Government agrees to split IR bill, in last day crossbench win

Karen Barlow
Updated December 7 2023 - 6:27pm, first published 8:43am

The government's second tranche of industrial reform will be split in two, with eight worker safety measures, including controversial "same job, same pay" provisions, to pass immediately, under a last parliamentary day of the year deal.

Watch: A year after the jobs and skills summit, the federal government has released a white paper outlining recommendations for the future of work in Australia.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke struck the deal with crossbench senators David Pocock and Jacqui Lambie.

The agreement to divide the Closing Loopholes Bill 2023 means worker protection measures, covering workers compensation for ACT First Responders with PTSD, deadly silica, domestic violence, wage theft and industrial manslaughter, will come into effect from the beginning of the 2024, while the debate on other elements will wait until Parliament resumes in February.

"I have to say, I'm even more optimistic about those remaining provisions, because of the goodwill that we're showing today and the goodwill and good intentions of the crossbench," Mr Burke told reporters in Canberra.

Independent senator David Pocock, Minister for Employment Tony Burke and Jacqui Lambie Network Senator Jacqui Lambie at a press conference at Parliament House. Picture by AAP Image/Mick Tsikas.
Independent senator David Pocock, Minister for Employment Tony Burke and Jacqui Lambie Network Senator Jacqui Lambie at a press conference at Parliament House. Picture by AAP Image/Mick Tsikas.

The Greens have also announced they will pass the "carved out" workplace laws, pointing to their provision to criminalise superannuation theft. They say they will continue to pursue a "right to disconnect" provision next year.

The surprise deal to pass the measures on Thursday, the last day of the 2023 parliamentary sitting calendar, comes after the ACT and Tasmanian senators had been holding out on the government over their insistence on splitting the hefty omnibus IR bill.

The key crossbenchers even attempted tactics such as introducing four private senators' bills duplicating the uncontroversial measures and then getting the Senate, for the first time since 1950, to "request a conference" with the House of Representatives to discuss the matter.

"Bringing forward changes that will better support first responders with PTSD will be life-changing and I thank the government for working with the crossbench to split the bill to get this done this year," Senator Pocock said in a statement.

Labor and unions had wanted the whole bill passed urgently, insisting the loopholes were undermining wages and there had already been enough time for scrutiny and consideration. But business is campaigning against some of the measures such as minimum standards for the gig workers.

There are also a few extra elements negotiated by the crossbenchers.

The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will be amended to address issues with the use of independent medical assessments, while the Fair Work Ombudsman will get additional resourcing to help small businesses understand and comply with their obligations under the legislation.

As well, there is a commitment for an independent review of the Comcare compensation scheme.

Senator Lambie also thanked Mr Burke and his office for "working constructively on these issues".

"We can now move ahead with the remaining elements of the bill, with the limited resources we have, in good faith," she said. "We have a 21st century economy. We need to get these laws right so today's workers are protected and businesses are enabled to grow."

Minister Tony Burke and Senator David Pocock. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Minister Tony Burke and Senator David Pocock. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

The four of the eight measures expected to pass the Senate on Thursday were in the Pocock/Lambie private senators' bills. They relate to opening access to workers compensation to first responders with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from January 1, enhanced workplace protections for people experiencing family and domestic violence, expanding the functions of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency to include silica, and ensuring employees of large companies get redundancy entitlements as a business downsizes due to insolvency.

The deal adds measures to close labour hire loopholes, criminalise intentional wage theft and the non-payment of superannuation but only when the small business code has been declared, criminalise industrial manslaughter, and ensure health and safety representatives can access workplaces consistent with the recommendations of the Boland review.

Karen Barlow

Karen Barlow

Chief Political Correspondent

Karen Barlow is ACM's Chief Political Correspondent. Working in the federal press gallery, she investigates and writes about federal politics and government. She has an interest in integrity, leadership and social equity. She has covered two Olympics and been to Antarctica twice. Contact her on karen.barlow@canberratimes.com.au

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