Scott Morrison signals environmental overhaul and 'fresh look' at industrial relations

<span>Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Scott Morrison has flagged an overhaul of environmental approvals for major projects and a willingness to further streamline the industrial relations system, as he makes a fresh deregulation pitch to business.

Saying the government wants to “get major projects off the ground sooner”, Morrison has told the Business Council of Australia that he wants to reduce the length of time it takes for businesses to navigate environmental approvals.

Morrison claims that, through the better use of technology, the timeframe that currently takes up to three-and-a-half years could be reduced by between six and 18 months.

The move comes ahead of a major review of federal environment laws, which the government has said will “tackle green tape” and reduce delays in project approvals, while conservationists want legislation beefed up to stem a worsening extinction crisis.

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Using a major speech on the economy on Wednesday night that also detailed the government’s infrastructure stimulus package, Morrison said that environmental approval processes for major projects were “overly complex, duplicative and take too long”.

“As in other areas, digital technology gives us the opportunity to make these processes faster and simpler,” Morrison said.

The government has pledged to establish a nationally consistent digital environmental assessment and approvals regime that will reduce approvals times and allow project proponents to submit a single application online.

A database of biodiversity studies that resources companies have helped develop will also be made available through the online portal.

Pushing the government’s “congestion busting agenda” for business, Morrison said the government would look at improving digital access and connectivity across the economy, and respond to business concerns about the vocational education sector not meeting workforce needs.

But he also flagged he wanted to simplify enterprise bargaining and the national award system as part of the government’s “fresh look” at industrial relations, pointing to “administrative clutter” within the system that was holding business back.

In comments that will spark union fears of a return to WorkChoices-style restrictions on the content of workplace agreements, Morrison expressed his support for removing “unnecessary clutter” in agreement-making and award compliance.

“While the number of awards has reduced, it appears that they have not become simpler – indeed many believe that they have become more complex,” Morrison said.

“The degree of administrative clutter associated with the compliance regime and the enterprise bargaining process can also detract from business improvements that can arise from working together for mutual benefit.”

Morrison said that provisions that had added “unnecessary clutter” to agreement-making and award compliance had been identified in past reviews of the Fair Work Act.

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But he said the business community needed to “marshall the evidence” and make the case for changing the system, suggesting the government will be tentative in how it approaches reform.

In 2014, the Productivity Commission said the range of matters permitted in enterprise agreements was an area of “fierce contention” between employers and employee groups.

“Employers generally wish to reduce the range of matters over which bargaining can occur, based on the primacy they give to managerial prerogative, while employees seek a more expansive range of matters,” the report said.

It recommended that the Fair Work Act be amended to prohibit restrictions in EBAs that required businesses to engage subcontractors on the same terms as employees or limit the employment of casual and labour hire employees.

Unions argue that such prohibitions put downward pressure on wages by allowing lower-paid labour hire and subcontractor workers to operate alongside those employed on agreements.

The PC review also raised concerns about the functioning of the Fair Work Commission, saying the agency can sometimes give “too much weight to procedure and too little to substance”, which can lead to unnecessary compliance costs and poor outcomes.

This has also been a key gripe of employer groups, who say minor procedural or technical errors can stymie approval of agreements by the FWC.

The 2012 McCallum review, undertaken by the former Labor government, did not accept the argument that the permitted matters for negotiation in enterprise agreements “should be restricted to those permitted in the Work Choices framework.”

Morrison will also flag the government’s support for greater flexibility in the length of enterprise agreements allowed for major infrastructure, resources and energy projects, saying business has made a “persuasive argument”.

The prospect of new greenfield agreements were included in the first of the government’s industrial relations discussion papers, with the proposal also backed by Bill Shorten when Labor leader.

“With approximately $250bn of new project capital in the investment pipeline – with the potential of more than 100,000 new jobs – it’s hard to deny the scope for shared gains for companies and workers,” Morrison said.

Employer groups, particularly in the mining and energy sectors, want life-of-project agreements in place of the current four-year limit of agreements to ensure developments are not stalled by industrial disputes mid-construction.

Morrison’s wide-ranging speech on the economy also outlines a series of deregulation reforms, including better using technology to improve productivity.

Along with the new online environmental approval process, the reforms will include establishing a new modern business registry to allow sole traders to more quickly update regulatory information, a new digital export documentation process, and new online tools to help small businesses employ new workers.