Strange that suddenly the Coalition doesn’t want to have anything to do with penalty rate cuts now that the Fair Work Commission has delivered them. Since the commission released its decision last week, the government has oscillated between two rather inconsistent positions: it’s the decision of the “independent umpire” (a phrase the Prime Minister used dozens of times yesterday), and that it’s all Bill Shorten’s fault — he was “single-handedly responsible”, in Turnbull’s words — for setting up the Fair Work Commission, appointing it and launching an award inquiry.

Now, the Financial Review reports, the government wants business to take ownership of the cut by campaigning for it and explaining the benefits of cutting the incomes of some of the lowest-paid Australian workers. Because that’s what will get voters behind an attack on penalty rates — one of the least popular segments of Australian civil society, who will directly benefit from lower wages, telling us how it’s going to be good for us.

All of that stands in peculiar contrast to the previous enthusiasm of Coalition MPs for penalty rate cuts. Turnbull himself in 2015 declared that Sunday penalty rates were a historical anachronism. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash claimed that penalty rates “deter weekend work“, despite the hospitality sector growing twice as fast as the rest of the workforce in the last five years. Angus Taylor said they needed to be cut to help address youth unemployment. Right-wing Christian MP Alex Hawke agreed, saying “Sundays are not sacrosanct”. Josh Frydenberg wanted to cut penalty rates. Failed far-right Tasmanian Andrew Nikolic complained they were stymieing business growth. Melissa Price complained that having different rates for Saturday, Sunday and public holidays was too “complex” for employers. Parliamentary entitlement defender Ian Macdonald wanted them cut. Queensland colleagues Warren Entsch warned, “if we don’t do something we will see more and more businesses close”, which was a peculiar claim to make about a sector growing so rapidly that it became the biggest user of 457 visas.

In 2014, in fact, 10 MPs demanded then-prime minister Tony Abbott do something about penalty rates, including Russell Broadbent, Dan Tehan and Craig Laundy.

Now, apparently, this much-needed reform, this boon for young Australians, this urgent change required by the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors, this godsend for easily befuddled employers, this sensible abolition of an antediluvian tradition of distinguishing between different days of the week, this bulwark between Australia and a wave of business closures — is all the work of Bill Shorten, performed by remote control.

Must be terrible to be in government but have to idly stand by while the Opposition Leader magically manipulates policy. 

Peter Fray

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