The Australian government is facing a swarm of opposition as it tries to push through a massive 249-page industrial relations bill that would allow workers—at different companies—to collectively bargain for better pay.
Now, bosses from some of Australia’s richest mining, coal and gas companies say they will run a “multimillion-dollar” ad campaign to stop them.
The threat was levelled at the Labor government on Tuesday, adding to growing unrest from members of the crossbench in both houses of parliament, as workplace relations minister Tony Burke continues to push ahead with hopes to get it done by the end of this year.
If he’s successful, the bill would make a slew of changes to industrial law in Australia, and give workers—and their unions—substantially more bargaining power.
Among the most controversial elements of the bill is the introduction of multi-employer bargaining, which would offer workers from lower-paid industries—like childcare and cleaning—to negotiate together sector-wide, as opposed to having negotiations fenced off by their bosses.
The possibility has outraged all sorts of bosses, not least those who sit at the top of some of the most profitable businesses operating in Australia.
Across the resources sector, where profits over the last year are in the tens of billions, anger over the idea of ceding more power to workers is running “white hot”. Steve Knott, chief executive at the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association, said that if the government doesn’t make “substantive” changes to the bill, some of the sector’s biggest employers would launch a multimillion dollar campaign against it.
“It would be like the mining tax campaign but on steroids,” Knott told The Australian, referencing the $20 million campaign launched by the industry in opposition to the resource super profits tax in 2010, which eventually left former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s government in ruins.
At the centre of most of the blowback to the bill are claims that, if passed, Australia would descend into the strike-induced chaos last seen across the nation in the 1970s. It’s a heavily-trodden line, often heard from opposition leader Peter Dutton, as well as the various industry and lobby groups that have taken the same position.
But there’s plenty of research that suggests the opposite would be true. Chris F. Wright, an industrial relations academic and associate professor at the University of Sydney, says Denmark offers itself as a useful case study.
There, where close to two thirds of the population are unionised and even more are covered by collective agreements made on the foundation Australia’s Labor government is trying to introduce, strikes are rare, the unemployment rate is lower than it is in Australia, and “excessive” wage growth is nowhere to be seen.
In Australia, wages have remained stagnant for the better part of the last decade, while inflation for the September quarter rose to 7.3 percent.
“Multi-employer bargaining systems have many other benefits,” he wrote on Twitter. “They can help to address gender pay inequity—according to the OECD multi-employer arrangements are ‘necessary to negotiate targeted raises in female-dominated and low-paid sectors’.”
“Multi-employer bargaining is also more effective at addressing skills shortages—because it encourages employers to cooperate over training, rather than poaching each other’s skilled workers [which is common in Australia],” he said.
But multi-employer bargaining only forms one part of the bill, and members of the Senate crossbench, who will have final say over the bill’s passage, argue that the government is trying to rush the bill through both houses without giving any mind to what unintended consequences it might bring with it.
In order to get the bill over the line, Labor will need support from the Greens in the Senate, along with at least one more independent member of the crossbench in just three weeks.
So far, One Nation has outright opposed the bill, while the Jacqui Lambie Network has reservations about how it could impact small businesses still recovering from the worst of the pandemic, and senator David Pocock is asking the government to break the bill up, so parts of it can be passed before Christmas, and others can be scrutinised for longer.
The government, however, has shown no signs of slowing down. Prime minister Anthony Albanese argued earlier in the week that there’s already been a considerable amount of consultation on the changes, and that his government will “consider practical changes”, but won’t pause for delays.
The message was repeated firmly by Burke later on Tuesday. Appearing on the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing on Tuesday, he said he didn’t want workers suffering wage stagnation to wait “a day longer than we have to”, before hitting back at Knott over threats to launch a campaign against the government’s bill.
“People have been waiting for 10 years without their wages moving, and I don't want to continue that delay. Let's not pretend we don't have a level of urgency here…wages at the moment in Australia [are] running at 2.6 percent, and inflation [is] running at 7.3 percent,” Burke said.
“A $20 million campaign is not going to stop this government's resolve in getting wages moving,” he said.
“If they think they can simply buy advertising space, and we will suddenly turn a blind eye to the households where wages are not keeping up with standards of living, then they just don't understand what's happening around every kitchen table in Australia.”
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