News National ‘Wakey wakey, Mr Turnbull. Time to act on penalty rates’
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‘Wakey wakey, Mr Turnbull. Time to act on penalty rates’

Malcolm Turnbull
The Turnbull government needs a weekend retreat away to work out just where they stand on Sunday penalty rates. Photo: AAP
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Malcolm Turnbull, his senior ministers and his advisers need a weekend retreat away to work out just where they stand on Sunday penalty rates.

For a party that has been championing the cause of trimming penalty rates for what seems like forever, it is stunning that when the Fair Work Commission gave them and their business mates what they wanted, they nearly died of fright.

It took Mr Turnbull two days to say he even supported the Commission’s decision.

His reluctance is understandable. You can’t be the champion of Australian prosperity, looking after families and business while at the same time supporting the cutting of wages for some of the lowest-paid workers.

Sure, Bill Shorten stands guilty of all the Prime Minister threw at him this week. He is a hypocrite who has gone back on everything he ever said up until January about the Commission.

His position was that the existence of an independent umpire was fundamental to the way the Australian industrial relations system works. And he would accept the decision after its penalty rate review.

Mr Turnbull reminded to Parliament that it was Mr Shorten who referred the rates to be reviewed by a Commission Labor set up and whose members Mr Shorten himself handpicked.

Quite reasonably, Mr Turnbull asked Parliament what did Mr Shorten expect the Commission to do, leave arrangements as they were?

Why too, the Prime Minister declaimed, did Mr Shorten as minister fund the small business lobby to make a submission if he didn’t expect them to argue forcibly for rates to be cut?

But all of this misses the crucial point. The politics of the Commission’s decision were toxic and lethal.

Mr Shorten calls it “dumb”. The fact is he was shocked by it. It cut incomes without applying a no disadvantage test on a take it or leave basis for employees.

This was the mortal vulnerability of WorkChoices. By Thursday the penny had dropped. Hiding behind the independent umpire could not wash when Labor was presenting a remedy.

But this only exposed the government’s hopeless position and helplessness in dealing with it.

The Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament on Thursday was met with with a predictably dispassionate response from the opposition, characterised by Labor’s former minister for employment Brendan O’Connor who urged the House to “wakey wakey” when he took the lectern after the PM.

Brendan O'Connor
“Wakey, wakey everybody”: Brendan O’Connor.

In Question Time, Labor’s Tony Burke made fun of an answer Mr Turnbull gave earlier in the day, complete with “ums” and “ahs”, as he grappled unconvincingly with the benefits of the Commission’s decision.

No doubt the ghosts of WorkChoices is spooking them as a galvanised union movement is promising a massive campaign. At its core will be the message, “your pay and conditions will be next”.

Parliament could and should legislate to stop the pay cuts and entrench no disadvantage into the Commission’s award deliberations. Mr Shorten may be a “flip flopping hypocritical opportunist” but he was right on the money.

His most devastating line in Parliament: “Under the Turnbull government, when companies receive record profits, they get a tax cut, and when wages flatline, workers get a pay cut.”

And he is on strong ground pointing out that Mr Turnbull only hides behind the independent umpire when it suits him.

Abolishing the Road Safety Tribunal and intervening in the Country Fire Authority dispute is ample evidence of that. The fact is abolishing weekend penalty rates is Liberal holy writ.

But as Mr Shorten told Parliament the Liberals are now like the dog that caught the car, they haven’t got a clue what to do with it.

You know the government is in trouble on the issue when Tony Abbott’s Workplace Relations minister Eric Abetz seized the opportunity to point out the Commission’s decision hurt low-paid workers and should, at least, be phased in.

That’s no solution but it throws up in lights the fact that the government hasn’t got one.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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