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The Fair Work Commission just doesn't get small business

Should more Fair Work Commissioners be former small business owners themselves?

The Fair Work Commission just doesn't get small business

David Bates
16 August 2016

By David Bates

Many tax-payer funded organisations have a ‘problem’ with one or more of their key stakeholders. The ATO, for example, sometimes clashes with accountants and bookkeepers. The Health Department occasionally clashes with the Australian Medical Association. And the Immigration Department is often in dispute with refugee rights advocates.

But the most significant breakdown in stakeholder relations anywhere in the Commonwealth sphere must be between the Fair Work Commission and Australia’s small business sector.

Our national employment relations tribunal just doesn’t get small business.

But you can’t hold the Commission itself entirely responsible for the breakdown in its relationship with small business.

The Commission’s tone is – after all – set by the appointed Commissioners, and very few appear to have run a small business themselves, at least in the years immediately prior to their appointment.

Remember that the Fair Work Act 2009 simply requires Commissioners to have “appropriate knowledge or experience in relevant fields such as workplace relations, law, business, industry or commerce.”

This is why so many former trade union officials and employer association representatives find themselves appointed to the Commission.

Take, for example, the four Commissioners appointed by the Employment Minister, the Hon Senator Michaelia Cash, in November last year. Here’s a summary of each from the Minister’s press release:

Ms Melanie Binet has been appointed Deputy President effective from 1 February, 2016. Ms Binet is Principal and Director of Legal Services at Perth based law firm Gregor & Binet.

Mr Richard Clancy has been appointed Deputy President effective from 3 February, 2016. Mr Clancy is Director of Workplace Relations at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Ms Katrina Harper-Greenwell has been appointed Commissioner effective from 1 February, 2016. Ms Harper-Greenwell is an employment relations consultant who has held senior positions in major mine, road, rail and infrastructure projects in Australia.

Ms Jennifer Hunt has been appointed Commissioner effective from 8 February, 2016. Ms Hunt is Employee and Industrial Relations Manager at Toll Holdings Ltd.

I have no doubt whatsoever that all four were highly-deserving of their appointment. Sadly, however, none appear to have been an owner or operator of a (non-law firm) small business.

As the biographies of almost all the current Commissioners confirm, most are former trade union officials, solicitors from law firms, or executives from the big end of town. This means almost none of the current Commissioners are from a traditional small business background.

But that’s not their fault – it’s the Government of the day which chooses who to appoint.

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