Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke launched the Australian Institute of Employment Rights (AIER) to a 200-strong audience from legal, academic and industrial relations circles in Melbourne on Wednesday evening. Monash’s City Law Chambers were packed to hear Hawke, IR academics and practitioners oppose the WorkChoices legislation as unnecessary, unfair and contrary to the Australian ethos.

The new Institute promises to be a unique combination of academic, legal and industrial relations practitioners operating on an Australia-wide basis. It will promote employment rights and standards through research, public activities and training. Victorian Deputy Premier John Thwaites gave his government’s support to the Institute and emphasised that the living standards of all Australians had been achieved through the system that was now threatened by the Howard Government. The new Victorian Workplace Rights Advocate would work with the Institute on the defence of employment rights.

Barbara Pocock of Adelaide University, one of the founders of the Institute to be formed under the auspices of Monash University, said that it would develop sound, research-based advocacy of an employment system based on internationally recognised rights as an alternative path to strong economic growth. As one of those who presented the case to the Senate Inquiry on behalf of 151 academics teaching and researching industrial relations, Barbara said the Institute would be a national body with chapters in most states.

Drawing attention to the experience of the globe’s most productive economy, Finland, barrister Mordy Bromberg SC said that the rights and standards enjoyed by workers in that country gave the lie to the central argument of the Howard Government for WorkChoices…that Australia could only be more productive by allowing employment agreements to be individualised and standards cut.

Former Australian industrial judge Paul Munro said that constitutional independent third party arbitration of industrial matters in the public interest had been “the hallmark of the Australian system. That characteristic of our system has been justly described as an attribute and necessary element of Australian citizenship: a constitutional adoption of independent arbitration of the major issue of social rights on a national scale — the relations between labour and capital. The collective organisation of labour and employers in industry, and a perception of a distinct public interest independent of governmental policies, were implicit in that regulatory framework.”

Munro said that the Howard Government had been less than truthful in its presentation of the case for WorkChoices by not clearly identifying the removal of the role of arbitral tribunals in the federal and state jurisdictions as central to the legislation. In a speech which drew on his history as a labour advocate, Bob Hawke said that those who said WorkChoices was replacing an outdated system might as well set out to scrap the Australian Constitution which dated to 1901. In his fifty years of experience of industrial relations never had those backing WorkChoices supported all the key elements of what it meant to be an Australian… time for family holidays, penalties for extra worktime, reductions in the working week, and wages with a minimum living wage to enable families to cope.

Hawke said that having failed to convince independent tribunals established to look not only at living standards but economic productivity as well, employer bodies were backing a government to cut out the role of the tribunals themselves. It was obscene to hear chief executives and ministers receiving huge salary packages saying that the level of the minimum wage, less than $500 per week, was excessive.

The Americanisation of the employment system in Australia would produce the same effect as it had in the US… an underclass of poor and disadvantaged people, social disharmony and conflict, he warned. By attacking the role of the unions, the Howard Government was attacking the only institution which had fought continuously for improved living standards and rights for Australians over the course of our history.

Hawke wished the Institute well, saying that there were employers who did not support the WorkChoices laws and that people of goodwill needed to stand up to the laws and ensure that the government introducing them was removed in 2007. Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics Gill Palmer welcomed the participants to the launch and backed the formation of the Institute under the auspices of the University.

Research projects commissioned by the Institute will be conducted by Monash and other Australian universities. The Institute would be housed at the Caulfield Campus of Monash.

In forecasting future activities, Mordy Bromberg drew attention to the Institute of Employment Rights in the UK which he had recently visited. Like its UK counterpart, AEIR would develop a Charter for Employment Rights in Australia against which industrial legislation could be judged. It would reflect the standards and rights which are part of the ILO conventions adopted by Australia and other developed countries.

The Institute would be conducting conferences, seminars and training for industrial relations participants in addition to its research role. Bromberg drew attention to the activities of rightwing “think tanks” which had provided much of the ideological preparation for the Howard Government’s attack on employment rights and standards. It was essential that the Institute provide credible and well-researched material in the public arena to counter this influence.