Gabrielle Chan, The Guardian,
The shadow employment minister, Brendan O’Connor, has defended Labor’s decision to step away from the Fair Work Commission’s penalty rate decision as unions meet this week to plan a Work Choices-style campaign against the Coalition and One Nation.
O’Connor said that, while the Labor party had long been the guardian of the independent national workplace relations tribunal, the party had no option but to oppose the decision.
“We are the only political party that has been the guardians of this institution for 113 years so it is a rare thing to do,” O’Connor said.
“Quite frankly, last Thursday, when Bill and I looked at the decision, we were – to say the least – surprised and disappointed that there was a significant net loss to workers without compensation whatsoever and we felt we had no option but to stand on the side of workers.
“I can assure you, we make no apology for it. It was the right decision to make.”
O’Connor said the rates cut would effect minimum awards in certain industries across the country and he called on the One Nation Senate crossbenchers and Derryn Hinch and Nick Xenophon to reconsider their decision.
One Nation’s leader, Pauline Hanson, has already indicated her support for the penalty rates cut, while Xenophon and Hinch have supported, in principle, the Fair Work Commission as an independent tribunal even though, in 2013, Xenophon has tried to use a private member’s bill to cut penalty rates.
Xenophon told Guardian Australia he believed there was merit in the former workplace minister Eric Abetz’s suggestion that penalty rate cuts could be “grandfathered” so no existing worker would be worse off.
“There is merit in what Eric is saying, I think we need to look at it carefully,” Xenophon said. “I don’t want see existing workers worse off.
“We do have to support the independent umpire but the umpire needs to take into account this is a time of low wage growth and we can’t reduce take-home pay.”
Hanson said she supported the penalty rate cuts because it gave small business a chance to grow and said low-income workers would still have a wage.
Within hours of Hanson’s comments, Unions NSW had sent out a message across social media platforms that said, “Hanson supports greatest wage cut since the Depression”.
Meetings are planned this week between unions, church groups and community groups to map out a campaign against the penalty rates cut, which will run up to and past the next election.
Targeting the Coalition and Hanson’s base in regional and rural communities, the Unions NSW secretary, Mark Morey, accused Hanson of siding with the government to cut the wages of working people in the regions.
“Mrs Hanson is a false prophet who purports to represent ‘the battlers’ while at the same time siding with Malcolm Turnbull’s government to cut the pay of working people with the hardest hit those living in regional and rural communities,” Morey said in the social media messages.
“The trade union movement intends to shine a light on One Nation and its duplicitous agenda of cutting the pay packets of working Australians.”
Morey told Guardian Australia the union movement would coordinate campaigning through trade and labour councils, community groups and religious organisations that oppose the penalty rate cut.
“Our plan is to work cooperatively with a broad range of unions to run community-based campaign to inform people of the effect of the cuts to penalty rates campaign and to shift votes at the next election,” Morey said.
“We are going to work with faith groups, [parents and citizens] groups, church groups, community groups, anywhere where unions members have connections to take our message to them.
“The idea is that the union movement act as one around this and it will not be a short-term campaign, it will go past the next election.”
Unions NSW will also launch a new website on Monday called Save Penalty Rates to drive the campaign and engage with affiliate organisations while taking part in the national movement. This will add to other union websites and campaigns including the Megaphone petition and Save our Weekend.
On Sunday the treasurer, Scott Morrison, said the Fair Work Commission would consider the transition process and take into account the effects of the decision. The Fair Work Commission will take submissions on the transition process to implement the penalty rate cut until 24 March.
“The Fair Work Commission has a process, which they have now embarked on, which deals with how they will be better off or otherwise or worse off and how that can be mitigated going forward,” Morrison said.
After a parliamentary sitting week that was dominated by penalty rates, Coalition backbenchers report frustration over the tactics of the senior leadership on the issue.
George Christensen told Fairfax Media the penalty rates cut could cost him his seat.
Politicians will spend a fortnight gauging the response in their electorates to the decision before another sitting fortnight starting March 20.
One Liberal MP spoke of the exasperation at the government’s tactics.
“We are in an impossible position,” the MP told Guardian Australia. “We can’t talk about the substance of the issue, we can’t talk about the detail of the decision and the reality is the economic benefit of it is as about as small as it gets but the political pain is as big as it gets.
“All we can do is talk about is Bill. It is like taking a knife to a gun fight.”