Flexible logic

It seems Peter Dutton no longer wants ‘dirty lefties’ to enjoy their weekend

There was, for those who follow politics, little disconnecting from the right-wing meltdown that took place following the passage of the “right to disconnect” bill into law last Thursday. The amendment, included in Labor’s latest tranche of IR reforms, as part of a deal with the Greens, will prevent employers from punishing workers for refusing to answer “unreasonable” calls or emails outside of work hours – a perfectly reasonable-sounding reform. But the tantrum has been spectacular: a furious Peter Dutton has pledged to repeal it if the Coalition wins government (so much for the Liberals becoming “the party of the Australian worker”), while the business lobby is once again claiming that the sky will fall if workers get too many rights. After last week warning that giving people the right to log off would lead to job losses and higher prices, employers are now threatening to take away flexible work arrangements, telling The Australian that employees will no longer be allowed to leave early if they insist on playing “hardball” on this. Do these people have any idea how callous they sound, as they threaten to prevent workers from going to pick up their kids from school if they won’t agree to be available 24/7?

According to Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox, it is “sad and unfortunate” that it has come to this. But it was hard to detect anything other than bitterness in his words, as he warned that bosses would have to cut back on “flexibilities … such as leaving early to pick up the kids or going to the dentist” when the right to disconnect comes into effect (in six to 18 months). “Flexibility cuts both ways,” Willox argued. “If employees want to play hardball, they can expect their ­employer to react accordingly.” Rubbish, said ACTU secretary Sally McManus on RN this morning, suggesting it was more “typical scaremongering”. “It sounds internally contradictory to me,” she said of the claims this new law would kill flexibility, adding that workers have the right to negotiate on when they will make up hours within flexible arrangements. “Employers complaining about the ‘end to flexibility’ just because they can’t keep staff on call 24/7 really tells you something about what they think flexibility means,” writer and unionist Ben Eltham noted, while Greens finance spokesperson Barbara Pocock, who led the push for the right, called the warning “disturbing”, and pointed out it was no longer the 1980s.

And what of the Coalition, which is now pledging to take away the right to ignore unreasonable work calls if it gets back into power? The Opposition has sought to make something of the fact that the law was passed with criminal penalties in place – penalties the government has pledged to remove. But the complaints from members of the Coalition conveniently ignore the fact that they themselves denied Labor leave to amend the law and remove these penalties on Thursday, when they were discovered, all so they could make this very complaint. Dutton, meanwhile, told Sky News he would seek to overturn the right even if Labor removed the penalties, suggesting that small businesses need 24/7 access to their workers in order to be viable. Dutton “wants to end the weekend”, joked Pocock, turning Scott Morrison’s infamous 2019 line about electric vehicle policy back on the Coalition. “Workers need their weekends,” she stressed, suggesting Dutton wanted a world in which people were taking work phone calls at barbecues, and rushing home to answer emails.

It’s one thing coming from the employer groups. But it’s hard to fathom what is going through Dutton’s mind on this, as he heads to the next election promising tax cuts for the rich and giving employers the ability to harass their workers outside of work hours. (As 6 News journalist Leo Puglisi quipped, “is he trying to lose the election”?) It’s unclear how the Opposition leader expects to win over the working class, not to mention women and young people, while pushing policies like these. Back in 2011, Dutton famously tweeted, “You dirty lefties are too easy. Enjoy your weekend.” But it seems the second part of that comment no longer applies, as he rails against people’s right to do just that.

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