News National Labor itching to sin bin Turnbull on penalty rates
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Labor itching to sin bin Turnbull on penalty rates

Malcolm Turnbull
AAP
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The football season may be over but the Opposition and the trade unions are itching to send Malcolm Turnbull to the sin bin over penalty rates.

Bill Shorten sounded passionate about it as he launched an attack outside a major hospital in Sydney. The venue chosen because, on a Labour Day holiday in Sydney, nurses, cleaners, technicians, wards people and receptionists were all inside working. Their compensation: penalty rates. Depending on their award, it could be worth up to double time and a half.

For over 100 years these arrangements have been a feature of Australian pay and conditions.

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The Opposition leader has taken musings from several ministers since the arrival of Mr Turnbull in the top job as a surefire indication the tradition is under severe threat.

The latest were from the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who softened any blow by saying changes would be taken to the next election.

New Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who also has the public service portfolio, seemed to put all options on the table in newspaper interviews. Labor can’t be blamed for being spooked.

The Australian revealed that one of Cash’s heroes was world-famous union buster, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Shorten says for people on $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000 a year penalty rates are the difference between being able to afford to send their kids to a private school, whether or not they can afford to sustain the mortgage.

“They go towards the quality of life,” he said.

Bill Shorten ALP conference.
“There is no good for a small business if the people coming into your shop can’t afford to buy what is in the shop,” Bill Shorten says. Photo: AAP

Research by the Labor-aligned McKell Institute found that country and regional areas would be hit very hard if weekend and holiday penalty rates were abolished. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be withdrawn from local economies.

The irony is the biggest losers would be small businesses. The very sector which those who are championing the change say would benefit the most.

Put simply, their customers would lose substantial purchasing power.

Four million Australians, principally in retail and hospitality rely on the extra money. They are among the lowest paid in the country. While not too many would be sending their kids to expensive private schools, they would struggle to pay for excursions and other extras for their kids without the extra cash.

Billionaire businessman Clive Palmer is one politician who needs no convincing on the value of penalty rates. Last year he said his tourist operations thrive on weekends. He happily pays his staff award rates because they help him make more money.

Maybe because he had enough on his plate already, Tony Abbott as prime minister was reluctant to go anywhere near cutting Australians’ pay and conditions. Once bitten over WorkChoices, he needed little convincing of the political dangers.

Mr Turnbull is not so timid – yet. He confirms that his administration is looking at a range of matters although he says in the first instance penalty rates are the business of Fairwork Australia.

He’s inviting Mr Shorten to come up with good ideas to keep Australia a high-wage, prosperous economy. Abolishing the system is a no-go zone for Labor and the unions.

ACTU secretary Dave Oliver is promising a “fierce” grassroots and social campaign to rival their WorkChoices resistance if Mr Turnbull’s considerations lead him in that direction.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

Read all of his columns here

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