Industrial Relations changes the only way to deliver wage subsidies in 'Dunkirk moment' for parliament: Christian Porter

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has invoked World War II in a scrap with Labor and unions over workplace law changes the government says are needed to deliver $130 billion in wage subsidies.

Mr Porter also pushed back on Monday against calls to expand the number of casual workers covered by the JobKeeper package, saying a line had to be drawn and people not receiving subsidies would be eligible for unemployment payments.

He said it was "ridiculous" and "extraordinary" that the opposition and the Australian Council of Trade Unions were urging the government not to change workplace laws when rolling out the JobKeeper package.

"If there were an easier way, we would adopt it," Mr Porter said.

"This is the only guaranteed way to make the $1500 payments flow in a lawful way to save Australian jobs.

"I've described it as a $130 billion worth of life boats going out. This is parliament's Dunkirk moment.

"We get the life boats out, and we save jobs. And we do it in the simplest, clearest, guaranteed formula that parliament can devise."

While the government has said changes to industrial relations laws would only last six months, Labor and the ACTU want it to amend awards and enterprise agreements through the workplace umpire instead.

The Coalition minister made the comments as parliament prepares to vote on the wage subsidy package on Wednesday, when a fraction of MPs will sit under social distancing restrictions.

Mr Porter has previously said parliament will pass the measures that day, no matter how long it has to sit.

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Labor and the ACTU on Sunday warned the government against taking a "sledgehammer approach" by altering the industrial relations system through changes to the Fair Work Act.

They said it could lead to unintended consequences, including employers abusing the system and disadvantaging staff.

Labor industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke said the opposition would still support the wage subsidy package in parliament, but that it was trying to make it more effective.

Mr Porter said making changes to awards and enterprise agreements through the Fair Work Commission would take too long while workers faced unemployment during a coronavirus-related economic downturn.

He said the commission took an average of 20 days each to approve 5000 enterprise agreements.

"So, the idea that you could amend some unknown, but high percentage, of 11,000 enterprise agreements in the time that we have available in the challenging and emergent situation that six million Australian workers face is simply not plausible," Mr Porter said.

Mr Burke said that the Fair Work Commission was "showing at the moment they can move at lightning speed" when making recent changes to awards.

Most awards would only need simple changes, he said.

Mr Porter said an ACTU proposal to expand the wage subsidy package and cover more casual workers would make it too broad.

The government is offering wage subsidies only to casuals with 12 months' continuous employment with a business.

"What we are trying to do is ensure people who have long-term connections to their employer maintain that connection with the subsidy," Mr Porter said.

"We had to have a definition around what is a long-term connection to your employer."

Mr Burke said up to 1.1 million casual workers will miss out on wage subsidies under the government's plan.

He warned of scenarios where household primary income earners could receive unemployment payments while their working age children would be eligible for a wage subsidy.

Casual workers would lose their connection to employers because the government had not included them in the JobKeeper package, he said.

"They probably have not drawn the line as best they could, and there is still time for this to be fixed," Mr Burke said.

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This story IR changes the only 'guaranteed' way to deliver subsidies, save jobs first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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