Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Don't rush back to unfair dismissal laws

By Barry Cohen - posted Monday, 7 January 2008

If the term mandate has any meaning at all, the Rudd Government has a mandate to repeal WorkChoices. The Leader of the Opposition has indicated he accepts the voters' decision, so there shouldn't be a problem. If there is, there will be an early double dissolution and the Coalition will lose another 20 seats.

Unquestionably, Labor can destroy WorkChoices, but it would be wise to move slowly, particularly in dealing with unfair dismissal.

My opposition to unfair dismissal has been well documented in columns in The Australian, but if press reports are to be believed I am not alone. Apparently there are plenty in cabinet and caucus who aren't keen to return to the unfair dismissal rules of the Hawke-Keating era.


The Howard government failed miserably in arguing its case against unfair dismissal. Ministers pointed out it was restricting employment, but they never explained how and why. There was considerable public debate about workers' rights but no mention of the rights of employers, and small-business employers in particular.

The term unfair dismissal slanted the debate one way right from the beginning. It implied that all dismissals were inherently unfair. No one favours unfair dismissal but fairness is in the eye of the beholder. No employee believes they were fairly dismissed.

The definition of a small business varies but is generally accepted as being one with fewer than 20 employees. The Australian Chamber of Commerce suggests that there are approximately 1.9 million small businesses with 3.5 million employees. That's a fair slice of Australia's workforce.

Most business owners are former employees who have struck out on their own because they want to be independent. The risks are many and varied because of the variety of trades, professions and commercial activities that come under the small business umbrella. Many invest their life savings and mortgage their home and business while working and worrying around the clock.

Some succeed, but up to 70 per cent fail in the first three years. The majority is lucky to eke out a living, with many earning less than their employees and without any of their entitlements (holiday pay, sick leave, paid public holidays and so on). When there's a credit squeeze or recession, or they simply make mistakes, they ask themselves why they didn't let someone else do the worrying.

Are there bad employers? Of course, but most treat and pay their staff well, if only because it makes for a happy and productive workforce. No sane employer sacks staff who are doing a good job. Are there bad employees? It's a silly question because we all know the answer.


In recent discussions with a friend who was defending unfair dismissal, I recounted some misdemeanours committed by those I had employed during 50 years as an employer. They ranged from the perennially late to one who stole a fortune from the business, and another who regularly failed to show up after a heavy night out. My friend responded: "But they can be sacked under the soon to be reintroduced unfair dismissal legislation." Really?

The previous legislation required an employer to furnish three warning letters, but that didn't guarantee that the employer wouldn't be involved in protracted and costly negotiations with the Industrial Relations Commission. And even if they won the case, the employer was invited by the magistrate to provide some go-away money to the employee.

The assumption was that anyone running a business could afford to pay. It was fine if you happened to be Woolworths, but not if you owned the corner shop. Faced with continued angst and legal costs, the employer invariably paid up.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

First published in The Australian on January 2, 2008.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

18 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Barry Cohen was Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987. He currently runs an animal sanctuary in Calga, NSW.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Barry Cohen

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 18 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy