It came amid tensions between the union and the crossbench party, which today flexed its senate muscle to help stymie the Morrison Government’s contentious Industrial Relations reforms.
The Government sensationally dumped the vast majority of its own Bill including wage theft penalties.
The coalition could only salvage increased rights for casual workers to ask for permanent jobs and a definition of that work type from its original bill.
Provisions criminalising wage theft, changes to enterprise bargaining, award simplification and extended long-term pay agreements for major projects were thrown out.
The wide-ranging omnibus bill was drafted after months of negotiations between unions, business groups and the government.
But after it became clear Centre Alliance’s Stirling Griff – who held the deciding vote – would back only the casuals and wage theft provisions, the government gutted the package.
The omnibus package was already on life support this morning with Griff – who held the deciding vote on the legislation after One Nation’s two senators agreed to back it with minor changes – proposing to junk large swathes of the Bill.
Griff – a former head of the SA retailers’ association – this morning told the Government he only supported new wage theft penalties and a definition of casual employment, arguing businesses are facing potentially crippling backpay liabilities if uncertainty about entitlements for casual staff continue.
“This issue needs to be addressed urgently as it is causing significant confusion and stress among businesses who employ casuals, in particular small businesses,” he said in a statement.
“This is a complex and contentious Bill, and we recognise that attempting detailed amendments to the remaining parts of the Bill runs the risk of unintended consequences for employees and employers.”
Griff headed the SA office of the Australian Retailers Association from 1998-2004.
In response, the Government moved to dump wage theft penalties from the Bill altogether ahead of a rushed vote, with Griff telling parliament: “Shame on you all for trashing such an important amendment.”
Absolute shitshow in the Senate over the IR bill as the PM tries to keep eyes on promising new job figures. #auspol
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) March 18, 2021
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said the Government was walking away from nine months of negotiations.
“This is shameful and vindictive reaction to not getting widespread support for other changes that would reduce workers’ rights,” she said.
The ACTU has conducted polling in SA and argues 64 per cent of Centre Alliance voters in Sharkie’s Mayo electorate would be less likely to vote for the minor party at the next election if it backed the Government’s Bill.
But the polling kicked off with a survey of voting intentions, seen by InDaily, which showed a significant decline in Sharkie’s primary vote since the 2019 federal election.
According to the survey – by pollster UComms – of 630 Mayo residents across March 12 and 13, 40.3 per cent of respondents indicated they’d vote Liberal – with a candidate yet to be preselected – while 24.3 per cent indicated first-preference support for Sharkie.
That’s a significant decline from the incumbent’s 34.2 per cent primary in 2019 – which itself was down from the previous year’s 44.37 per cent by-election result.
Sharkie remains well ahead of Labor on 17.8 per cent – although that is up from the 13.7 per cent the ALP recorded two years ago.
On a two-candidate-preferred basis, the poll puts Sharkie on 51 per cent to the Liberals’ 49 – down from the 55.14 per cent 2PP she garnered at the last election.
Sharkie told InDaily she was unaware of the polling, which she suggested was “potentially done to try to sway our position” on IR.
“We were always very clear… I was quite clear to the Government and we haven’t changed our position,” she said.
“The ACTU can do whatever polls they like, I just keep going to work every day… all I know is we look at every piece of legislation on its merits [and] we’ve been quite clear we have to address wage theft and the definition of casual [workers] more broadly.
“The union movement and businesses want to see greater clarity – but the rest of the proposals we’ll not support.”
She said she “absolutely” believed she retained strong support in her electorate, saying: “Whether I’m doorknocking or getting a pastie for lunch, I get an enormous amount of people who make contact who are very supportive.”
The Government’s Bill sought to define casual employment in a bid to stop “double-dipping” of loadings and leave entitlements after two court rulings in favour of workers.
Centre Alliance moved to amend it to allow anyone with an entitlements claim to finalise their case, with Griff also moving amendments which would ensure casual workers knocked back after requesting permanent jobs could contest the decision in small claims courts.
Fellow crossbencher – and former CA senator – Rex Patrick wanted to dump all of the Bill except for the wage theft penalties, as did Tasmanian Jacqui Lambie.
Sharkie said the Alliance had been “keen for the Government to go back to the ACTU and unions more broadly, and business groups, to work together to get a definition of casual [workers] that they support”.
“Apart from that, the Government have to capacity to either put those two sections up or remove the Bill entirely,” she said this morning.
However Griff ultimately voted for the amended bill, sparking a split with Sharkie, who accused him of breaking an agreement to oppose anything that small business and unions did not agree on.
“Stirling voted in a manner that I do not support,” she said after the vote.
“Where this landed is totally unacceptable.”
SA Unions this week demonstrated outside Griff’s Goodwood electorate office, with state secretary Angas Story telling InDaily crossbench senators “have a choice to make between supporting the rights of working people and siding with big business to cut pay and conditions”.
“Certainty and wage growth for South Australians is critical to drive a recovery from the pandemic recession,” he said.
“This Bill will delay the recovery by crushing wage growth and taking away job security for tens of thousands of workers in this state.
“This is something we can ill-afford with the highest level of unemployment and the lowest economic growth in Australia.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed Labor for leading opposition to the bill despite his government failing to win crossbench support for the measures.
“There are many in the Senate and the Labor Party in particular who don’t share my passion for creating jobs,” he told reporters in Canberra this afternoon.
“I am a practical person, too. That means if this Senate is saying they don’t wish to support those measures, then we will have to consider that in terms of how we go forward because I will send them other things to approve.”
Wage theft penalties were supported by all five crossbench senators in a rare consensus on the controversial reforms.
The government forced the heavily amended bill through the upper house on the last Senate sitting until mid-May.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter was on leave for the crucial week of negotiation after emphatically denying historical rape allegations.
His temporary replacement Michaelia Cash said the watered down bill would provide certainty for small business and casual workers.
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong said the government was too distracted by other problems to negotiate the passage of its reforms.
“This is a government in crisis,” she told the chamber.
-additional reporting by AAP
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