Tony Abbott puts changes to workplace law on back burner

Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday. Picture: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN
Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday. Picture: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

The Abbott government has put an ambitious review of workplace laws on the back burner as it spends political capital on selling an unpopular budget amid fears of a ferocious political campaign from Labor and the union movement expected to revive the spectre ofWorkChoices.

The terms of reference for the Productivity Commission's review of the Fair Work Act, the centrepiece of the government's industrial relations policy at the last election, have been all but finalised.

The Prime Minister's office has intervened to delay the review as it focuses on steering the budget through an unco-operative Senate.

And, earlier this month, Employment Minister Eric Abetz told a Senate hearing the review should be released ''shortly'', but admitted ''I think I may have said that at the last estimates [in February]''.

Senior government sources have confirmed the government is not ready to launch a new political debate over industrial relations.

Business groups and Liberal MPs are urging a bold industrial relations policy platform before the next election, though senior Coalition insiders believe there is no rush.

With one eye on the 2016 election, the government's political strategists have now pencilled in late 2015 or early 2016 as the time for the Productivity Commission to report back on the review, which would allow time to cherry-pick the most politically palatable recommendations and take them to the voters.

The final terms of reference for the review are expected to be only slightly different to the draft, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by Fairfax Media in March. It revealed the review will examine workers' pay and conditions, including penalty rates and union militancy, and also consider workplace flexibility.

The inquiry will examine the Fair Work act's impact on unemployment, productivity, business investment and the ability of the labour market to respond to economic conditions.

The launching of the trade union royal commission and the government's desire to pass other workplace law changes, such as restoring the Australian Building and Construction Commission, have also contributed to the delay.

Industry groups are increasingly agitated about the delay, with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry telling Fairfax it was time to get it under way.

Chief executive Kate Carnell said the industry body had seen the leaked terms of reference and was eager for the review to begin.

''It would be really good for it to be in the public arena so we can put together the best submission possible,'' she said. ''We keep being told 'Next week'.''

Labor Party employment spokesman Brendan O'Connor said the Prime Minister was holding back the review because ''he knows this review means workers will lose, and in the wake of the most unfair budget in living memory, he can't stomach more broken promises''.

ACTU national secretary Dave Oliver said the government had delayed the review because it knew ''the Australian people will reject their toxic views on IR, whenever they eventually decide to be honest about it''.

Senator Abetz's office refused to comment.


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