With the Federal Election only a few days away (Saturday 21 May), Australian political parties have been busy campaigning and addressing their key policy platforms and plans. From Liberal’s commitment to the remaining measures in its Omnibus Bill to Labor’s pledge to lift wage rates in light of the latest annual inflation rate, there has been no shortage of industrial relations and workplace related issues both old and new on their agenda. This article unpacks those issues and foreshadows what we can expect to see from the major political parties following election day.

Wage rates and the gender pay gap

The latest inflation figures released in late April revealed that headline inflation had increased to 5.1% annually in the March quarter. In light of these figures, the federal government was criticised for being complacent about the cost of living in Australia and allowing wage rises to fall significantly behind inflation.

The Labor party responded by announcing that it would support a wage rise in this year’s national minimum wage order that keeps pace with inflation. It is ultimately the Fair Work Commission’s (FWC) responsibility for conducting annual wage reviews and determining national minimum wage rises each year and Labor was criticised for the policy position, viewed by some as an interference with the FWC’s independence. Recent comments from the Prime Minister reflect a more conservative approach to wage growth with some indication that wage growth should be expected in 18 months, mindful of the inflationary impact of significant wage growth in the short term.

The Labor party has also committed to closing the gender pay gap by strengthening the ability and capacity of the FWC to order pay increases for workers in low paid, female dominated industries and legislating so that there is greater transparency around the current gender pay gap.

Similarly, the Greens have also committed to:

  • increasing wages by proposing to establish a new minimum wage at 60% of the median wage; and
  • increasing wages and closing the gender pay gap by guaranteeing annual award wage increases that are 0.5% above inflation in female-dominated industries, including education, nursing, cleaning and childcare.

Without making similar commitments, the Liberal party has promised to narrow the gender pay gap by strengthening the economy and increasing women’s workforce participation, arguing that the current gender pay gap of 13.8% is significantly lower than the 17.4% inherited from the Labor party.

The Liberal party, the Labor party and the Greens have also unveiled respective plans for supporting women in the workplace.

The Liberal party’s plan involves investing in women’s economic security by providing more flexible and accessible paid parental leave (discussed below) and encouraging women into trade apprenticeships, the manufacturing industry and digitally skilled roles.

The Labor party has vowed to go further to support fair pay and conditions for working women. In particular, if elected, it has promised to legislate an equal remuneration principle to guide the FWC in equal remuneration and work value cases and establish a Pay Equity Panel and Care and Community Sector Panel to assist the FWC in determining those cases.

Finally, the Greens have a plan that entails improving paid parental leave (discussed below), increasing women’s workforce participation by providing free childcare and flexible work arrangements and implementing all of the recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s [email protected] report, challenging the federal government on the basis that it has failed to act on a range of recommendations in the report.

The Omnibus Bill

The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 (commonly referred to as the Omnibus Bill) was passed on 22 March 2021, albeit in a much-reduced form than when it was first introduced. Among other changes, the Omnibus Bill introduced a statutory definition of casual employee and a statutory obligation for employers to offer regular casual employees with 12 months of service conversion to full or part-time employment. (See our related article for more.)

The Liberal party has indicated that it is committed to passing the remaining measures in the Omnibus Bill that were not passed last year.

In summary, those measures include:

  • greater flexibility for employers and employees concerning duties and location of work under modern awards;
  • substantive changes to how enterprise agreements are made, including by:
    • requiring employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that employees are given a fair and reasonable opportunity to decide whether or not to approve an agreement; and
    • broadening the discretion of the FWC to approve agreements that do not pass the better off overall test on the basis that they are not contrary to public interest by way of reference to a range of factors, including the views and circumstances of employees and employers and the impact of COVID-19; and
  • deterring sham contracting and wage theft by:
    • introducing a new criminal offence for dishonest and systematic wage underpayments; and
    • increasing the value and scope of civil penalties and orders that can be imposed for non-compliance.

The Labor party has not indicated whether it will support the passage of any of the remaining measures in the Omnibus Bill. However, the party has committed to criminalising wage theft at a federal level.

Leave entitlements

Family and domestic violence leave

The FWC recently reached a provisional view in the family and domestic violence leave review that there should be an award entitlement to 10 days’ paid family and domestic violence leave. This represents a significant increase from the current entitlement to 5 days’ unpaid leave under modern awards.

The FWC has sought the federal government’s view on whether it would incorporate the proposed entitlement in the National Employment Standards (NES). In response, the federal government has declined to endorse incorporating the proposed entitlement in the NES, preferring instead to leave employers and employees to agree on these entitlements through enterprise agreements and workplace policies.

The Labor party, on the other hand, has committed to ensuring that the proposed entitlement is available to all Australian workers covered by the NES.

Paid parental leave

The Liberal party has committed to enhancing paid parental leave by allowing the current 20-week entitlement to be fully transferable between carers and raising the eligibility requirement to access the proposed entitlement to household income of $350,000 or less. The Labor party’s plan is to increase total leave from 20 to 26 weeks but has not specified how leave would be shared or transferred between carers. The Greens have also committed to a 26-week entitlement, composed of six weeks for each carer (on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis) and 14 weeks to be shared between carers.

Religious freedoms

The federal government’s long-awaited Religious Discrimination Bill (Bill) was shelved in February 2022 following a marathon sitting of the House of Representatives and a range of changes that amended the bill from what the federal government had initially proposed. (See our related article for further commentary on the Bill.)

Religious freedom laws were a key policy platform for the Liberal party during the 2019 election, and the party has committed to revisiting the Bill if re-elected.

Though the Labor party has committed to protecting Australians against discrimination on the basis of religious belief and activity, the party has not provided further detail in relation to the Bill and to what extent it would seek to pass the Bill if elected. The party has, however, highlighted that the Bill fails to protect students from discrimination on the basis of their gender and sexuality.