The strike is now in its fifth month.

Up to 100,000 people in NSW took part in 227 separate stopwork meetings throughout the state, linked by a nationwide Sky Channel hook up. The M4 motorway was also blocked off for nearly an hour, by transport workers and police.

More photographs of the Sydney protest can be seen in the Australian Industrial Relations Protest (Sydney) Gallery.

Brisbane protest

In Brisbane, Queensland, organisers have claimed success after more than 15,000 people turned out to protest against the industrial relations laws. Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley joined the workers, including representatives from 40 unions, who rallied at South Bank before marching to the Queensland office of the National party.

Mr Beazley told the South Bank rally that one of the first things he would do as Prime Minister would be to put in place “a fair system”.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said the State Government will push ahead with its High Court challenge to the Howard Government’s proposed changes to industrial laws.

Rallies were also organised for the Gold Coast, Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns.

Adelaide protest

In Adelaide, the SA Premier Mike Rann told a rally, estimated by police at 15,000 workers, that the State Government will fight the proposed new laws all the way to the High Court. “This is the most systematic attack on the values of Australian people that we’ve seen since the Second World War,” Mr Rann said.

SA Unions secretary Janet Giles was ecstatic with the response. “40,000 people in a city of one million . . . a sensational turnout. There are people here from every union, from all industries,” she said.

Adelaide images here


In Perth WA commuters experienced transport disruptions today as the city came to a halt for the Rally. Police estimates put the crowd at 10,000. UnionsWA secretary Dave Robinson told those assembled near the foreshore of the Swan River that it was a historic day. Premier Geoff Gallop, WA Employment Protection Minister John Kobelke and federal Labor industrial relations spokesman Stephen Smith also spoke at the rally.

The government earlier today revealed that Solicitor General Robert Meadows, QC, would lead WA’s High Court fight, mounted in conjunction with Queensland and NSW. Mr Kobelke said the action would seek to save 100 years of cooperative Australian industrial relations based on conciliation and arbitration. Perth images here

Other Cities

According to the ABC, 4,500 people rallied in the Tasmanian city of Hobart. Unions say 3,000 workers have rallied at Thoroughbred Park in Canberra. In Darwin, nurses, teachers, public servants, construction workers and entire families have turned out to show that not only workers will be affected by the Federal Government’s industrial relations reforms. Traffic blocked the roads leading the Fannie Bay Racecourse. Crowds jostled for space to see the satellite fed telecast from the Melbourne rally.

Wellington, NZ also showed solidarity as some 200 people demonstrated outside the Australian Embassy.

Photo Gallerys

Melbourne Gallery

Sydney Gallery


  • “Thousands of Australian workers set to rally against IR reform” — Wikinews, November 15, 2005


This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian industrial relations legislation, 2005
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Australian industrial relations legislation
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Hundreds of thousands rally in Australia against IR legislation
  • Samantha Baden. “30,000 march in city” — AAP, November 15, 2005 Cites 30,000 as Sydney crowd size

This original work will be also available in french.

This text comes from Wikinews. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 licence. For a complete list of contributors for this article, visit the corresponding history entry on Wikinews.

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