Summit signals need for cooperation into the future

The long-awaited Jobs and Skills Summit brought together over 140 representatives from government, industry, the union movement and academia to discuss the issues and possible solutions to crippling labour and skills shortages.

Across two days, the summit called for cooperation and collaboration across all sectors of the Australian economy, with unanimous agreement about the complexity of challenges facing Australia and a spirit of good will to address them.

Consensus was reached that the challenges the nation faces are diverse and will require broad based action to make the changes necessary for continued prosperity. Just as regional communities face difficulties different to cities, and small businesses have different challenges to larger businesses, the solutions that are put forward to fix these problems can’t use a cookie-cutter approach – they must be considerate of the needs of local communities and businesses.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke’s statement that some of the discussions through the two days of the summit “wouldn’t have been possible six months ago” speaks to the genuine good will present in the room, and the intent to solve for the breadth and depth of the challenges facing Australia.

Delegates and representatives came from all corners of the country to make genuine attempts to compromise in the name of growth for all Australians. From the retail industry, ARA CEO Paul Zahra joined business leaders from Coles, Wesfarmers and Woolworths as well as representatives of the SDA, reflecting a diverse range of views contributing to the summit’s outcomes.

This cooperation manifested in many forms, across issues previously seen to be outside the realm of negotiation – including a commitment to review the application of the Better-off Overall Test, known as the BOOT, in order to make bargaining more flexible, less complex and more accessible.

This was also accompanied by other important signals about the future of industrial relations in Australia, with an emphasis on ensuring small and medium businesses receive the same access to bargaining as larger business. This includes reviewing how the Fair Work Commission engages with employer and employee representatives negotiating agreements, and how awards can be constructed to maintain workplace protections whilst freeing employers and employees to meet the growing desire for flexibility within the workforce.

The topic of engaging more Australians in meaningful work was also front of mind for summiteers. The pressing need for workplaces to be more accommodating of all workers, regardless of their background, was discussed by business leaders with similar tones to that of union leaders and social service workers.

Making the necessary changes to build a stronger workplace for women was a particular priority, with the Government’s childcare reforms and the future need to increase both care availability and flexibility central to increasing female participation in the workforce.

So, where to next?

The Government has outlined immediate actions it will take, as a result of the summit. Many of these actions have direct and positive impacts for retailers, including:

  • An additional $1 billion to support 180,000 fee free TAFE places in 2023
  • An income credit for aged pensioners to earn up to $4,000 over the 22/23 financial year without losing any pension benefits
  • An increase to the permanent migration program cap, from 160,000 to 195,000, for 2023
  • Investments to improve visa processing times through hiring more staff as well as training current workforces to improve processing capacity.
  • Extending current eased conditions on the hours international student visa holders can work until June 2023

The Employment White Paper, forecast to be a main outcome from the summit, will use the discussions and ideas expressed over the last two days to begin consultation across an extensive list of issues. Over the next 12 months, there will be discussion surrounding:

  • Amending the Fair Work Act in order to support flexible working arrangements, alongside other Industrial Relations reform to reinvigorate bargaining processes for both employers and employees.
  • Reviewing how Australian skills and training can be made easier for workers to access, in order to enable lifelong learning and interoperability between skillsets, occupations and types of higher education.
  • How to support all businesses to engage with digital transformation for their circumstance, and what digital skills Australians must possess in order to maximise future productivity.
  • How to make the changes to workplace laws and cultural norms to better support the workforce participation of women, First Nations communities, people with a disability, those from CALD communities and refugees.

Whilst the summit alone did not solve the mounting issues facing the Australian economy, it did provide clarity about the path forward. Tripartism will become central to the potential success of the economy and its ability to uplift every Australian. With the path to success now set out, it is imperative that the spirit of good faith and fairness within the summit now informs what governments, industry and unions do next.

The two-day Summit and the pre-summit consultation has been among the largest single policy events ever undertaken by an Australian Government. For now, the outcomes of the summit look positive, but we’ve seen events like this come and go in the past, with little to show for them.

What’s important now is to continue building on the positive conversations started in the room and make sure we see some tangible outcomes that help to address the immediate skills and labour shortage, while establishing a solid foundation for substantive reform that creates safe, more inclusive and more flexible workplaces for the benefit of employers and employees alike.

We have reason for optimism and the ARA will continue to work with government, unions and civil society to get the best outcome for our members and sector.

– Sam Doyle is the ARA’s Policy Advisor and attended the Jobs and Summit in Canberra with ARA CEO Paul Zahra

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