Paul Bongiorno: Standing up to the bullies sets a welcome precedent on workplace relations

Tony Burke and Anthony Albanese are standing up to vested interests, Paul Bongiorno writes.

Tony Burke and Anthony Albanese are standing up to vested interests, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: Getty

When it comes to strident political hyperbole, few can match the Liberals’ workplace relations shadow minister Michaelia Cash.

On Monday she warned that Labor’s industrial relations reforms, especially multi-employer bargaining, could “potentially close down Australia”.

Think about that.

We are all expected to quake at the prospect that giving the country’s lowest-paid workers – in predominantly female sectors like aged care, early education and cleaning – more bargaining power would be the end of the world as we now know it.

Michaelia Cash

Michaelia Cash has been spruiking the assertion that workplace reform could ‘close down Australia’.

That, of course, is the idea. The world as we know it has led to almost two decades of wage stagnation, lower productivity and skyrocketing profits.

No wonder the captains of industry have taken fright at the thought of a more equitable sharing of the pie.

Shared goal

Anthony Albanese and his Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke scoff at the fear mongering but in doing so they are fully aware they are taking on powerful vested interests who are threatening to spend millions of dollars on a multimedia campaign to bring them to heel.

There is something obscene about the charge being led by the Australian Resources & Energy Employer Association whose members are recording super profits while imposing crippling energy prices on other businesses and consumers.

The association’s chief executive Steve Knott told The Australian there was “white-hot” anger among mining, oil and gas companies and they would use “their significant capacity to fund a substantial campaign”.

Their capacity is no doubt enhanced by the substantial write-offs and concession from governments and among the lowest royalty rates in the world.

On Sunday Tony Burke said the outspoken Steve Knott had not contacted him, unlike other business leaders.

Political campaign

There’s not much interest being evidenced here for any conversation; Burke sees Knott’s fulminations and threats for what they are – a political campaign.

A campaign already being supported by the federal Opposition and its cheer squad in the near-monopoly Murdoch print media.

What is to be welcomed is the government’s willingness not to be bullied.

Burke says if Knott thinks his threatened “$20 million” campaign will make the government not think about people’s wages, he’s wrong.

The Prime Minister queries the credibility of companies who’ve “got a whole lot of money to throw at a campaign” but they “don’t have any money to pay workers better”.

Climate bill

Senator David Pocock is wary of ‘‘unintended consequences’’. Photo: AAP

The government’s urgency to “get wages moving” by seeing the reforming bill passed in the next two weeks is being held hostage in the Senate, principally by the ACT independent Senator David Pocock.

He and the Greens have the crucial numbers. Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie and her sidekick have apparently counted themselves out.

Pocock’s office says Steve Knott’s multimillion-dollar campaign won’t influence the Senator. He is pushing for more time to “iron out unintended consequences” and not to stymie multi-employer bargaining.

Burke is locked in furious negotiations and is hopeful of a pre-Christmas breakthrough.

For a newbie Senator Pocock is proving a deft hand at the art of “look at me politics” – there’s not much use having the balance of power if nobody notices.

Fortunately for the government, Pocock – like the Greens – gets what the bill is about and has no ideological block to the unions or what they might be able to achieve for lower-paid workers in a more conducive system.

Change in motion

We are certainly seeing the reverse of the 2010 resources super profits tax battle when Australia’s resources billionaires pulled together a $100 million fighting fund that spooked the Rudd Labor government.

kevin rudd pm update

Kevin Rudd was spooked, when PM, by a $100 million fighting fund from resources billionaires.

What the billionaires haven’t got going for them this time is a weakened government riven with internal ructions and rivalries.

Anthony Albanese is proving a more capable leader of his cabinet than his old mate Kevin Rudd.

This is the sort of cohesion that is absolutely necessary if good government is to be delivered to the nation.

There is no easy way to take the “hard decisions” that Treasurer Jim Chalmers keeps talking about.

Ironically, the new “teal” independent from the mining state of Western Australia, Kate Chaney says if Chalmers – in the desire to keep promises – retains the stage-three income tax cuts, he will have to look for sources of revenue elsewhere.

Chaney is not alone in thinking he may need to revisit the petroleum resources rent tax among other measures.

That will test the strength of the precedent Albanese and Burke are establishing with their “courageous” defiance of this sector over workplace relations.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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