Nearly one week on from the Coalition Government’s ‘miracle’ election win the Australian labour movement is asking itself what went wrong. This time around Australia did not vote to change the rules, perhaps some hesitancy might be attributed to the lack of detail around industry level bargaining, perhaps the ALP policy suite was too broad to be fully grasped, perhaps $55 million dollars directed at polarising the electorate is depressingly effective.

Already business groups and company leaders have been reported calling for further deregulation of the ‘labour market’, in this environment we must remember that labour is not a commodity. The future of a fair Australia depends on maintaining a principled approach to labour law; one that recognises and addresses the imbalance of power inherent in the employment relationship and ensures the dignity and well-being of working Australians is not traded for empty profit.

The future of work does not look like our industrial history, but it must be built on the traditional foundation of balance and fair dealing. In response to the 2006 Work Choices legislation the AIER was established to ensure that such principles were not lost in the new workplace relations landscape. The Australian Charter of Employment Rights was developed to provide a principled mooring for future developments in workplace relations and labour law; such a mooring is essential now more than ever.

What hasn’t changed post-election is the need for broad reform. Our workplace relations system has remained unresponsive in the face of technological, economic, and societal change, resulting in wage stagnation, increasing inequality and the declining economic and political power of labour. Australia is moving further and further from the fair and egalitarian society to which we aspire.

The nature and significance of the challenges we face demands the broad reconceptualisation of our system; compromising for politically palatable solutions and tinkering around the edges with minor reform simply cannot resolve the systemic nature of the problem. The landscape in which our labour laws and workplace relations system were crafted bears little resemblance to that in which we live and work today, a new architecture is required not only to respond to emerging challenges but to create a system robust in design that can get ahead of changes to work by setting a principled structure of rights and obligations for all workers. In response the AIER will bring together leading labour law researchers, academics, practitioners and business leaders to develop a New Workplace Relations Architecture.

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