The Morrison government has gutted its controversial industrial relations omnibus bill, ditching protections against wage theft in a chaotic day in the Senate that saw only a husk of the original legislation approved.
Union bosses slammed the government’s last-minute backdown as “shameful and vindictive”.
After Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff, the likely key swing voter on the legislation, said he opposed most of the “contentious” changes, the government responded with swingeing changes to the bill. They instead bowled up far more modest legislation, which limped through the Senate, which creates a new definition of ‘casual’ work and creates a pathway for such workers to transfer to permanent work.
The cuts included snipping out sections designed to better protect against wage theft, a move immediately slammed by Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus.
“All that remains in the bill is an attack on the rights of casual workers, which will make exploitation even more widespread and leave workers unable to enforce their rights,” she said.
“This is a shameful and vindictive reaction to not getting widespread support for other changes that would reduce workers’ rights.”
It appears the Morrison Govt has withdrawn the wage theft laws in what appears to be a vindictive move because they have been unable to get support for laws that reduce workers rights. The Omnibus IR Bill now must be opposed
— Sally McManus (@sallymcmanus) March 18, 2021
The government also abandoned its most controversial proposals, such as fast-tracking enterprise bargaining negotiations and extending new rights for employers to change workers’ conditions.
The changes set off chaos in the Senate, as the Coalition sought to bring on votes on the bill, gag debate and block further amendments.
Coalition senator Ben Small, speaking after the changes, appeared to not know that those provisions had been chopped from the legislation.
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) March 18, 2021
The Senate eventually approved a shadow of the original bill.
However, acting industrial relations minister Michaelia Cash attempted to cast the passage of the smaller bill as a win, claiming the changes to casual workers were ” the most critical elements of the legislation”.
“This is a significant win for casual workers who perform a regular pattern of work and deserve the benefits that can flow from permanency, if that is what they wish,” she said.
Senator Griff called the removal of wage theft rules “spiteful”.
It represents a major embarrassment for the government, which had proposed the IR bill as one of its key legislative priorities for 2021. The government had already jettisoned the most controversial part of its original proposal, a plan to sideline the ‘better off overall’ test (BOOT), meaning that nearly the entire original plan was shelved.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking shortly before the hollowed-out bill passed the Senate, accused critics of “obstructionism”.
“But I am a practical person, too. That means if this Senate is saying they don’t wish to support those measures, then we will have to consider that in terms of how we go forward,” he said.
“I will send them other job-making initiatives they can support.”
Griff decision prompted shift
Thursday’s developments came Senator Griff announced his long-awaited position on the bill.
He said he would back only minor parts of the legislation – including more enforcement against wage theft and a new definition of ‘casual’ work – but vote against the rest.
The legislation had already passed the House of Representatives, but was stalled in the Senate – due, in part, to the absence of Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter. He remains on medical leave after outing himself as the subject of historical rape allegations.
The vote in the upper house was tight, with the success or failure of the legislation essentially coming down to Senator Griff’s decision.
— Stirling Griff (@Stirling_G) March 17, 2021
— Stirling Griff (@Stirling_G) March 17, 2021
After his stance was announced, in amendments rapidly introduced on Thursday, the government slashed its proposed changes to modern awards, greenfields sites, enterprise agreements, compliance and enforcement with the Fair Work Commission, and protections against wage theft.
Ms McManus was livid at the about-face, calling for the bill to be opposed by all senators.
“After nine months of intensive discussions, unions, employers and the Morrison government agreed on new laws aimed at stopping wage theft. The government is now walking away from this agreement,” she said.
“We have given the government a path forward with stronger laws on wage theft and better rights for casuals.”
Labor’s shadow IR minister, Tony Burke, said the bill lay in “shambles”.
“Measure after measure here ends up failing the simple test we’ve put forward, which is it had to deliver secure jobs with decent pay,” he told Sky News on Thursday.
Labor has made IR a crucial part of its current pitch, including a push to radically overhaul the gig economy market.