Monday, December 7, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

The government’s IR reforms look pro-employer

Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter.

Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter. Image via ABC News

In Question Time this afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked point blank whether he could guarantee that no worker would be worse off as a result of the government’s industrial-relations reforms. The PM refused to answer, responding instead with another version of his tactic of rejecting the premise of the question. “We see the workplace [as] a place of cooperation, not conflict,” Morrison said. By asking whether workers might be worse off, Labor leader Anthony Albanese was, Morrison said, going down “the old path of conflict”. Speaker Tony Smith reminded the House that the PM could not be forced to answer a yes-or-no question, and Morrison sang the praises of small businesses whose proudest day was the day they created a job. The PM’s faith in the beneficence of employers is overt and unbounded, and that is a worry for ordinary employees everywhere because the pandemic has exposed the perils and pitfalls of insecure work. The Morrison government is determined not to repeat the industrial-relations overreach of WorkChoices, but the PM does not help by nailing his pro-employer colours to the mast.  

At first blush, the reforms for casual employees unveiled today by Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter sound reasonable, and he gave a straightforward summary of them in Question Time. Casual workers accounted for 500,000 of the 800,000 jobs lost at the start of the pandemic, Porter said, and the government felt a “particular obligation” to regrow casual employment in the recovery.

Porter outlined three problems that his bill would address. First, the lack of a legislative definition of a casual employee. Second, the prospect of “double dipping”, as in when, for example, “someone could potentially make a claim for back-paid leave … even though at the time they were paid loadings meant to compensate for the fact that they weren’t attracting leave or accruing leave on their job”. Such claims against employers could total up to $39 billion, Guardian Australia reports, and the bill will attempt to resolve this uncertainty – created by the landmark WorkPac vs Rossato case earlier this year. Thirdly, Porter said, there was “no strong, consistent, universal fair pathway” for people to convert from casual to permanent employment. Porter explained that the bill would impose “a much stronger obligation on employers to offer conversion to employees after six months of regular work [and create] an ongoing right after that offer that employers must make, so that every six months after that offer the request can be made and it can’t be unreasonably refused.”

Sounds good, but as ACTU secretary Sally McManus explained on RN Breakfast this morning, if employees disagree with their employer about what’s reasonable, they have no recourse to the Fair Work Commission. The casual employee has to “lawyer up” and take their boss to the Federal Court. So, if the PM’s vision of sweetness and light in the workplace fails to eventuate, the poor old casual worker has to love it or leave.

As shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke told the ABC’s Virginia Trioli this morning, the substance does not match the spin. “Up until now, it’s been the case that the employee had a series of different rights to say ‘no no no, I am in fact a permanent worker’ and to have that enforced,” Burke explained. “They lose those rights and all they get now is a right after 12 months to say ‘please, can you fix it?’ and the employer can say ‘no’. So whoever is responsible for the briefings to the papers today within the government’s media ranks has done a sterling job. But it’s difficult to see this as providing any improvement for casuals at all.” 

It’s a fundamental issue. At a press conference today, Porter said that employees would have recourse to conciliation in the Fair Work Commission, and to “consent arbitration” – but only if the employer agreed. The treatment of casuals is only the first of five areas that the government’s omnibus bill (to be released on Wednesday) will address. It’s the product of 150 hours of consultation between employers and unions. As former ACTU president and now Labor member for Cooper Ged Kearney said this morning: “I know there was a big fanfare at the beginning of this year saying ‘we are going to meet with the trade unions, meet with the ACTU’, but it seems that very little has actually come of that. And in usual form, it seems to me that they’ve been intractable with their desire to break down [the] industrial-relations system and not make workers’ lives better.”

It’s not a good start to the last parliamentary sitting week of the year. 

“Why should an objective observer not conclude that [Communications Minister] @PaulFletcherMP’s letter to the ABC re @4corners Canberra Bubble expose was an abuse of power for partisan purposes?”

Journalist and former ABC director Quentin Dempster, who today addressed the Friends of the ABC at a protest outside the office of the federal communications minister.

“I am concerned The New Daily deal may impact ABC reporting on superannuation. Super funds are supposed to be working for their members – not running propaganda outfits.”

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg attacks a content-sharing deal in which the industry super–backed outlet pays the ABC to use its content.

Laura Tingle on where Australia went wrong
New Zealand’s rapid response to COVID-19 and the political success of Jacinda Ardern has seen the world start to pay more attention to our neighbour’s political culture. Today, Laura Tingle on what Australia can learn from New Zealand.

The annual savings for high-income families (earning up to $500,000 a year) from Labor’s proposed policy to subsidise 90 per cent of childcare costs, according to Labor’s Child Care Calculator.

“The [foreign] minister may make a declaration that a foreign arrangement between a state/territory entity and a foreign entity is invalid and unenforceable, required to be varied or terminated, or not in operation … to the extent specified in the declaration. If the minister makes such a declaration, the entities will also be prohibited from giving effect to the arrangement and from holding out that they are able to give effect to the arrangement, to the extent specified in the declaration.”

From the outline of part four of Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act 2020, which passed the federal parliament last week and which may shortly be used to invalidate Victoria’s deal with China on its Belt and Road Initiative.

The list

“The prime minister, the treasurer, the deputy prime minister and the finance minister are overseeing the largest expansion of the public sector since World War Two, and it is their personal preferences, not the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, that will shape Australia’s society and economy for decades to come. The power of political preferences is usually hidden behind a thick veil of rhetoric, but the enormity of the COVID recession and new stimulus spending mean that, for the first time in decades, people are asking hard questions about the shape of the government’s response.”

“It is a promiscuous thing to be a pianist. Unless you are Vladimir Horowitz, your instrument is unlikely to travel with you, and so at each venue you must accustom yourself not only to the hall, as any musician must, but also to a new piano. You become a type of horse whisperer, arriving several hours early to subdue this creature, to establish intimacy, to persuade it to yield its secrets … Each piano has its own personality, created by nurture as well as nature. Pressed into its keys are the fingerprints of all those who have been here before you – professional or amateur – groping for something.”

“Stuart Robert was not happy about the sex. It was May and the minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was concerned that the government had lost its appeal, in the Federal Court of Australia, on the question of whether the disability program should fund sex workers for therapy … The court’s decision was a vindication of a fundamental human desire for touch and sexual contact. Politically and personally, Robert, an evangelical Christian, was uneasy with it.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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