Opening of the Industrial Relations Society of the A.C.T.

Annual Conference

16 June 2005

It is a pleasure to be here to open the 2005 Annual Conference of the Industrial Relations Society of the ACT. It is also a pleasure to see so many delegates here. I generally do not accept invitations to speak at conferences run, unlike this one, by private entrepreneurs. Consequently I look forward to attending functions organised by the industrial relations societies in the various States and Territories. They provide an opportunity to keep in touch with people involved in industrial relations on a less formal basis and to hear some views - some more welcome than others - which I would be unlikely to hear during formal proceedings.

It is noticeable that most of the industrial relations societies appear to be flourishing. That has not always been the case. Interest has fluctuated over the years and at times some societies have struggled. Interest in the societies' activities is currently very high across the country and, whatever the reasons, that is a good thing. Meetings like this one are an invaluable opportunity for people to deepen their understanding of opposing points of view and to discuss new solutions to the problems of the day. The interchange between people of different backgrounds and interests but with a common desire to improve industrial relationships is conducive to a more harmonious and stable industrial relations environment. I am sure this conference will provide another opportunity for interchange of that kind and I urge you to take full advantage of it.

This is an important time in the history of industrial relations in Australia and particularly that is so in relation to foreshadowed changes in the Commission's role in the fixation of minimum wages and conditions. I shall leave it to others to expose and debate the salient points for and against what is proposed. Members of the Commission are well occupied carrying out their current statutory responsibilities and speaking generally content to let Parliament decide what legislative adjustments should be made. The Government has a majority in both houses of Parliament and clearly can implement whatever changes it wishes. I have not been consulted about the changes nor have I sought to be. I make no complaint about that. I do not believe that it would be appropriate for the Commission to have any private input into the formulation of legislative policy, although there are some matters on which consultation might be useful. Those matters include issues of a technical or administrative nature concerning the operation of the Commission itself, or measures to make the Commission more effective within the parameters of its statutory role. Our job is not to make legislation but to carry out our statutory functions as dictated by the Parliament from time to time. Indeed it is our duty to do so faithfully and impartially.

It is of course unfortunate when the views set out in the Commission's decisions are misrepresented, as inevitably happens from time to time. Many of the accounts given in the media of the Commission's recent decision on the review of minimum wages are inaccurate. Some are so distorted that the only resemblance they bear to the reasons for decision is the fact that they got the figure right - $17. In fairness, the inaccuracies occur in the so-called opinion pieces rather than the news reporting which is for the most part extremely accurate, although necessarily abbreviated. If you are interested in the Commission's decisions I make the plea that you read them before drawing conclusions. It is all too common that feature writers start with the hypothesis that the decision is of a particular character and then give an account of the decision to support the hypothesis - paying little or no regard to the statutory framework which circumscribes the Commission's decision-making. It was ever thus. Members of the Commission give their reasons for decision only once - there is less room for confusion that way. So I simply ask that you read the minimum wages decision before making any judgments about it.

As I said in addressing last year's conference, because of our legal and constitutional history, arbitrated cases are conducted in the traditional adversarial fashion with the evidence and other material of each party being subject to criticism and examination by the opposing parties. It hardly needs to be said that in reaching its decisions the Commission applies conventional decision-making processes - it examines the evidence and the submissions in the context of the statutory requirements in open hearing and publishes detailed reasons for decision. In that environment it is the arguments and the evidence which speak loudest, not the identity of the parties.

The Prime Minister has announced that the fixation of minimum wages should now be the province of a new body - the Australian Fair Pay Commission. One option open to the Government was to amend the criteria which the Commission has been obliged to take into account in fixing minimum wages since 1996 and make other procedural changes in line with its policy. From its rejection of that option it is clear that the Government no longer wishes the Commission to be involved in any significant way in the fixation of minimum wages. Some might find it ironic that the Commission's processes are now said by some to be too formal and adversarial for the fixation of minimum wages when it is not so long ago that the opposite charged was levelled at the Commission and by some of the same people.

But from the wider perspective the proposals announced by the Prime Minister on 26 May are of enormous significance politically, because of the political debates which have commenced and will no doubt continue for some time to come at Federal and State level; legally, because of the questions of constitutional law involved; economically, because of their potential to affect labour costs, employment and productivity levels; and socially, because of their potential to affect earned incomes and non-wage employment benefits. Because of the breadth of the changes the legislative process and full implementation will take some time. We shall all watch the political and legal developments over the near term with a great deal of interest. The economic and social effects are likely to take longer to materialize, but will be just as important.

Your conference committee has assembled experienced speakers from across the spectrum of industrial relations who are sure to provide a number of original insights into the topic for the Conference - " Radical change: is it needed or loading the dice." The analogy between gambling and industrial relations is not one I would encourage, although obviously there are some similarities between the two fields. It promises to be a stimulating and informative convention. I hope you all find it professionally rewarding and that you enjoy it as well.