News IR fight turns ugly as Coalition, Labor trade insults before omnibus bill debate

IR fight turns ugly as Coalition, Labor trade insults before omnibus bill debate

A still from Labor's new ad on the omnibus bill.
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The government claims Labor’s industrial relations proposals would be a “massive pay cut for workers”, while the Opposition has turned up the heat on its campaign against the Coalition’s IR proposal.

The bitter fight over workers’ rights is set to explode in Parliament this week.

A foreboding new TV ad from Labor will take over airwaves and claim the government is taking a knife to basic employment rights, just as Attorney-General Christian Porter takes aim at union boss Sally McManus over the Opposition’s plan to extend holidays and long service leave to casuals.

The government’s omnibus IR bill is top of the agenda this week for debate as federal Parliament resumes in Canberra, with a massive fight brewing over proposed changes to the the better off overall test (BOOT) – changes the unions claim are the “worst since WorkChoices”.

Christian Porter will push the omnibus bill through Parliament this week. Photo: AAP

But Mr Porter has sought to deflect more attention onto Labor’s policies, launching a broadside against Anthony Albanese’s plan to offer ‘portable’ annual, sick and long service leave to insecure workers.

Last week, he claimed it would cost $20 billion; on Sunday he referenced Ms McManus, the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, in claiming the changes would hurt workers.

Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders program, Ms McManus defended the potential cost of the Labor policy by saying the scheme essentially would pay for itself.

She said that converting casual workers to permanent positions would mean they are no longer paid extra penalties, a change she claimed would be “a positive for business”.

“Employers like it because over a period of time they actually pay less,” Ms McManus said.

“When people have certainty in their jobs, when they have that
job security, they’re more likely to spend.”

Mr Porter took aim.

“When asked about the cost to business of Labor’s policy, Ms McManus claimed there would be no cost: ‘Because the employee would then not get the casual loading’,” Mr Porter retaliated on Sunday.

“What is now being revealed is the plan is to decrease that cost to business by taking away casual workers’ 25 per cent up-front wage loading.”

The Attorney-General claimed Labor’s policy was “unfair”.

“Many casuals prefer to hold onto their higher pay and the flexibility that is provided by casual work. Labor wants to take this choice away and cut their pay by 25 per cent in the process,” Mr Porter claimed.

Omnibus up for debate

Just as Labor announces its IR policy, the government’s omnibus bill is scheduled for debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Among the controversial changes, announced late last year, is a proposal to give bosses more power to apply to the Fair Work Commission to approve agreements that would normally fail the better off overall test.

Anthony Albanese has proposed big industrial relations changes of his own. Photo: AAP

The BOOT is a workplace bargaining safeguard, meaning enterprise agreements must offer workers better conditions than standard awards.

The workplace watchdog would consider how a business had been affected by COVID, in judging agreements that would normally be rejected.

But the trade union movement is furious about the proposal, with Ms McManus last year calling it “dangerous and extreme” and “the worst thing since WorkChoices”.

“WorkChoices allowed employers to cut wages, and this proposal will do that as well,” she said in November.

On Sunday night, Labor rolled out an ad claiming the IR proposal showed the government was “not on your side”. It’s a reference to Labor’s new campaign slogan, “on your side”.

The ad, showing a cook sharpening knives in a kitchen as ominous music plays, claims the omnibus bill would “slash wages and conditions”, “slice penalty rates” and “stick it to ordinary workers”.

The campaign will run on TV channels in every state and territory on Sunday and Monday, as well as online.

It comes after the Electrical Trades Union and the CFMMEU created an ad to criticise the omnibus bill, showing a mock-up of Prime Minister Scott Morrison driving a bus toward a crowd of workers.

Mr Porter called it “one of the most shameful, insensitive … and disgusting piece of advertising I’ve seen”.

The Attorney-General on Sunday defended the government’s bill, saying it too had important safeguards for casuals.

IR will be a major election battleground. Photo: AAP

“The Morrison government’s current bill before Parliament, which will be considered by the House this week, has a clear definition of casual employment – something Labor didn’t include in its industrial reforms in 2009 and still hasn’t offered,” Mr Porter said.

“Our bill also offers a clear pathway for casual workers to move into permanent work with their employer – if they choose to do so.”

As Parliament’s attention turns to debating the government’s IR omnibus bill this week, with a watchful eye out for a possible election late in the year, IR is fertile political ground where both major parties believe votes can be won.

Both Mr Albanese and Mr Morrison have “jobs” slogans at the centre of their rhetoric around post-pandemic recovery.

Expect that to further heat up as the battle wages around the omnibus bill.

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