Adversarial industrial relations model doesn’t work: James Pearson

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The new head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says the adversarial workplace relations system no longer works and cries of “Work Choices” whenever a change is proposed are holding the country back.

But he has pledged to work collaboratively with the trade union movement in a bid to boost Australia’s flagging productivity, saying the country must pull itself out of its competitive slump.

James Pearson, ACCI chief executive, debated the head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Dave Oliver, at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

It was the first time the pair had met, and the event proved far more engaging than the sterile exchange of words between Malcolm Turnbulland Bill Shorten in the second leaders’ debate on Sunday evening.

It was Pearson’s first appearance as head of ACCI after he replaced Kate Carnell in April. He is a former head of Shell Australia’s media unit, and has also worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Pearson laid out his vision for Australia’s industrial relations framework, saying the “conflict-based model” of industrial relations no longer worked here.

He said Paul Howes, a former secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, made a similar argument at the Press Club two years ago, when he invoked the spirit of the Accord years to say we needed a more sensible and mature approach to industrial relations.

He said the nature of work was changing irrevocably, and Australia must embrace a future in which old conceptions of traditional working hours, and full-time permanent jobs, was less applicable.

“I want Australia to be competitive, but I don’t want us to become a low-wage economy in order to do that. I want to secure a future where we pay high wages at home, for high value activities,” Pearson said.

“We need to work together to build investment in Australia rather than to have to fight a union campaign to lock in an outdated model of permanent work. So my question is this: will unions work with or against employers?”

He then said: “I believe collaboration is central to the future of work.”

Oliver said he agreed that Australia had to adapt to changes in the economy, but he did not want to trap low wage workers in an American-style underclass with low wages and insecure work.

He said Australians wanted high-paying jobs, secure employment, a strong safety net and a greater share of the benefits of increased productivity.

This would come from greater investment in education, skills, infrastructure, and research and development, he said.

He then criticised the ACCI’s response to the budget, saying its support for the government’s $50bn business tax cuts showed it supported the tired theory of trickle-down economics.

“I have to say, James, that this low-rate approach is deeply disappointing,” Oliver said.

“[And] where is our innovation boom? I’m deeply concerned that innovation has now become the new one-word slogan of the Turnbull government. Why this government is cutting funding to the CSIRO is simply beyond belief.”

But Pearson and Oliver agreed to work collaboratively after the election, to try to exchange ideas.

“We want to work with you … as long as we have a sensible high-road discussion about investment in infrastructure, education and skills and jobs, and not just pull out the union-bashing card or go down about attacking penalty rates and long service leave,” Oliver said.

Pearson replied: “I’d like to reciprocate your invitation for us to talk … and I’m sure that we will be able to work together.”

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