Labor’s industrial relations bill has passed the parliament after a month of negotiations with independent senator David Pocock, an 11th hour Coalition filibuster and a special recall of the house on Friday.
The bill passed the Senate 35 votes to 31 with Labor, the Greens and Pocock in support on Thursday night. Early Friday morning, the amendments the Senate had passed with government support passed the House 78 to 42.
The bill, which enacts the biggest workplace law changes in two decades, was opposed by the Coalition, primarily due to concerns raised by businesses about the expansion of multi-employer bargaining options.
In moving the final amendments for the house approval in a bloc, workplace minister Tony Burke said it would end “a decade of inaction” on wage growth, as well as address gaps in existing industrial relations law.
The final parliamentary sitting week of the year always tends to come right down to the wire.
Governments whittle their agendas down to the indispensable and make whatever compromises are necessary to win crossbench or bipartisan support, and hope like hell the deal holds.
It looked like this week would be no exception, with Pocock engaged in protracted negotiations with the Albanese government on its industrial relations bill.
Then, after weeks of warning the process had been rushed, Pocock turned in his homework six days early with a deal struck on Saturday evening.
The Senate endorsed the IR bill at the second reading stage on Wednesday evening, 32 votes to 30.
The workplace relations minister and leader of the house, Tony Burke, told the lower house on Thursday if the bill continued to move “relatively quickly” then parliament could “deal with these issues well, well” before the planned Saturday morning sitting.
Enter Michaelia Cash.
The shadow workplace relations minister is a fierce parliamentary opponent.
In the committee stage of the Senate debate, senators have unlimited opportunities to quiz the government. And Cash had questions.
At 10:15am Cash wanted to “set the scene” with extensive quotations from Burke’s second reading speech.
Then came detailed cross-examination about how changes to the better off overall test would affect precedent decisions on the pay deals at Officeworks and Prouds.
Cash found the time to read out the Greens’ media release about their deal to pass the bill and input on the Boot test.
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Then Cash homed in on when the Fair Work Commission must make a supported bargaining authorisation – and the requirement that “at least some of the employees” must be in a union.
This sparked a philosophical and legal debate with her first interlocutor, the agriculture minister, Murray Watt, about the definition of the word “some”.
Cash seemed to gain clarity about the meaning of “some”, as she warned departmental staff the Senate debate “will take us some time” and also referred to the transfer of “some” of the Australian Building and Construction Commission’s powers.
Cash tired out her first sparring partner and by about 11:15am was on to her second, the assistant education minister, Anthony Chisholm.
Many of the questions were legitimate points of public policy. “Can you confirm the supported bargaining stream is not directed at the hospitality and retail sectors?”
At other times it veered into a pop quiz: “What red tape is the government removing from the low-paid bargaining stream?”
By 1:30pm she was on to her third government representative, the assistant trade minister, Tim Ayres.
There were brief cameos from a few other senators but for the most part it was a one-woman show.
The filibuster was only interrupted by question time.
In response to a Dorothy Dixer in the lower house, Burke called out the filibuster, noting the lack of progress on the 19 amendments to be debated.
“In nine hours – because of the behaviour, principally, of senator Cash – how many amendments do you think the Senate’s got through? Zero. In nine hours.
“So you might want to do the maths on … how long they’ll try to keep this going. In nine hours of debate, those opposite are doing everything they can as if 10 years of delay [on wages] wasn’t enough.”
Burke said “people should not have to wait” and rattled off the prongs of the IR bill: gender equality in the Fair Work Act, sunsetting WorkChoices-era pay deals, banning pay secrecy clauses, banning jobs ads with pay below the legal minimum.
At 5:30pm the Senate moved to the territory rights voluntary assisted dying bill, which is expected to pass, before returning to IR into the evening.
Earlier, Burke threatened that if the debate dragged on, the House would rise and resume on Saturday, not Friday.
The manager of opposition business had complained earlier in the week that coming back on Saturday would allow Labor MPs to attend a fundraiser on Friday evening.
Burke set out the deadline to avert that, but Cash seemed prepared to sail heroically past it.
On Thursday morning, Fletcher again grumbled in the house that sitting on a Saturday was “novel”.
He urged the government to let the House deal with the matter “as promptly and efficiently as possible” – perhaps a point he should have pressed with the deputy leader of the opposition in the Senate.
Fletcher concluded his morning contribution: “the conduct of Senate deliberations is a matter for the other place”.
After question time the pace of the debate picked up, with actual votes and a reduction in opposition amendments.
Just as Cash had given up her last stand, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts moved amendments on vaccine status discrimination, prompting contributions from the National’s Matt Canavan, the Liberal’s Alex Antic and the LNP’s Gerard Rennick.
The cast of Senate characters saved the panto tradition of a messy end to the parliamentary year.