IR players must collaborate: tribunal boss

Matt Coughlan and Marnie Banger
Iain Ross has urged business groups and unions to start building a workplace practise consensus

The head of Australia's workplace umpire has urged unions and big businesses to stop shouting at each other as the temperature rises in the industrial relations debate.

Fair Work Commission president Iain Ross made a rare intervention with a speech at the Newcastle Industrial Relations Society on Thursday night.

He said unions labelling a big business push to scrap the commission's better off overall test as "Work Choices mark two" was predictable, while also questioning if the proposal would secure productivity gains.

"We are left with a largely binary policy exchange characterised by slogans, factually inaccurate statements and an absence of an evidence-based policy proposals," Justice Ross said.

"Much like two people shouting at each other across a crowded room in a different language."

The Fair Work president questioned the Business Council of Australia's claims the better off test was a "productivity killer".

The powerful lobby group wants it replaced with a no-disadvantage test, a proposal unions say would allow employers to pay staff less.

Justice Ross said changing the test might reduce costs for employers and increase profits.

"It is less clear how such a change would increase productivity," he said.

Under existing arrangements, some award conditions can be traded off or left out in bargaining, as long as the employee receives more money or entitlements in total.

Justice Ross said the future of work raised important issues including how best to help workers displaced because of the new technological revolution.

He said skills and education, the social safety net and career transitions must be considered, along with what impact changes are going to have on inequality.

"I think we need to start by building a reform consensus," the commission president said.

"A collaborative, consensus approach that focuses on our shared interests - on what united us, rather than on what divides us."

Industrial relations became a hot-button issue after the Morrison government announced a six to nine-month review of workplace laws.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said debate was the key to achieving consensus.

"We are interested in pursuing reforms that will boost productivity, that will help create more jobs, that will help boost wages growth and that ultimately will help the economy," he told Sky News on Friday.

He said replacing the test should be considered as part of a "sober" assessment of evidence-based reform.