Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock oppose Labor ‘rushing through’ workplace bill

Albanese government has agreed amendments to get business on board but independent senators won’t be bullied into passing omnibus legislation

The Albanese government is ratcheting up pressure on Senate crossbenchers to support its contentious industrial relations legislation after Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock signalled concessions to employers were not enough to expedite the bill’s passage.

Labor used the resumption of federal parliament on Monday to welcome last week’s 15% pay rise for aged care workers and declare that other workers battling escalating cost-of-living pressures needed industrial regulations that worked in their interests, given inflation was now forecast to peak at 8%.

With the two key Senate players signalling they don’t want to be rushed – and only two upper house sitting weeks remaining this year – the workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, upped the political ante on Monday.

Burke used question time to argue Australians were watching.

“They want the parliament to act now,” the minister said, adding Australians had been “kept waiting for 10 years while wages were kept deliberately low and they should not be left waiting”.

The prime minister told parliament Labor had made clear promises in the run-up to the May election about dealing with years of stagnant wages. Anthony Albanese said workers needed an industrial relations system that worked “for people”.

Pocock has argued Labor should split its “secure jobs, better pay” bill, allowing parliament to pass uncontroversial elements and the expansion of low-paid bargaining while deferring more contentious elements expanding multi-employer bargaining until the new parliamentary year. The government has rebuffed the call.

In an effort to counter a business campaign against the proposal, and persuade the Senate kingmakers to rubber stamp the package, Burke has added safeguards requiring majority support from employees of each employer to join a multi-employer pay deal and establishing a six-month grace period for a business with an expired pay deal to continue to negotiate with its workforce.

Under the Labor amendments, the Fair Work Commission would have to allow a minimum period of bargaining before arbitrating an intractable dispute. Changes banning rolling fixed-term contracts would be delayed by 12 months.

The national construction industry forum – a concession to Pocock arising from the jobs and skills summit – would be upgraded to a statutory advisory body.

Despite the changes, Lambie told reporters in Canberra on Monday she does not support the bill in its current form, warning the omnibus legislation suggested the government was “trying to hide or rush stuff through”.

Lambie nominated the proposed abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission as a sticking point and called on the government to allow businesses to be able to opt-out of multi-employer pay deals “regardless of size”.

In social media posts, Pocock said he did not “want to stand in the way of low-paid workers, especially in highly feminised industries, getting a pay rise”. But he insisted it “simply isn’t true” that the only options were “supporting workers and passing [the bill] as quickly as possible or backing business and stopping it”.

Pocock, who has previously linked his vote to the federal government forgiving the ACT’s public housing debt, said the legislative process was “very rushed” and his “primary concern” was the lack of time for scrutiny.

Employer groups including the Ai Group welcomed the “modest improvements” proposed in government amendments but said the “real test” was whether Labor was prepared to slow the bill’s passage for further consultation.

While the industrial package hangs in the balance, the Coalition is attempting to heap pressure on the government about cost-of-living pressures following a new Treasury forecast that power prices could rise by 56% by the end of next year.

The Albanese government is working up an intervention in the gas market to make the gas code mandatory, add a mechanism allowing for more price control and expand gas storage on the east coast of Australia. The government is also considering complementary measures for the electricity sector. The results of that policy work are expected within weeks.

The opposition used the resumption of parliament to resume its criticism of Labor’s pre-election statements about its climate policies lowering power prices by 2025.

Labor’s statements about power prices were informed by RepuTex modelling undertaken before the invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing global energy market shock.

The Coalition on Monday pursued the removal of the RepuTex modelling from the website of the climate change department. During a Senate estimates hearing, the secretary of the department, David Fredericks, said it had published Labor’s modelling in error. “It was the wrong thing to do and we’ve corrected it,” he said.

Officials told the hearing they had met with RepuTex to gain an understanding of the assumptions that underpinned the modelling of power prices but they had made no judgment about Reputex’s figures.

Fredericks characterised the RepuTex analysis as a “point-in-time analysis” that was conducted in 2021 before wholesale power prices rose sharply.


Paul Karp and Lisa Cox

The GuardianTramp

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