Halfway there as Closing Loopholes part 1 passes Senate

The Closing Loopholes bill was split to permit urgent amendments and allow more complex details to be considered in February.

The Closing Loopholes bill was split to permit urgent amendments and allow more complex details to be considered in February. Photo: TND/Getty

“You might lose some profits, but it wouldn’t even be a sneeze in your hankie!” said Jacqui Lambie when speaking in support of part one of the Closing Loopholes bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.

Taking aim at companies like Qantas and BHP, Senator Lambie said, “you have done this to yourselves, and you should be ashamed of yourselves”, referring to aspects of the bill that close a labour hire loophole, which has allowed some businesses to engage labour hire workers to undercut their direct employees.

In what was at times an emotional and passionate speech, Lambie provided a sobering summary for those listening, declaring, “it would never have come to this if you’d just done the right thing in the first place”.

But, unsurprisingly, the passage of the split bill wasn’t well supported by everyone.

An indignant Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie accused ACT Senator David Pocock of failing to follow due process and doing a deal with the Labor Party.

Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham also made a rousing speech about a sausage factory being in overdrive – whatever that was supposed to mean – before then accusing the government of “ruthlessly” using their numbers to push through the bill.

The irony presumably having been lost on McKenzie and Birmingham though, considering that was exactly what Coalition senators had done with the crossbenchers to split the closing loopholes bill in the first place.

How did they split the bill?

The Closing Loopholes bill that passed the Senate was some way from the bill originally proposed by the government in September.

Some might remember that crossbench senators, led by Lambie and Pocock, proposed an alternate “split” bill at the beginning of November to bring forward what they said were urgent amendments for first responders, silicosis sufferers, small business redundancy exemptions and sufferers of family and domestic violence.

That move, which was supported by Coalition senators at the time, saw four key reforms contained in the original bill “split” out of it to allow them to pass sooner, with the rest of it to be left for the Senate to consider until February.

The government initially opposed splitting the bill, with the House of Representatives passing the original bill in full last week, including some amendments agreed with industry.

But the government agreed to “split” the bill and with the support of the crossbench and the Greens, passed what has now become part one of closing loopholes, with part two still up for consideration in February at the earliest.

What are the changes that passed?

The deal struck by the government and the crossbench was to include all of the reforms they had been seeking in the earlier split, as well as some of the more controversial elements proposed in the government’s original bill.

Reforms like the labour hire – or same job, same pay – laws, additional rights for workplace representatives and criminalising intentional wage theft have now been legislated.

More complex elements, like gig work reforms and changes to casual employment, have been pushed into next year to give the Senate more time to consider them.

And that makes sense because while gig work reforms are very much needed, they are complex and warrant detailed consideration.

As is so often the case, the passage of these reforms will likely actually only affect a very small portion of the working population.

Damning and dramatic responses are predictable, but in the main they’re unlikely to be reflected in lived experience.

Constructive leadership is required

Steve Knott, head of the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association, said the passage of the bill “vindicates” his organisation’s decision to negotiate carveouts.

Other employer representatives like Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable have called the bill “an act of economic vandalism”. Arguing that the legislative changes write into law “higher costs for all”, commentary like that is not part of any solution, but it is part of the problem.

And let’s face it, industrial- and employment-related regulations are some of the most divisive, polarised and values-based matters that the Parliament has to deal with.

Sadly, despite the significance of these matters to how our society functions, they have far too often been mired in self-interest and base political allegiance.

With further important reforms to gig work now scheduled to be put to the Senate as part of closing loopholes part 2 on February 6, it is probably too much to expect all of our elected representatives to work together to find a solution that meets the challenges of the gig economy, but we should hope.

Scott Riches is a former union official with the Electrical Trades Union Victorian branch, and a practising employment lawyer. He is also a volunteer in the employment clinic at the Fitzroy Legal Service

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