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Unfair law toxic for small businesses

By Barry Cohen - posted Wednesday, 8 April 2009

He was living proof that some mothers do 'ave 'em. The Frank Spencer of eco-tourism. Everything he touched, walked past or looked at broke, exploded, cracked or gave up the ghost. Accident-prone would not even begin to describe the trail of devastation that followed him around our wildlife sanctuary.

The water pump had to be switched on daily. He burned it out. Every sprinkler he looked at broke. Snakes in his care escaped and scared the wits out of visitors. I won't even begin to describe his efforts in the kitchen. A delightful young lad, but a one-man wrecking ball.

Did I sack him? No way! With the unfair dismissal law hanging over our heads, I couldn't afford the thousands of dollars I might have to pay him in "go away" money.


Fortunately I was able to arrange for his departure while he was still in his trial period, avoiding a nervous breakdown and halving my insurance premiums.

Then there was the young guide, unquestionably good at her job but prone to arrive at work the worse for wear, boasting about how she had got smashed the night before. That was her business. Our point of departure occurred when her bacchanalian excesses resulted in her phoning in sick just when we were expecting a large tour group. The background music and raucous laughter gave her away.

Her enforced departure landed us in the Industrial Relations Commission where the beak informed me that "she hadn't a leg to stand on", then told me to make her an offer.

Further back, when I was in the fashion business, our ladies' wear manager took us, in today's prices, for more than $100,000. When we discovered the shortfall, she stormed out and returned that week to her homeland, South Africa. We were to hear later that three other stores had suffered a similar fate.

I could go on and on and on. During 50 years of running small businesses, the untold stories would fill an encyclopedia. Most employees were honest, loyal and hardworking, and no sane employer would sack them. Then there were the others.

Few will be surprised to learn that I am not an admirer of the unfair dismissal clauses in the recently passed Fair Work Bill. In fact, I detest them. The Government places great stress on the rights of employees while ignoring those of employers.


The Government says the electorate gave it a mandate at the last election to repeal Work Choices legislation and the unfair dismissal clause in particular, which defined a small business as one with fewer than 100 employees. It is now 15.

The Government undoubtedly has a mandate but that is hardly surprising when 85 per cent of the workforce consists of employees.

Being popular, however, doesn't make it right. No one favours unfair dismissal but fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Show me a sacked employee who believes they were fairly dismissed.

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First published in The Australian on March 31, 2009.

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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.

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