Australian Government accused of arrogance over 'hellish' reforms

December 9, 2005

New industrial laws pushed through the Australian Parliament last week will make life "hellish" for university administrators, according to academic legal experts.

Andrew Stewart, professor of law at Adelaide's Flinders University, said the Bill would complicate the task of managing universities even more than the demands imposed by earlier legislation, which had become a "ridiculous intrusion".

Professor Stewart was one of the organisers of a Senate submission, signed by almost 160 academics, attacking the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Workplace Relations Requirements) Bill.

"Managers are struggling to try to get on with running the university while at the same time coping with the appallingly detailed and vague requirements of the Higher Education Workplace Reform Bill," he said. "Now they are going to have to take account of the difficulties imposed by the new legislation."

One concern about the latest legislation was the fact that the Government could change any salary and conditions agreement universities negotiated with staff if it decided it contained "prohibitive content", Professor Stewart said. This would add to universities' difficulties because every proposed agreement would need to have the imprimatur of the Minister for Education and the Minister for Workplace Relations.

The signatories to the Senate submission shared grave concerns about the Government's changes and their potential effects on workplaces, employees, the wider society and the Australian economy.

Their 57-page warning sets out the implications and likely consequences for employees and unions. They argue that deeper economic and social inequality will follow and that the outcomes will impact on the wellbeing of Australians.

The critics include 30 professors and 28 associate professors with expertise in workplace issues, including economics, management, law and industrial relations. Several overseas academics have added their names, including Stephen Deery from King's College London and Ray Markey from the Auckland University of Technology.

Far from reducing complexity in industrial relations, as the Government claimed, the group said the Bill added a layer of complexity that challenged even experts.

"These constraints are partisan in effect. They constrain the scope of employees and unions to pursue their interests, tightly prescribing activity and imposing severe penalties for any breach," the submission says. "On the other hand, they give great freedom to employers. This new regulation of the labour market enhances employer power and demonstrably weakens the position of employees."

Professor Stewart said the Government had had 12 months to prepare the legislation. But not only had it come up with "a monster" in size and complexity, it then decreed the Bill had to go through Parliament in less than a month, with an opportunity for public response in less than two weeks.

"It was outrage at this abuse of the parliamentary process that brought so many of us academics together," he said. "What galvanised the action has been what I would call the arrogant and short-sighted approach of the Government."

Last week, Education Minister Brendan Nelson wrote to vice-chancellors warning that additional funding would not be provided until later next year. Dr Nelson said new enterprise agreements were being checked to ensure they met the Government's workplace requirements.

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