Anthony Albanese accuses Coalition of ‘secret’ plans to cut Australian wages | Industrial relations

Anthony Albanese has accused the Coalition of “secret” plans to cut wages through changes to industrial relations laws.

The prime minister said the Liberal and National parties’ “gut instinct is always to gut workers’ rights” in an address to the Australian Council of Trade Unions conference on Wednesday evening.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has opened up a new front on industrial relations by committing to repeal right to disconnect laws and, in his budget reply, promising to “remove the complexity and hostility” of Labor’s laws, including changes to the definition of casual employment.

In February Guardian Australia revealed the New South Wales Liberals had proposed – and have now adopted – a platform for broader changes including watering down unfair-dismissal protections.

The shadow employment minister, Michaelia Cash, has disclaimed responsibility for the NSW Liberal policies, despite writing to the state division describing them as “good” ideas that align with the federal Coalition’s approach.

Albanese told the ACTU his government had legislated “bargaining reforms [that] have created the framework for some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia to negotiate a better deal”.

Albanese characterised the Coalition’s approach to industrial relations as “always about conflict”. “It’s always a fight, always a false choice between growth and fairness, between employers and unions.”

“Two years into the job, the current leader of the Liberal party has offered Australia nothing in the way of positive policy.”

“He never talks about what he’s for – he only defines himself by what he is against.”

Albanese cited the Coalition voting against the “secure jobs better pay” bill, which introduced multi-employer bargaining, and “closing loopholes” allowing labour hire workers to be paid less than direct employees.

“He’s promised to rip up the better deal for casuals. And he’s even committed to abolishing the right to disconnect.”

Albanese referred to “secret documents” tabled by Labor in Senate estimates, in which Cash wrote to the NSW Liberals revealing the federal opposition will finalise its policy in the coming months. In the letter, Cash appeared to support “good” ideas she said “align strongly with the Coalition’s approach to industrial relations”.

The NSW Liberal policy says the test for approving a workplace pay deal should be that it does “not disadvantage the employees compared to any relevant award that would otherwise apply” rather than the current more generous better-off-overall test, or BOOT. It proposes a cap on penalty rates for workers earning more than the full-time average weekly earnings (more than $99,000 a year).

Albanese said the documents prove that the Coalition wanted to “scrap the better off overall test … water down protections against unfair dismissal and bring back Workchoices-style individual contracts”.

“And strip away award protections for every worker earning over $100,000 a year.”

In question time the workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, said the NSW Liberals’ policy would mean anyone in an occupation with above-average wages – including teachers, police officers and coalminers – could lose overtime rates, public holiday and penalty rates. “It means a pay cut, which is what they want.”

At Senate estimates on Monday, Cash rejected “questions about the alleged policies of the opposition, which are not our policies”.

“I’m happy for you, if you want, to have some fun with this but not to verbal me, please.”

Albanese also told the ACTU that Labor’s Future Made in Australia policy will seize “the opportunities of the global shift to clean energy, to power a new generation of advanced manufacturing jobs”.

Australia will compete in the global economy “not by entering a race to the bottom on pay and conditions – but by playing to our strengths”, he said.

“We think more of our country than those who say that all Australia can hope to do is extract and export our resources … while we wait for someone else, somewhere else, to add the value and create the jobs and make the product before we buy it back.”

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