Mr Porter’s move follows the government’s stunning defeat in the Senate late last week when One Nation unexpectedly used its balance of power to block the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which would have significantly expanded the grounds to disqualify union officials and unions such as the militant Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union.
And it comes amid that slow wage growth is becoming entrenched: Reserve Bank deputy governor Guy Debelle last week said annual pay increases of 2 per cent to 3 per cent a year had become the norm in Australia.
Mr Porter said in a statement that employees and employers working together led to shared benefits including higher productivity, wage growth and greater job security.
Yet, according to a 2017 Gallup study, Australia’s employee engagement levels were just 14 per cent compared to 27 per cent in the United States and Canada.
“Workplaces where engagement levels are low have also been shown to suffer from higher levels of conflict and industrial unrest,” Mr Porter said.
“This suggests to me that there is a significant opportunity to turn this situation around in Australian workplaces and, in the process, deliver strong benefits for employers, employees and the national economy.”
The paper is part of a broader review of industrial relations that includes re-examining small business unfair dismissal laws, reducing award complexity and enterprise bargaining rules.
Following the government’s loss on the Ensuring Integrity bill in the Senate, Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott said there “was more work to be done on IR reform than union compliance”.
The new discussion paper sets out how Australian workplaces vary widely between collaborative and adversarial cultures, although it stressed the variation could occur “irrespective of whether there is active union involvement”.
It quotes Bill Shorten’s lament as Labor’s workplace relations minister in 2012 that the industrial relations debate had been “too long focused on conflict between unions and employers and the transactions involved in setting pay and conditions”.
Former ACTU vice-president and ex-Fair Work commissioner Anna Booth is also cited in her comments that the industrial relations system was built to “institutionalise adversarial conflict, not forge productive workplaces”.
The paper asks stakeholders, among other questions, “how can unions contribute to more co-operative workplaces” and “what measures can the government take to assist employers build their capability to engage with their employees”.
Mr Porter said “importantly, legislative reforms are not required to achieve these sorts of positive outcomes”.
“Instead, what is needed is fresh thinking and better management cultures that view and treat workers as assets, rather than merely as a cost of production.”
It’s unclear if unions and employers will agree on what constitutes co-operative workplace practices.
Last year, unions led by the Australian Workers’ Union pushed for Labor to mandate union representatives on company boards as a way to improve co-operation between workers and management.
Mining giant Rio Tinto once pursued a policy of “direct engagement” between companies and employees that excluded unions, although it has recently started re-engaging with unions at the bargaining table.
However, unions and employers have also been brought together under the Fair Work Commission’s New Approaches program, where the commission helps warring parties work together, with recent case studies at Sydney Water and Macquarie University.
In an opinion piece published in The Australian Financial Review, Mr Porter said feedback would inform how the government can enhance the system’s support for private sector efforts.
“Clearly, the policy approach should not contribute to a false and detrimental view that the industrial relations system is a zero sum game where mutual benefits are not the norm,” he said.
“It is essential that these important considerations form the basis for more detailed consideration of improvements to our industrial relations system.”
The submissions close at the end of February next year.