18 September 2020 

The following opinion peice by Master Builders Australia's CEO Denita Wawn was published in the Australian Financial Review on 18 September 2020

Despite the fact that the industrial relations reform working group negotiations are supposedly undertaken in the strictest of confidence, it has been reported in this newspaper that four of the employer groups, including Master Builders, were furious and I apparently walked out “in disgust”. I can confirm that this is an accurate depiction of what occurred.

Master Builders Australia entered two of the IR reform working groups in good faith and with one core objective: how could we unravel, by agreement with the unions, the complexities of the industrial relations system to achieve lasting change that could not only save jobs but create new ones, amid the worst recession in nearly 100 years?

As a representative of 33,000 small and medium-sized businesses around the country, in an industry that has one of the best multipliers of economic activity in Australia, Master Builders knows the industry can play a crucial role in employment creation.

At one of the very last reform group meetings, a joint proposal was tabled that had been formulated by the Business Council of Australia and ACTU to create a two-tier stream for enterprise bargaining.

There are many reasons why employer groups including Master Builders are up in arms. But our key concern is that this proposal would fundamentally undermine a core part of our IR system and democracy – the principle of freedom of association.

Before the working groups started meeting, in a sign of good faith, Master Builders did not oppose the government’s decision to no longer pursue the Ensuring Integrity Bill, despite it being a key priority of our members.

This bill would have provided a further mechanism to stop bullying by law-breaking construction unions on building sites around the country. These tactics are deployed by building unions to force workplaces into adopting union pattern enterprise bargaining agreements that reduce productivity, increase construction costs and embed the toxic culture of militant unions.

Giving militant unions yet another lever to double down on the daily practices deployed against our members is a step too far.

It is small businesses that bear the brunt of construction union bullying, which is why the government fought so hard to bring back the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It is this bullying that the ACTU secretary has defended.

In entering the working group negotiations, Master Builders took a pragmatic approach and set aside many long-held policy positions, knowing that lasting agreement with unions would be impossible unless all involved took a sensible approach.

However, one core position that Master Builders will never give up is the principle of freedom of association, which protects the rights of workers and businesses to choose the organisations that represent them, and prevents them from being forced or coerced into dealing with an organisation against their wishes.

Under the BCA-ACTU two-tier stream for enterprise bargaining, one tier would be quicker, simpler, and easier, while the other would retain the current overly technical and lengthy process. The catch? Only union agreements can access the more efficient tier, and non-union agreements would be left at the mercy of the existing process, which deters even the most vocal supporter of enterprise bargaining.

It shows that unions actually agree that there are big problems with the system, but in their view these can be fixed only if unions get more privileges and rights under the law. The result would be that the overwhelming majority of workplaces, with no union presence, would be treated differently when seeking approval of a proposed agreement, while the minority with a union presence would get preferential treatment involving different tests and a streamlined approval process.

This is a serious affront to the principles of freedom of association, as well as those that underpin the concept of enterprise-based bargaining. It would create an unfair and distorted outcome entirely at odds with the objectives of the Fair Work laws, reversing decades of legislative reforms by both Labor and Coalition governments.

That anyone would seriously entertain creating new rights for unions in the context of a recession is bad enough. But for it to come from an employer association is completely bewildering.

Giving militant unions yet another lever to double down on the daily practices deployed against our members, while incentivising coercive, unfair and anti-competitive conduct, is, frankly, a step too far. It would take our IR system back to the 1950s.

That might be what big business and the big unions want, but it would be at the expense of all other workplaces, representing 95-plus per cent of the business community.

Master Builders prides itself on an evidence-based, policy not politics advocacy approach. We were described last year by the Prime Minister as “not a shy” organisation that stands up for its members' interests. We will never back away from this approach, and will become even more vocal if forced to defend the viability of our members, businesses, a strong economy, or the core values that have guided our organisation for 130 years.