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Australian Opposition Takes the Offensive

IN its latest bid to weaken the ruling Labor Party's credibility with voters, the opposition coalition has unveiled a long-awaited industrial policy that would deregulate the labor market and curb unions' power.

The policy, announced Tuesday, is the centerpiece of the coalition's "Fightback" bid to wrest government out of Labor's hands. The opposition says higher productivity can be gained by replacing the fixed-wage structure, now brokered by the federal Industrial Relations Council and the unions, with contract bargaining.

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Under the policy, called "Jobsback," employer and employee would bargain for wages and conditions beyond a set package. The policy mandates a free employee-advocate service and limits to $3,600 the damages an employer can collect from an employee who breaks a contract.

Australia has had compulsary arbitration for nearly a century. Labor has been revamping workplace relations since 1983. But the opposition says Labor's wage-decentralization program is too slow and objects to the influential role of unions.

Prime Minister Paul Keating counters that the coalition plan would destroy progress toward a more productive workplace and result in wage cuts.

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