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News News Academics' access to AWAs cut
WHILE the Federal Government has attacked academics whose study of WorkChoices it disagrees with, it has also stopped researchers from getting crucial information to study the effects of the industrial relations system.

Workplace Authority chief Barbara Bennett has written to two researchers in recent months denying access to samples of people's individual contracts - Australian Workplace Agreements - citing privacy.

Before WorkChoices, her predecessors allowed access to AWAs, protecting privacy by blacking out names and addresses. But Ms Bennett has said she "would need to seek the agreement of both parties to an AWA" before releasing any.

Ms Bennett's predecessor, Peter McIlwain, gave evidence to a Senate committee last year that 40 per cent of WorkChoices' AWAs stripped entitlements to public holidays; 52 per cent reduced shift loadings and 63 per cent cut penalty rates.

No more figures have been released, but 11 months later, the Government introduced the fairness test to combat bad publicity.

Academics, even those previously sympathetic to the Government's IR policies, say the non-disclosure policy has left the public, and the politicians who formulate policy, flying blind.

"It's disappointing when people try to stop research because they are insecure about what the outcome might bring," said Macquarie University academic Dr Paul Gollan.

Associate Professor Gollan co-wrote a study in 2001 with another of Ms Bennett's predecessors, former Peter Reith staffer Jonathan Hamberger, which argued against the proposition that AWAs were harming workers.

Professor Gollan said the Federal Government should invest much more in research. "Probably 95 per cent of people WorkChoices doesn't negatively affect ... But today, you can't even find out who they are because you just don't know how people are disadvantaged."

Gary Rothville, a lawyer who has argued the employers' side for 30 years, most recently for Collins Street firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, said access to information was a "fundamental principle" in industrial relations.

"Lawyers have a professional duty to reveal all relevant facts to the court. It would be interesting if politicians would adhere to the same stricture," he said.

Monash University academic Professor Richard Mitchell said he believed the Government was "worried about what research could uncover, but they are trying to obscure that by talking about privacy issues".

And Melbourne University's Colin Fenwick said it was "striking that the Government puts so much emphasis on this policy instrument, but does not seem to have carried out research that would support its central tenets".

But Ms Bennett defended her decision, saying all AWAs were now lodged electronically, making it more difficult to mask who the parties were.

Asked if the authority should simply print out the agreements and use a black marker to obscure names and addresses, she said, "It isn't a conspiracy." Saying that "we're listing information as much as possible", she admitted that her "ability to get information will improve".

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