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Michelle Grattan | March 17, 2009 – 10:35AM

The Senate is likely to widen the net for small businesses exempted from the unfair-dismissal requirements in the Government’s Fair Work Bill, as the Opposition sharpens its attack on the bill.

Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard met Family First senator Steve Fielding and independent Nick Xenophon yesterday, but sticking points remained with each.

Both favour exempting more small businesses from unfair-dismissal procedures. Senator Fielding wants to exclude those with the equivalent of fewer than 20 full-time workers; Senator Xenophon would accept a head count of fewer than 20. The Government is persisting with a head count of fewer than 15.

The Opposition wants fewer than 25 full-time equivalents, well below WorkChoices’ 100, but would support the cross-benchers’ position when its own amendment failed.

The Government signalled last night that it is willing to give ground on unions’ right of entry to workplaces but wouldn’t go as far as Senator Fielding’s demand to exempt all small firms.

With its final position on the bill still to be decided but apparently toughening, the shadow cabinet will put extra amendments, described as technical, to today’s Coalition parties meeting.

In Parliament, the Opposition lashed out at Labor’s “job-destroying industrial relations changes”, while the Government claimed the Coalition still backed WorkChoices.

Challenging the Opposition to state its current position on WorkChoices, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: “I thought their position was that WorkChoices was dead. It is part dead, is it?”

Mr Rudd pointed to the “very pathetic spectacle” of Malcolm Turnbull being reined in not only on industrial relations and climate change but “right across the board”. Coalition policy development was “paralysed by the opportunism which arises from its own internal leadership conflict”.

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