One of the last scheduled IR debates prior to the federal election took place in Melbourne on Friday – HC was there to catch the action. The instructions put to workplace relations minister Bill Shorten and shadow minister Senator Eric Abetz were clear. No 'winner' would be declared, stick to the time limit, and don't denigrate one another – but that's not politics.
A key point of contention was the issue of penalty rates. Under a coalition government, it has been indicated that a review of penalty rates may be on the cards, despite the Labor government repeatedly rejecting calls from business groups to do so. On this point, Shorten was emphatic. “The future of Australia doesn't depend on cutting people's wages, and the lowest paid workers at that. It just doesn't. If you start cutting people's wages, who on Earth is going to shop in your shops?” Shorten said today.
Union power and industrial action was also a key point of debate, and Abetz repeated rhetoric that the coalition was steadfast against the “strike first, talk later” mentality in industrial relations. Abetz added that a coalition government would be firm in its commitment to roll back right-of-entry provisions for union officials. Shorten denied that union officials have unchecked power to enter job sites and meet with their members. “Union officials cannot go into a workplace and disrupt the productivity. They have the ability to meet during meal times, and speak to their members in meal rooms,” Shorten said.
Shorten also argued that despite myriad comments made by the opposition that the “dead and buried” Work Choices legislation would have no future in their workplace relations policy, he was not convinced. He rejected the 'light' version of the workplace relations policy put forward by Abetz, and said he believed the coalition had hidden future plans which involved winding back penalty rates. “We have been upfront with the Australian people and that's why we've released our policy so early,” Abetz countered.
The federal election will be held on September 14.