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Patricia Karvelas, Political correspondent | March 19, 2009

THE Rudd Government faces the defeat of its workplace legislation today unless Julia Gillard agrees to last-minute changes to Labor’s unfair dismissal policy to appease crossbench senators.

Independent senators Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding are threatening to vote against the Fair Work Bill unless they secure a higher threshold for unfair dismissal provisions so a larger number of new employees is exempt from making claims for 12months.

Both senators want the Government to define small business as employing up to 20 staff, rather than Labor’s preferred 15.

But the Coalition, which has not revealed how it will vote on the bill, acknowledged that several of Labor’s amendments resolved their objections to the bill.

The Opposition’s workplace relations spokesman Michael Keenan told The Australian yesterday the Government had made various concessions that made the bill more appealing.

“They have essentially acknowledged the concerns that we have about greenfields (new project) agreements and they have accommodated them,” he said. “Our concerns were that the way they had structured them was going to make it very difficult to get projects off the ground without the approval of union officials.

“We are glad the Government’s seen the sense of some of the things we’ve proposed.”

Mr Keenan’s comments signal that the Coalition is moving to a position where it can support the bill, pending movement on unfair dismissal laws. The Opposition is trying to put itself in the same political position as the crossbenchers, in an effort to lose the stigma of being the party of Work Choices.

The Greens have managed to secure another amendment to the IR legislation that eliminates a clause, also contained in Work Choices, allowing employers who are followers of the Brethren religious group to get a special certificate exempting them on the grounds of their faith from the right of entry regime.

Ms Gillard, the Workplace Relations Minister, urged senators to “get rid of Work Choices”.

“We are insisting on our election policy – that is what the Australian people voted for,” she told ABC’s Lateline program.

But Senator Xenophon told The Australian he would not be able to support the bill unless Ms Gillard compromised on unfair dismissal.

“It puts me in a very difficult position,” he said. “I can’t guarantee the success of the bill unless that issue is resolved.”

It comes after a business survey revealed nearly half of all employers feared the new industrial laws would lead to job losses and higher business costs. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s chief executive, Peter Anderson, said negotiations in the Senate on changes to Labor’s Fair Work Bill were crucial to jobs.

Mr Anderson said the chamber’s survey of investor confidence found 47 per cent of small business owners believed the legislation would weaken their ability to maintain current employment levels. More than half – 54 per cent – believed removing the current exemption for small businesses employing fewer than 100 staff from unfair dismissal laws would dissuade them from employing more staff.

Ms Gillard was forced to concede yesterday the Government would need to intervene to ensure retail and restaurant businesses were not made to pay workers more, after her plan for revamping award minimum employment conditions was drawn up.

Proposed pay rises that could flow to many workers from a government-commissioned review by the industrial umpire – which have sparked warnings from employers of large-scale job losses – challenge Ms Gillard’s claim that Labor’s industrial regime would not cost jobs.

“I acknowledge that there is an issue here for restaurant owners that they are desperately concerned about,” she said.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25208947-5013404,00.html

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