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Patricia Karvelas, Political correspondent | March 20, 2009
Article from: The Australian

THE Coalition last night adopted Peter Costello’s position on unfair dismissal, shifting closer to Labor – but the Rudd Government’s bill to destroy Work Choices was still destined to fail unless Julia Gillard agreed to a last-minute compromise today.

The federal Liberal and National parties decided at an emergency meeting last night to join independent senators Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon to fight for an amendment to the bill to increase the definition of a small business from Labor’s position of 15 full-time employees to 20 workers.

While the Coalition’s own amendment was for small business to be classed as 25 workers, the special partyroom meeting decided to ultimately support Senator Xenophon’s changes.

The Coalition backdown on the last sticking point of the proposed laws comes after Mr Costello suggested the definition of 20 at last week’s heated partyroom meeting. The former treasurer argued that the figure should be 20 in line with the definition used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Last night, after its amendment was voted down in the Senate, the Coalition voted for Senator Xenophon’s amendment.

The Coalition’s compromise is a victory for Mr Costello, who had put the definition forward but was told shadow cabinet had decided on the more ambitious target of 25.

Ms Gillard, the Workplace Relations Minister, is now under pressure to compromise on her definition of a small business or risk seeing her entire bill fail.

The Government will today test the resolve of Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to stand firm on his new position on the bill.

The Government will change the definition back to 15 when the Fair Work bill returns to the lower house.

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Michael Keenan said last night the Coalition would fight for its amendment and would not accept Labor’s push to change it back to 15.

“The Coalition parties will not change our minds,” Mr Keenan told The Australian.

If the Coalition votes against the bill after the Government uses its numbers to change it to 15, Ms Gillard will paint Mr Turnbull as being pro-Work Choices and failing to keep his word to kill the workplace laws championed by John Howard.

Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding, of Family First, were also expected to vote to increase the small business employee threshold definition to 20, making it impossible for the Government to get its laws passed intact.

The last-minute turnaround from the Coalition meant the bill was on track to pass the Senate with the new definition of a small business. But the Government vowed to change the definition back to what it proposed in the federal election, 15 employees, in the lower house, where it has the numbers. The bill will then be returned to the Senate for a second vote.

The Government has extended the parliamentary session to allow it to reintroduce the bill today, and is vowing to have it in place by July 1. The decision not to wait three months to reintroduce the bill means it will not form a trigger for a double dissolution.

Mr Keenan confirmed the Coalition would “insist” on the Senate amendment when the bill returns to the upper house for a second time.

He accused the Government of putting their pride ahead of the successful passage of the bill.

“The idea that the Government will throw away its whole new system over the definition of a small business would be putting the minister’s pride over any sensible outcome,” he said.

The Coalition has essentially also decided not to insist on its other amendments on union right of entry, conceding the proposals did not have a chance at success without the support of the independent senators. The Rudd Government has repeatedly ruled out changes to the provision.

Ms Gillard revealed figures that showed that if the definition of small business was changed from 15 to 20, an extra 485,720 workers would not be offered unfair dismissal protection.

If the Coalition was successful in getting its figure of 25 up, 735,000 workers would lose the protection.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25213651-601,00.html

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