The kingmaker who struck the deal to hand Labor its first major industrial relations overhaul is being wooed by dozens of business and union leaders months before the next tranche of reforms, as the government canvasses crossbench support for its controversial changes.
Independent senator David Pocock will hold a roundtable on Wednesday to hear arguments for and against proposed changes to labour hire laws, the gig economy and casual work, after Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke’s plan to legislate a definition of casual workers sparked another dust-up between unions and employers.
“I’ve been engaging with Minister Burke and his office as this next tranche of industrial relations reforms is being developed, emphasising the need for detailed consultation with all stakeholders,” Pocock said.
“This roundtable is an opportunity to hear directly from impacted workers, businesses and their representatives and get feedback on the proposed reforms.”
The session will be attended by more than 80 local and national businesses, employer representatives, workers and unions.
The ACT senator was the crucial vote in passing Labor’s first round of industrial reforms in December, which enabled the government to broaden multi-employer bargaining laws in return for stronger protections for small businesses and an independent review of JobSeeker payments.
His support may again be vital to the success of the government’s next tranche of workplace amendments. They are already facing negative commentary from business groups, which have criticised Burke’s proposal to tie the definition of casual workers to the regularity of their hours and give them better pathways to permanency.
This week, Burke is also meeting with Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, who said she would be scrutinising the likely impact of the amendments on small businesses in particular.
“They are worried about what the new IR reforms might hold for them,” she said. “However, it’s early days in the process yet.”
Greens acting leader Mehreen Faruqi said the party supported the intention of the bill but would form a position once it saw the details.
Burke said the casual worker reforms would in effect repeal legislation by the former Coalition government so casuals would be defined by the substance of the work arrangement rather than what it was contractually labelled.
He also said casual conversion laws would be strengthened to allow workers to apply to be made permanent if they were already working more fixed, regular hours over a six-month period.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus told ABC television on Monday the government was proposing modest new laws and “the trade union movement would probably like them to go further”.
She later said the ACTU would wait to see the detail of what the government was proposing.
“What we have heard so far is very positive – stronger and better rights for casuals who are in regular work to convert to permanent jobs if they choose. For too long, some employers have denied job security to workers by using legal loopholes. It’s about time they were closed,” she said.
But Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said Burke’s comments raised more questions than answers.
“The ability to engage casual employees to work regular and predictable hours, even over a very long period, is a longstanding feature of our workplace relations system,” Willox said.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry head Andrew McKellar said the government was trying to unravel the certainty around current casual laws.
Coalition industrial relations spokesperson Michaelia Cash accused the government of trying to “fulfil the wishes of the unions for a workforce with no casual employees”.
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