Labor’s wide-ranging industrial relations reforms are on the brink of becoming a reality as a Senate showdown over the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill nears its end.
The government believes it will be able to pass the omnibus legislation, which will introduce the most significant changes to Australia’s workplace laws in more than a decade, in the upper house on Thursday evening.
If it passes on Thursday, the Bill will go back to the House of Representatives on Friday morning so that the government can rubber stamp it.
This would mean MPs could avoid having to return to parliament on Saturday for an extra sitting day, which the government had tentatively scheduled.
The contentious industrial relations legislation could have passed the Senate earlier on Thursday.
But opposition workplace relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash had other ideas, launching an hours-long cross examination of the government’s planned industrial relations reforms.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke suggested in parliament that Senator Cash was filibustering.
“There are 19 amendments to be debated in the Senate, 19 amendments that have been put forward,” Mr Burke said in response to a Dorothy Dixer during question time.
“In nine hours – because of the behaviour principally of Senator Cash – how many amendments do you think the Senate has got through? Zero. In nine hours.”
Labor doesn’t have a majority in the upper house, meaning it needs the support of The Greens and one crossbench senator to pass legislation.
The Albanese government at the weekend struck a deal on the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill with independent ACT senator David Pocock, who holds the balance of power, in exchange for the key crossbencher’s support.
Debate on the Bill continued late into the evening on Wednesday, with Coalition senators taking the opportunity to frame Labor as being against small business.
Liberal senator Andrew Bragg said Labor “hates small business” and “always has”, with his colleague Gerard Rennick calling the legislation a “grave digger’s Bill” which would “chuck dirt on small business”.
The Coalition unsuccessfully attempted to move amendments which would have delayed the legislation by three months and scrapped the planned expansion of multi-employer bargaining.
Employer groups have slammed the planned expansion of “single interest” multi-employer bargaining – which will essentially makes it easier for workers at different companies to band together to call for better pay and conditions, as long as the Fair Work Commission determines they have a shared interest.
Labor has agreed, at Senator Pocock’s request, to raise the threshold for small businesses to be excluded from multi-employer bargaining from those which employ 15 people to those employing 20.
Anthony Albanese on Wednesday night told the nation’s business leaders he knew they disagreed with “some elements” of Labor’s industrial relations plan.
In an address to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s annual gala dinner, the Prime Minister said no significant economic reform had ever enjoyed 100 per cent support.
“And I’ve always said that while I believe in the value of consensus, I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree on every single element of every single issue,” Mr Albanese said.
“More broadly, I don’t think one point of disagreement needs to define our every interaction.”
The Senate debate over the legislation came as a new poll reveals 56 per cent of Australians are cutting back on essential items and 24 per cent have skipped meals because of the cost of living.
A survey of 3000 people conducted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions also found 14 per cent of respondents had been forced to move or look for more affordable housing.
The peak union body has been pushing for the Secure Jobs Better Pay Bill to pass parliament, arguing that enterprise bargaining reform is badly needed to boost wages amid the cost of living crisis.
ACTU national secretary Sally McManus said the debate over the legislation had verged on hysteria and accused some business lobbyists of waging a scare campaign.
“I think it’s been incredibly irresponsible for some people to be scaring the hell out of small business,” she told the ABC on Thursday.
“They’re not going to be affected by these laws other than the fact that their customers might have more money to spend.”