Readers may remember that this column explored the issue of Federal-State relations a while back. This is an issue that has enormous significance for us all as it goes to the heart of the way in which we are governed. Although the Rudd Government pledged that a cooperative relationship between the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments would characterise Labor’s term in office, we are in a unique position to objectively assess this claim almost six months into the new political cycle.
The Federal Government has prioritised the achievement of a unitary system of industrial relations regulation for the private sector as a part of the Forward with Fairness reforms. Whether this will eventuate will act as a litmus test for the Labor Government. A truly national industrial relations system is an essential ingredient of a mature economy and also ensures that employees are protected by a consistent set of laws.
In a meeting of the Workplace Relations Ministers Council (consisting of the Federal, State and Territory Workplace Relations Ministers) held on 23 May, a set of principles that will guide the development of a uniform national system for the private sector was determined. These principles include a national system which
-¢ will provide a strong safety net of minimum standards;
-¢ facilitate collective bargaining at the workplace level; and
-¢ provide unfair dismissal remedies and other effective remedies through an impartial industrial umpire.
There are a number of methods by which a truly national Federal system can be achieved. These include the States referring their industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth (similar to what was done by Victoria in 1996) or the States passing legislation which mirrors Federal legislation. Allowing the States the discretion to elect how they will work with the Federal Government to create a national industrial relations system is rife with potential problems. However, it represents a solution to a political impasse which would otherwise stymie this important development.
The outcome of the Ministers’ meeting was vague in terms of a definite timeline for achieving a Federal industrial relations system, but this will be an important area for us all to keep an eye on.
Federal and State co-operation is important to Australia.