Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary, Jeff Lawrence, and Former Howard Government Minister for Workplace Relations, Peter Reith, provided alternative views on industrial relations and its impact on productivity at a recent CEDA event in Melbourne.
Both agreed that there was rising militancy on the IR front but while Mr Reith argued that it was rising on the part of employees, citing examples including the recent nurses' strikes in Victoria, Mr Lawrence argued it was rising among employers, highlighting Alan Joyce's recent action with Qantas.
"2011 has been a bad year for workplace relations and my worry is that it might get worse in 2012," Mr Reith said.
"They're many aspects to productivity performance but I don't think there is any doubt at all that the labour market of Australia has for better or for worse, an impact on our productivity performance.
"Things aren't too bad in Australia all things considered, and in fact compared to a lot of places in the world, we're doing pretty well, but if that engenders complacency then we really are looking to jump off a cliff in terms of economic management because we are not divorced from what's going to happen in the rest of the world.
"We can't be complacent and where there are issues that need to be considered and managed, and in my view changed, then we really need to get on with that reform, particularly because of concerns of the prospect of economic turmoil arising out of Europe.
Mr Reith was critical of both sides of politics commenting that: "Looking at the reality of what is happening on the ground, we are shifting away from that enterprise focus, something which on both sides (of politics), there was a general agreement that was the way to go."
Mr Lawrence argued that productivity had not slowed because of IR issues and strong economic growth and workplace rights could go hand in hand and in fact it was countries with poor workers' rights that struggled to rebound from economic turmoil
"The slowdown of Australia's growth since the 1990s, I think is a matter for concern, and unions support a real productivity growth agenda. But this won't be achieved by changes to the Fair Work Act," Mr Lawrence said.
"The productivity slow-down is in fact a long-term problem, as the ACTU substantiated in our paper on productivity, and one that has been underway for at least a decade. WorkChoices didn't fix it - nor did Peter Reith's Workplace Relations Act - and Fair Work hasn't made it worse.
"Labour laws are not the cause of our productivity problems, and they're not the solution. Australia's pacesetting economic performance of the last couple of years shows that strong economic growth and workplace rights are not incompatible, in fact they go hand in hand.
"It has been those nations with the most deregulated labour markets, and consequently the poorest worker rights - such as the United States - that have struggled most to emerge from the economic downturn initially caused by the GFC.
"Sensible people and people who recognise facts around this issue, know that improving productivity won't be achieved by declaring war on your workforce.
"It will be achieved by investing in education, skills, training, innovation, and infrastructure."
While again coming from opposing positions, both agreed that that there needed to be stronger good faith bargaining, and a genuine commitment to negotiate from all sides. Mr Reith highlighted concerns about the rolling "guerilla tactics" by unions and staff in the Qantas dispute, while Mr Lawrence highlighted concerns about employers adopting a "lockout first, ask questions late" approach.
Members: for event audio click here.