The Abbott government has said it will not meddle with workers' penalty rates during this electoral term, with Employment Minister Eric Abetz saying the controversial matter would be dealt with by the Fair Work umpire.
Hoping to mollify fears that he was planning to change workers' weekend and holiday penalties rates following a report by Fairfax Media on a leaked government document, Mr Abetz said the government would go no further than the modest workplace changes it proposed at the 2013 election.
“I can confirm that in absolutely no iteration of the terms of reference has the issue of penalty rates or union militancy been mentioned,” Mr Abetz said.
But the Employment Minister went on to concede that the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission review were broad enough to cover “a full and thorough analysis of all aspects of the Fair Work Act”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been cautious about making any dramatic changes to workplace laws in light of the backlash that followed the Howard government's WorkChoices policy.
But if they refuse to touch penalty rates and the umpire fails to act, Mr Abetz and Mr Abbott could face a protest from their backbench MPs.
Numerous Liberal MPs, particularly those who represent electorates with large numbers of tourism and hospitality businesses, believe small businesses need to be “liberated” from having to pay higher weekend and holiday rates, which can lead to businesses deciding not to open on certain days or to employ fewer staff.
Coalition MPs Warren Entsch, Dan Tehan, Russell Broadbent, Wyatt Roy, Sean Edwards, Craig Laundy, Alex Hawke, George Christensen, Dennis Jensen and Zed Seselja all told Fairfax Media on Friday that penalty rates needed to be reviewed.
But most acknowledged that the government needed to proceed with caution, and explain its case to Australians to avoid a damaging WorkChoices-like situation.
“If we want to change the public mindset we can't do that ourselves, we need the business community to make its case,” said Mr Christensen, Nationals MP for Dawson in North Queensland.
“WorkChoices has ruined our ability to do it [on our own]”.
Asked on Friday about these calls from Coalition backbenchers, Mr Abetz said: “I don't think you understand the nature and willfulness of some backbenchers.
“There is no way that those in the ministry can control backbenchers and indeed, I encourage them to speak out on all sorts of matters.
“That is the role of the backbench but from the government's point of view, we have made it perfectly clear that there will not be a change to penalty rates.
“The Australian people ... will see our policy in full, in detail before the next election”.
Fairfax Media reported on Friday that the federal government's sweeping review of Australia's workplace laws will put penalty rates, pay and conditions, union militancy and flexibility under the microscope.
A leaked draft of the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission inquiry into the Fair Work Act reveals the inquiry will examine the act's impact on unemployment and underemployment, productivity, business investment and the ability of the labour market to respond to changing economic conditions.
Labor and the ACTU leaped on the leaked Coalition document, saying the Abbott government wanted to smuggle through insidious workplace reforms.
“Today Fairfax newspapers revealed that there is a secret plan by this federal government to embark on radical industrial relations change,” said Labor's workplace relations spokesman Brendan O'Connor.
“This is them returning to WorkChoices”.