Labor, unions and the Morrison government have clashed repeatedly in an escalating row over proposed industrial relations changes that are the most significant since WorkChoices.
Labor has seized on the opportunity for a political contest on its preferred ground of workers rights, accusing the government of giving frontline workers a Christmas gift of pay cuts in a bid to shore up Australian businesses.
The government argues employers need additional powers, including scope to seek cuts to take-home pay and increased flexibility of part-time work, to recover from the pandemic.
The omnibus industrial relations bill introduced on Wednesday has already been labelled the worst since WorkChoices by Australian unions, which accuse the government of granting extreme employer demands after formal consultations had concluded.
The release of the bill sets up a major fight on labour market deregulation, the third rail of politics for conservatives since John Howards loss in 2007.
Labor is backing the unions view that it is unacceptable to allow workplace pay deals that fail the better off overall test (Boot).
In question time, the opposition targeted Scott Morrison and attorney general, Christian Porter, with questions highlighting their inability to guarantee no worker will be worse off as a result of the changes.
The most contentious proposal, first revealed by Guardian Australia on Tuesday, is to allow employers two years to apply for pay deals that do not meet the Boot, which stipulates deals must improve on minimum conditions in the award.
Rather than the existing test of exceptional circumstances, employers will be able to register agreements that leave workers worse off if the Fair Work Commission agrees they are appropriate in all the circumstances a test that includes consideration of the impact of Covid-19. All agreements still require majority employee approval.
At a press conference in Canberra, Porter accused unions of a substantial overstatement of the slight change allowing employers to circumvent the Boot.
The provision would be used by a business that is suffering and needs to do something and change something because of the Covid pandemic, such as marine tourism operators on the Great Barrier Reef, he said.
Porter suggested the provisions would be used by businesses in particularly distressed areas despite the fact there is no minimum threshold for employers to show the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses.
Porter said an agreement that did not meet the Boot will only last for two years, after which the employer or employee can apply for it to be terminated.
Sally McManus, right, at a press conference on Wednesday when she was strongly critical of the new bill. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Earlier, the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, warned the provision has the potential to create zombie agreements that entrench pay cuts long after their nominal expiry.
Porter brushed off concerns unions werent consulted on the measure, arguing it will be considered through Senate debate and boldly predicting debate around this rather modest section will die off.
In addition to worse pay deals, McManus raised concerns about job security, warning workers can be labelled casuals with no right to arbitration if an employer refuses their request to become permanent, and the impact on blue collar workers, who will be prevented from bargaining for an eight-year period if they work on a new major worksite.
Anthony Albanese said the Coalition bill will allow workers wages and conditions to be cut and undermined.
This is a nasty act from a nasty government that is returning to form when it comes to attacking workers wages and conditions, he told reporters in Canberra.
The shadow industrial relations minister, Tony Burke, said the bill turns the better off overall test into one where every single worker covered can be worse off.
Burke promised to study the detail of other measures but said Labor would apply the same principle as the ACTU in seeking a bill to deliver secure jobs with decent pay.
In question time, Porter claimed there was nothing in the bill Labor could point to that would result in pay cuts because its not true. He cited as evidence the fact exceptional circumstances have only been used in the past to change work patterns and not cut pay rates.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, argued the industrial relations bill and other programs will actually boost wages because when you get more people into jobs, you create more competition in the labour market, and therefore you get higher wages growth.
Morrison said the industrial relations bill would allow employers and employees to make agreements that leave them in a better position as an organisation, as an enterprise which creates and supports jobs.
We want to see Australians earn more and you can only earn more if youre in a job, he said. The Labor Party may not understand [but] if the business doesnt exist no one has a job.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, James Pearson, said the bill will help make it easier for employers and employees to cooperate to preserve jobs and kickstart recovery.
The Australian Industry Group chief executive, Innes Willox, said it was important to give the FWC discretion to approve enterprise agreements which do not pass the Boot in genuine and limited circumstances where approval of the agreement is in the interests of all parties.
Earlier, Labor helped the Coalition pass a bill in the lower house that will facilitate the deamalgamation of divisions of super unions, and agreed to an hours motion that will see it pass the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.
McManus labelled the bill a big distraction from the omnibus bill and said the ACTU would prefer the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union sort out its own internal affairs without recourse to deamalgamation legislation.
In addition to the omnibus bill, which will be considered by a Senate committee into the new year, Porter has asked the FWC to conduct a review of modern awards in distressed industries.
In a letter to FWC president justice Iain Ross, Porter said stakeholders had requested the commission simplify pay arrangements by allowing loaded rates, which mean employers can pay employees a higher base rate of pay instead of penalty rates, on an opt-in basis so that workers are not financially worse off.
The commission should also considering streamlining classifications in retail, hospitality, restaurants, and registered clubs, he said, calling for a review by 31 March.

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