The Senate will be spending a lot of time this week debating the government’s Fair Work Bill.  A Senate Inquiry into the legislation reported a couple of weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the Committee split along party lines.

Labor Senators recommended some technical clarifications, while concluding that “the Bill be passed without delay”.  Liberal Senators “acknowledged that Workchoices is dead”, outlined “aspects of the legislation which appear to be unfair, which may destroy jobs and which are at odds with the Rudd Government’s promises”, identified some “significant and unresolved flaws” and said the “government should honour commitments made to Australian business” made in their election policy. Despite all this, they didn’t say the legislation should be defeated if these changes were not made. The Greens focused heavily on queries about whether the legislation is compliant with International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, concluding by stating that the legislation provides “fairer regulation of workplaces than Work Choices. However, the Bill also contains too much of the Work Choices regime” and “represents a missed opportunity to cement a truly fair and progressive industrial relations system”.  They also don’t state that they will oppose the legislation if amendments are not made to make it “truly fair”.

The key point missing from most of the media commentary about the Fair Work Bill is that it doesn’t even go close to returning the law to a pre-Workchoices situation.  This is regardless of the fact that both major parties have now adopted the sensible view that we should try to maintain a consistent set of national laws governing workplace relations.  The issue is not that the laws are national, but what rights are contained in those laws.  For those who still like to portray industrial relations as a two dimensional contest, where workers and employers are constantly engaged in a battle with each other, there is no doubt that the Fair Work Bill leaves things tilted far more in the employers’ favour than was the case pre-Workchoices. 

This simple fact betrays the fervent cries that the Fair Work Bill will cost heaps of jobs are little more than bombastic nonsense.  These claims could only have substance if the same people argued that the workplace relations regime that operated under the first nine years of the Howard government were even worse.  Whilst there was a continuing campaign around a few specific measures, such as unfair dismissals, there was never any suggestion Howard’s laws were pro-union or anti-jobs.  It was only once the ideological monstrosity of Workchoices was bulldozed through a rubber-stamp Senate by a Coalition eager to hang itself with the extra rope the electorate handed them at the 2004 poll that history was rewritten to suggest that Howard’s own pre-Workchoices laws were some sort of trade union nirvana.

When the Senate considers amendments to the Fair Work Bill later this week, it is possible the Coalition may get some amendments passed with the support of Senators Fielding and Xenophon. It is hard to see the Greens getting the necessary Coalition support for any of their amendments, unless the Coalition decides to do so for the purposes of trying to embarrass the government.

However, it is possible that the government will accept a few amendments from the Greens or the others on the cross-bench.  This would give them a way to counter allegations that they are hardline ideologues captive to a union agenda, by showing them as being willing to compromise and consider different views (as long as they aren’t the Liberal’s views, who Labor is clearly trying to portray as hardline ideologues still pining for a return to Workchoices).  Accepting a few Senate amendments may also provide a way for Labor to get a few extra things the unions want in the final legislation, while being able to say to business that it was the Senate that made them do it.

Regardless of that, given public statements made by both the Coalition and the Greens, it is very hard to see a majority of the Senate insisting on any amendments it makes, should the government reject them in the House of Representatives.  This means Labor will make the eventual decision on what type of amendments, if any, they are willing to wear and the Senate debate will serve mainly as a vehicle for the various parties to do some positioning on what is still a politically significant issue.

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