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View from The Hill

In search of authority, Turnbull can’t afford to lose the industrial relations bills

Malcolm Turnbull and Michaelia Cash provide the picture to go with the words about their legislation for a tough cop on the construction block. Lisa Martin/AAP

Dressed predictably if absurdly in a fluoro vest, with Employment Minister Michaelia Cash sporting matching gear, Malcolm Turnbull was out first thing on Wednesday spruiking his industrial relations legislation, which he introduced in the House later in the morning.

How important this legislation is to Turnbull was reinforced when he told reporters he might join Cash in some of the discussions she and crossbenchers will have.

With every sign the new parliament will be difficult, Turnbull needs early wins on important measures. One is the omnibus bill of about A$6 billion in savings (where the opposition discovered a $107 million error). Others are these industrial relations measures – the double-dissolution bills to resurrect the Australian Building and Construction Commission and to toughen union governance, as well as (added in the election campaign) the bill, arising from the Victorian stoush, to protect volunteer firefighters.

Leaving aside the firefighter legislation, there are two possible routes for passing the other bills: the normal avenue or a joint sitting.

Before they can go to a joint sitting, they first have to be put to parliament in the same form they were previously considered and rejected pre-election.

The government is anxious to try to get them through at this first stage. If that can’t be done, a joint sitting would be problematic on the numbers. Much better to make a few compromises – which is what the government is signalling – to attempt to win crossbench senators’ support so it doesn’t come to that.

If he can get these bills passed, Turnbull will have given some succour to various constituencies, including the conservatives in his ranks as well as business. If he fails, he is in even deeper trouble than now.

While these and other bills are coming in with a flurry the votes are a while away. Parliament has next week off, when Turnbull is out of the country on the summit round. For Turnbull this initial sitting week is one for starting processes – and having the fire hose out.

Labor began parliament’s initial workday by moving its well-previewed motion urging a royal commission into the banks. The government’s numbers held to vote it down. It threw a bone to those in its ranks concerned by banks’ bad behaviour by ordering the small business and family enterprise ombudsman to examine specific cases of abuses and recommend whether more reform is needed. An existing inquiry is looking at a possible disputes tribunal.

It will be harder for Turnbull to close down the backbench pressure to revisit Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, given that all but one Coalition backbench senators has signed up to a private member’s bill to amend the section. Turnbull reiterated in the House that the government has “no plans to change Section 18C”. But the conservatives see this as a signature issue and will keep it on the agenda.

Labor seized on a report from a new book by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen saying that Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison had argued in cabinet to tighten negative gearing concessions but were later persuaded otherwise by ministerial supporters of Tony Abbott. It was potentially manna for the opposition but Turnbull’s denial of the account took some steam out of the attack.

Labor’s push for a royal commission on banking and the conservatives’ pressure over 18C were well-flagged. But an embarrassment for Labor came out of the blue this week.

ALP senator Sam Dastyari has achieved a high profile for prosecuting issues of corporate bad behaviour. Given he has been so out there, one would have thought he’d have been more careful with his own affairs.

Having a Chinese company, Top Education Institute, with links to the Chinese government, pay the $1,670 he overspent of his travel budget is extraordinary. He declared the payment on his pecuniary interest register but on any view it was inappropriate for him to send on the bill.

In a move to limit the damage, Dastyari on Wednesday admitted his error and announced that he was sending the amount to charity – only to be embarrassed further when the first charity declined it. Dastyari on Wednesday evening tweeted:

Apart from the immediate problem, such an incident invites wider scrutiny and is there to be brought up later. Critics are poring over other benefits Dastyari has received from the Chinese; his credibility has received a knock.

The Dastyari affair took some edge off Labor’s day. More broadly, Labor had its tail up but didn’t manage to sink its teeth into the government.

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