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Industrial Relations Reform

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 November 2022

Answering questions for the Parliament House press pack on Sunday while announcing I’d reached an agreement with the government on their IR Omnibus Bill, someone asked me how reaching this agreement compared to a big win on the rugby field.


I wasn’t sure how to answer. Representing Australia on the pitch was such an honour. It was a childhood dream and huge thrill, but it’s very different. Politics is not a game for starters. And you can’t compare success in sport to the work that goes into thinking through policy that will affect millions of Australians. 


Knowing the work I do in the Senate will affect the lives of people right across the country is a privilege and responsibility I take seriously. Working through this Bill and balancing the needs of workers and Australian households against the needs of businesses, particularly small businesses who are stretched at the best of times, was a challenge. 

What we have now is a substantially different Bill to the one introduced in the House of Representatives a month ago. It is better for workers and better for business, especially small business. 


I know not everyone will be happy with where we have landed, and I am happy to cop that criticism. I’ve listened, I’ve consulted, and my team and I have worked around the clock to land an outcome that strikes the right balance. I’m not in parliament as a representative for big business. Or be a rubber stamp for government. I’m here to consult and weigh up issues and then vote on behalf of the people of the ACT.


There was a bit of a running joke with my local paper about how many stadiums I could get out of this IR deal, but this was too important to horse trade on. I didn’t get anything out of my agreement with the government, but the people doing it toughest in our community did. 


Those on low wages, those in highly feminised industries, and people who are out of work.

I’m not going to apologise for pushing for a pay rise for workers in a cost-of-living crisis as well as a pathway to stop the most vulnerable in our community being left behind. People like one of my constituents, Ben Lawton, a cleaner at Canberra hospital, who has to live in a caravan park because that’s all he can afford.


I understand there is real anxiety from small business, and protecting them and their workers - as well as subcontractors - was front of mind for me throughout this entire process. That’s why there are a heap of new safeguards in the amendments that will be moved in the Senate. As well as a commitment from the PM to address security of payment for subbies. 


Small businesses with 20 people or less (not including irregular casuals, seasonal workers, etc) are completely excluded. For medium sized businesses with fewer than 50 people, we’ve made it much harder to be roped into a multi-employer agreement and easier to get out of a multi-employer negotiation.


For the employees of small businesses that have been excluded, I got a commitment for a review of Modern Awards, something business has been calling for.


The new “reasonable comparability” threshold aims to hit the right balance in helping determine which businesses should bargain together and which shouldn’t. This deals with many of the most pressing concerns from the bigger employers and the concern from smaller operators fearing they will be forced to bargain alongside much bigger players.


It was a sensible, genuine negotiation to see how the government’s legislation could be improved in response to concerns raised by stakeholders. I’ve been saying that the majority of the Bill was good to go and it was a small part of it I had concerns with. As late as Friday I was saying we should split the Bill. But over the weekend the government was willing to move a long way to deal with the concerns I had. 


Has the whole process been too rushed? Yes it has. I’ve made this clear in my negotiations and a statutory review after two years means we can revisit any aspects that aren’t working. Have people been waiting too long for real wage rises? Yes they have. And it will take time to negotiate the new agreements.


This was a huge bill, proposing wide ranging reforms. It’s been a pretty robust debate, the first of many, not the last. Next year we will be tackling more  big, thorny issues like housing, reform of our environmental laws including the always challenging issue of water, not to mention another tranche of industrial relations reform.


It won’t always be my vote the government relies on, but when they do they will know who they’re dealing with. At his own press conference on Sunday the PM said he had met me in a Wallabies change room after a game years ago. In my playing days, written on the inside of my locker were the letters DWYSYWD.


They stand for, ‘do what you say you will do’ and it is something I try to do. I won’t always get it right, but I am committed to being accessible and accountable to the people who elected me and making the decision that I believe is right.


Senator David Pocock

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