“WorkChoices 2.0”: Furor as Coalition backbenchers call for SME unfair dismissal exemption

Tony Burke and Christian Porter. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch.

The federal opposition has accused the Morrison government of trying to “resurrect” WorkChoices as a political fight brews over the future of Australia’s workplace laws.

Opposition Industrial Relations Spokesperson Tony Burke has called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to rule out changes which would “make it easier for bosses to sack people” after reports emerged Coalition backbenchers are pushing to exempt SMEs from unfair dismissal laws.

“What they [workers] don’t need is another Liberal attack on their pay and conditions,” Burke said.

“What they don’t need is WorkChoices 2.0.”

The step-up in rhetoric is a sign of what’s to come as the Coalition prepares for a broad-based review of workplace laws being overseen by Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter.

The Australian Financial Review reported yesterday there was “growing pressure” in the Coalition backbench to exempt SMEs from unfair dismissal, only a week after small business ombudsman Kate Carnell made 15 recommendations for overhauling the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code.

This has drawn criticism from Labor and the union movement, which argue such a move would harken back to Howard-era workplace policies that wound back dismissal protections.

Carnell and other advocates say the current rules governing how businesses can fire workers are overly complex, but ACTU secretary Sally McManus last week accused the ombudsman of “attacking workers rights”.

“This report is a blueprint undermining the rights of working people and letting bosses fire them for any reason or no reason,” McManus said of the report.

Carnell responded late last week in an attempt to “correct the record”, clarifying her recommendations for changing the fair dismissal code aren’t pitched at shifting the balance of power between workers and businesses.

“The review does not suggest that any assistance should be provided to employers who want to do the wrong thing by their employees,” Carnell said.

“The review does suggest ways that the system can be simplified to ensure better clarity for all parties.”

Carnell has previously said the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code, set up by Labor in 2007 after it repealed the Howard-era WorkChoices policy, is not working as intended.

The code is a document which sets out the conditions under which a business with fewer than 15 workers can dismiss someone, the idea being that if the document is followed to the letter businesses won’t be liable for an unfair dismissal finding.

But the AFR reports about backbenchers pushing to exempt small businesses from unfair dismissal laws is a much more radical suggestion.

Porter and Morrison have previously indicated their intention to proceed with evidence-based, rather than ideologically driven, changes to industrial relations laws, which both unions and employer lobbyists agree should be overhauled.

In a speech earlier this year announcing the review of workplace laws, Morrison invited business lobbyists to pitch their ideas for reforms.

“By focusing on regulation from the viewpoint of business, we will identify the regulations and bureaucratic processes that impose the largest costs on key sectors of the economy and the biggest hurdles to letting those investments flow,” he said.

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