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A new body will oversee the culture of the construction industry in a fresh government concession to its controversial industrial relations bill as it races to woo crucial crossbenchers and pass the reforms this year.
Independent MP Allegra Spender on Monday stepped up her criticism of the 249-page Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill by accusing the government of wanting to introduce “the most far-reaching industrial relations reform since John Howard’s Work Choices”, joining other lower house crossbenchers in siding with opposition calls for a new probe into the bill.
The government will establish a new construction industry body in lieu of the controversial Australian Building and Construction Commission, which has been criticised as a politicised body.Credit:Peter Braig
The government voted down the new inquiry, with Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke saying it would prevent the bill going to the Senate when it returned later this month, “and to be able to do that, that means it’s got to go through the house this week”.
The bill has drawn criticism from business groups, the federal opposition and members of the crossbench over its provisions on multi-employer agreements, which would allow the majority of workers across several businesses to force their employers to the negotiating table together.
The government has the numbers to pass the bill in the lower house and has the tentative support of the Greens in the Senate but needs one more senator to secure the passage of the bill.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, a possible crucial vote, said on Monday she would not support the legislation in its current form, labelling the scrapping of the Australian Building and Construction Commission as a key point of contention.
“It is a sticking point with me, the ABCC, I’ll tell you now,” Lambie said, adding her key concern was the construction industry would be left with “no police on the beat”.
Burke on Monday promised to set up a National Construction Industry Forum as a statutory body in lieu of the controversial Australian Building and Construction Commission, which Labor accused of acting as a politicised, union-hunting agency targeting the construction union.
Detail on the new agency and its powers are scant, however it appears to be a beefing up of the forum which was first announced at the September’s jobs summit as a way to “to bring industry and unions together to address issues such as mental health, safety, training, productivity, culture, diversity and gender equity”.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has made more concessions in his industrial relations bill.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
It will also oversee security of payments between larger businesses and smaller contractors in the sector, which has been welcomed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
The change to the forum is among a list of amendments to the bill the government hopes to introduce into parliament on Tuesday in the hope of passing the legislation before Christmas.
Labor campaigned on abolishing the ABCC during the election and, in government, has introduced measures to constrain the organisation’s function after accusing it of pursuing union members over trivial matters instead of improving the industry as a whole.
Independent senator David Pocock, another potential crucial vote, suggested the government should push forward with multi-employer bargaining for low-paid workers and the opt-in stream for small businesses “to urgently deliver pay rises for the lowest paid workers”.
Pocock welcomed the new agency but stopped short of supporting the bill.
“With the significant changes proposed to Australia’s industrial relations framework, and how construction is to be regulated, it is critical that the government ensures worksites are safe and productive places,” he said.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke (right) speaks with members of the crossbench, including Allegra Spender (far left) in parliament on Monday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Opposition industrial relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash accused the government of handing over the construction industry to “the most militant union in Australia”, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union.
Comment has been sought from Lambie.
The CFMMEU declined to comment.
Australian Industry Group Innes Willox said the new forum was “not a like for like replacement of the ABCC and the vital role it has played in maintaining order in the sector”.
Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn described the announcement as “another sleight of hand by the government to try and justify the abolition of the ABCC”.
A growing number of crossbenchers in the lower house are now joining members of the Senate in calling for the bill to be split. This would allow the less contested elements of the bill to be passed sooner while providing for more scrutiny of the bill’s more controversial elements.
Spender told this masthead the bill was as “the most far-reaching industrial relations reform since John Howard’s Work Choices”.
“Many are worried the economy will soon be contracting while the government runs a national experiment in pattern bargaining,” Spender said.
Pattern bargaining involves unions trying to roll out template agreements from one employer to another and is restricted in Australia.
Independents Helen Haines and Dr Sophie Scamps followed Spender and West Australian independent Kate Chaney in trying to get the bill split, with Haines saying there was a concerning contrast between the government’s consultation over its climate change and integrity legislation, and the current bill.
South Australian independent Rebekha Sharkie spoke in favour of an opposition push to establish a new parliamentary committee on the legislation, and in a government vote to disallow the motion, several independents, including Sharkie and Dr Monique Ryan, sided with the opposition.
Greens leader Adam Bandt said his party was still digesting the bill and discussing it with the government directly.
With James Massola
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