Thatcher claim fighting words to Labor, ACTU

CTreasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference iat Parliament House on Thursday. Picture: Getty Images
CTreasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference iat Parliament House on Thursday. Picture: Getty Images

Business is calling on the ACTU and Labor to support an extension to emergency workplace laws for employers who fall off the JobKeeper program, arguing it could save hundreds of thousands of jobs as 2.5 million workers are forecast to lose the wage subsidy by January.

Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers ratcheted up Labor’s opposition to the proposal on Sunday, accusing the government of drawing “bizarre and potentially catastrophic conclusions” from the pandemic.

Josh Frydenberg has riled the union movement and the ALP by invoking former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as one of his inspirations, along with ex-US president Ronald Reagan, as he seeks to pilot a series of ­reforms to drive the economic ­recovery.

“She reduced the number of days lost to industrial disputation from 30 million down to two million, she cut taxes and … she had 11½ years (in power) so she was doing something right,” the Treasurer told the ABC’s Insiders program.

Mr Chalmers and ACTU secretary Sally McManus have ­argued that giving businesses who fall off JobKeeper ongoing access to exemptions allowing them to cut employee hours and change their duties could erode workers’ rights and deepen job insecurity.

“If the government continues down this Thatcherite path, we will have a lost generation of Australian workers even more insecure at work, finding it harder to make ends meet. Australian can’t afford to discard a generation of workers,” Mr Chalmers said.

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But Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said it was essential to extend the emergency workplace arrangements for all businesses currently receiving JobKeeper.

“While part of the solution is to extend JobKeeper wage subsidies, an equally important part of the solution is to extend workplace flexibilities as subsidies are wound back,” he told The Australian.

“This is being made all the more acute by the crisis in Victoria, where businesses are facing as much or more adversity and more jobs are at risk than when the workplace relations measures were passed in April.

“People in business need ­people in politics to show they are serious about saving jobs — I call on the ALP and the ACTU to back the suggested extension of temporary flexibilities in the Fair Work Act.”

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott warned the “worst form of insecurity is unemployment”.

“Just like everyone else, businesses are going to need room to move as circumstances change rapidly for some time,” she said. “We have to do everything in our power to keep people working and create new jobs. Co-operation between unions and employers has saved tens of thousands of jobs; if we move too quickly on removing flexibility we run the risk that tens of thousand will be lost.”

Labor will consider any government legislation to extend the emergency workplace changes, including whether it sets a new ­eligibility test that differs to requirements to access JobKeeper 2.0 from the end of September. It will also insist any changes are temporary. “The government hasn’t put any proposal on the table for us to engage with. We engage with every proposal in a constructive and responsible way but it would be a bizarre and dangerous conclusion to draw from this crisis that the answer is even more permanent job insecurity for Australian workers,” Mr Chalmers said.

Ms McManus said the ACTU would “look at the detail of what the government is proposing but we could not agree to proposals that would leave workers worse off, with less rights and options”.