Albanese hits back at business groups’ threats to run anti-industrial relations bill ad campaign

Prime minister says the millions of dollars that would pay for the campaign could be used by companies to ‘pay workers better’

Anthony Albanese has taken aim at business groups threatening a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign against industrial relations changes, saying they should spend the money on paying workers better.

The Australian Resources and ­Energy Employer Association fired a warning shot against the government over its plans for pay deals across multiple workplaces.

The group said oil, gas and mining companies had “significant capacity to fund a substantial campaign” if the government did not alter its legislation.

Its chief executive, Steve Knott, told the Australian newspaper the broader employer community would also be “energised to run an anti-IR bill campaign that will dwarf the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign”.

Albanese hit back at those threats on Friday, saying Labor had an electoral mandate to lift wages.

“I do note that there’s an issue of credibility if companies are saying we’ve got a whole lot of money to throw at a campaign but we don’t have any money to pay workers better,” Albanese told reporters on the Sunshine Coast.

“The government that I lead wants to see wages lifted, wants to see living standards improve.”

Albanese’s comments appear to be an effort to undercut any potential advertising campaign by presenting the government as being on the side of workers at a time when the cost of living is skyrocketing.

The government has also been ramping up its public criticism of gas companies over what one minister called “a glut of greed” in the pursuit of higher prices.

Labor remains bruised by the mining industry’s mobilisation against the Rudd government’s proposed resources super profits tax in 2010. In that case the mining sector set up a $100m fighting fund and the campaign is widely believed to have contributed to Kevin Rudd’s ousting as prime minister.

The proposed new legislation – the secure jobs, better pay bill – enacts several election commitments to improve gender pay equity. The bill will also allow the Fair Work Commission to resolve intractable bargaining disputes through arbitration where there is no reasonable prospect of agreement being reached.

But the most contentious changes are to multi-employer bargaining. The bill replaces the existing low-paid bargaining stream with the “supported stream”, a simpler way for workers in sectors such as community services, cleaning, and early childhood education and care to negotiate one pay deal across multiple employers.

Anthony Albanese visits a childcare centre on the Sunshine Coast.
Anthony Albanese visits a childcare centre on the sunshine coast. The government says areas like childcare ‘have been crying out’ for measures like multi-employer bargaining. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AAP

The bill also expands the “single-interest stream” by allowing the Fair Work Commission to authorise workers with common interests to bargain together, where it is in the public interest for them to do so.

Controversially for employers, both these streams could allow unions to apply to compel them to bargain together if the move has the support of the majority of employees – subject to some exceptions, including that small businesses can’t be forced into the single-interest stream.

Both are also backed by the right to strike. In addition to existing hurdles to strike, such as balloting, the bill adds a requirement for conciliation first.

But the Coalition has denounced the legislation, predicting “more strikes and job losses”.

The government remains in talks with Senate crossbenchers on potential amendments; their support will be required to pass the bill. So far Labor has resisted calls to split the bill so the more contentious aspects could be delayed until next year.

Albanese said on Friday the government would “continue to work those issues through” in consultation with business groups, unions and senators. He said his minister for workplace relations, Tony Burke, had “held meeting after meeting after meeting this week”.

Appealing to the Senate, Albanese said: “We believe there’s a clear mandate for change here. We argued very clearly and explicitly before the election that we needed to do changes that would lift wages.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, Andrew McKellar, said the proposal by the independent ACT senator David Pocock to split the bill was “a sensible one”.

McKellar said this “would allow the government to secure the key measures that it wants” this year, and save debate on more controversial measures for next year.

McKellar met with Burke on Tuesday to argue small and medium-sized businesses should be exempted from some of the changes expanding multi-employer pay deals.

When enterprise agreements expire, employers should be given a “period of grace” to negotiate a new deal before being included in multi-employer bargaining, McKellar said. He told Guardian Australia aspects of the legislation opened a “can of worms” with “no clear boundary”.

But Burke has defended multi-employer bargaining as “a measure that precisely will get wages moving”.

“If you look at the areas of the economy that had been crying out for this the most it is areas like childcare, cleaning, areas like aged care,” Burke told the ABC.

“We are talking about those feminised sections of the economy, not especially militant, not areas of the economy that have done well out of bargaining over the last decade.”


Daniel Hurst and Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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