Federal politics is again shaping up for a bruising battle on industrial relations, with the government sticking by controversial proposals and setting up a 2021 brawl with the union movement.
“The five problems that we’re seeking to fix, they can’t be left unsolved,” said Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter.
But he signalled the possibility of winding back the most contentious clauses, in the face of a ferocious backlash from Labor and unions, saying he wants to avoid a 1990s ‘waterfront’ style fight.
“The government will keep that dialogue going, keep discussions occurring with all the parties and that work will continue over the
summer,” Mr Porter said, adding it would be “difficult” work.
He had introduced a sprawling omnibus IR bill into Parliament on Wednesday, which contained proposed changes to wage theft laws, classification of casual workers, and reforms to penalty rates.
But the trade union movement is furious about a proposal to give employers more power to apply to the Fair Work Commission to approve agreements that would normally fail the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT). The workplace watchdog would consider how a business had been affected by COVID, in judging agreements that would normally be rejected.
The BOOT is a workplace bargaining safeguard, which means enterprise agreements in individual workplaces can be approved only if they offer workers better conditions than under standard awards.
Despite saying the changes were important, he signalled the government may be willing to tinker with the wording.
“If there are clarifications then we’ll listen to their views and submissions on those,” he said.
Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, flagged the movement would go to battle over the BOOT change. It had been reported on Thursday the government could look to back down on that provision, and while Mr Porter gave no indication of that, he said discussions were not over.
“We’ll listen, we’ll talk to people, it’ll go through a committee process but we’re not going to get into this sort of old 1997 politics,” he said, referring to the infamous Howard-era ‘waterfront’ IR dispute.
That long-running dispute, over crackdowns on union activity among maritime workers, led to months of industrial action at docks nationwide.
Mr Porter protested again that the BOOT changes were not as critical as opponents claimed, but that the government wasn’t prepared to cave on them just yet.
“No we’re not, not at all. I don’t think they’re the most important part of the Bill, I must say,” he mused.
Labor’s industrial relations spokesperson Tony Burke said the opposition wouldn’t even begin to consider supporting the bill until that section was removed totally.
He said he wasn’t buoyed by reports the government was considering changes, and would only celebrate once the draft bill was actually amended.
“I don’t believe that the government is actually getting rid of this section. If they are, they’ll withdraw the bill today and reintroduce it this afternoon without that section in it,” he said on Thursday morning.
“I think what we’ve seen today is a bit of media management that they want everybody to look somewhere else, and not at this exact measure.”
“I reckon, there is every chance that we go into this summer break with that pay cut still there in black and white.”
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese was quick to paint the changes as an “attack” on workers, casting the end effect as a “pay cut”.
“We’ll examine any detail which is there. At the moment, we won’t vote for what’s there. It’s as simple as that,” Mr Albanese said.
Ms McManus had called the changes “dangerous and extreme” on Wednesday.
“This is the worst thing since WorkChoices,” she claimed.