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Officials accused of Googling cost of key Labor bill

Labor to focus on IR bill and childcare in Parliament

Top bureaucrats have been accused of Googling the cost of the government’s contentious IR bill to businesses, after they referenced a website authored by a self-described “spiritual healer” in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry.

The webpage titled “How Much Should I Charge As A Consultant in Australia?” was cited in a footnote in a regulation impact statement prepared by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

The online article was published in 2020 by online short course provider Authentic Education and written by the company’s so-called “difference-maker mentor” and co-founder Benjamin J Harvey.

A screenshot of a webpage referenced by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations

Mr Harvey is described on the company’s website as “a cross between business strategist, modern day spiritual healer, and self-development expert”, whose passions include “helping people create authentic changes in their life, meditating and evolving human potential”.

On the webpage, Mr Harvey claims consultants charge about $175 an hour, based on a tripling of an hourly salary-based wage.

The department used that estimate to forecast how much Labor’s Secure Work, Better Pay industrial relations bill would cost businesses that engage in multi-employer bargaining.

It estimated that the cost of bargaining per business, including the cost of external consultants, would be more than $14,600 for a small business.

The estimated cost for a medium-sized business was $75,000, while a large business could fork out $94,311.

At a parliamentary committee hearing on Tuesday, the opposition’s workplace relations spokeswoman Senator Michaelia Cash asked department officials to confirm whether they used estimates from the Authentic Education website to calculate those costs.

“Which member of the department Googled ‘How much should I charge as a consultant?’,” Senator Cash said.

A government official said they were not aware of the Authentic Education website and she would take the question on notice.

Senator Cash also asked the department officials if the government would launch a campaign to inform small and medium businesses that the government expected them to put aside “tens of thousands of dollars to ensure they comply with these new laws”.

“Small business need to understand that if they are compelled to bargain they will need no less than $14,658,” she said.

“I’m assuming there’ll be an email going out to them telling them they will need this money. Is that correct?”

The department official said there were a “number of factors” that needed to be considered regarding the bill’s impact on business.

“We have provided $7.9 million in the forward estimates to the Fair Work Commission to support small businesses in the event that a do wish to engage with bargaining,” she said.

“In terms of the cost, they are an estimate per employer.”

During an uproarious question time on Tuesday, Small Business Minister Julie Collins faced multiple Coalition questions about the cost estimates.

She said more than two million businesses would be exempt from multi-employer bargaining under the government’s proposed changes.

The Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill has already passed the lower house. The government wants it to become law before Parliament rises for the Christmas break, arguing it will improve wages, address gender inequality in the workforce and address casualisation.

The bill’s success rests with independent ACT Senator David Pocock, who is locked in negotiations with Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke over concerns about the impact on small businesses.

Senator Pocock said on Tuesday he would not support the bill as it stood, warning small businesses would bear too much of the costs of the reform.

“In terms of the timeframe I’ve said this has been so rushed, there is a need for caution and ensuring that we get this right,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Coalition has accused the government of trying to “ram” the legislation through parliament and pushing an agenda to insert unions into Australian workplaces.

Pressure to pass the legislation in the final sitting fortnight for this year has prompted the government move that the Senate sit for an extra two days.

The Greens agreed to back the government’s plan. That means the Senate will sit this Friday and next, on top of its usual four-day sitting weeks.

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