Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's hopes of striking a deal with the Senate crossbench on workplace relations reform have taken a blow, with key independents unhappy about the government's hardline approach to negotiations.
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Malcolm Turnbull's SOS to Bob Day
The PM hopes the senator can convince crossbenchers to support industrial laws and avoid a double dissolution election. Courtesy ABC News 24
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash on Tuesday said any proposed amendments would need to come with the support of at least six crossbenchers, and that individual negotiations would no longer be entertained.
And Mr Turnbull has enlisted his "old friend" Family First senator Bob Day, a staunch supporter of re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission, as a conduit in charge of obtaining his crossbench colleagues' support.
The moves have angered some of the key independents, whose support is required to pass the stalled bills, and who face the likely prospect of losing their seats at a double dissolution election if the bills are not passed.
"They have no intention of negotiating anything to do with the ABCC, they are all just pretending to talk to us and the intention is to go to a double dissolution," said Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm.
He dismissed Senator Cash's suggestions the government would negotiate in good faith if the crossbench sat down around a table and agreed on proposed amendments.
"She knows jolly well that that's utterly ridiculous. We don't agree on what day it is, let alone get together for this sort of thing," Senator Leyonhjelm said. "We're not a party, we're eight individuals."
Senator Leyonhjelm will vote for a second reading of the bill but said his final vote "depends on a lot factors, and it's not just about the bill". He is among a number of crossbenchers who many believe will ultimately support the ABCC with minor changes. As a result, the government may only need to persuade one of either John Madigan, Jacqui Lambie or Glenn Lazarus to jump on board in order to secure passage.
Senator Madigan, an independent senator formerly of the Democratic Labour Party, said he had not yet spoken with Senator Day about the deal, but that he had "been talking about this for ages". A watchdog should not be fixated on the construction industry but rather should be capable of holding the legal, medical and financial sectors to account, he said.
"This idea is not new and I've been going on about it the whole time I've been in the place," Senator Madigan said. "I've even sent this to the Prime Minister, months and months ago."
The Victorian senator also took issue with Mr Turnbull's preference for dealing with the crossbench through Senator Day, saying it was not the PM's role to make such a preference.
There are eight members of the crossbench, not one. I don't know that it's the government's place to say who they're going to negotiate with.Independent senator John Madigan
"There are eight members of the crossbench, not one," Senator Madigan said. "I don't know that it's the government's place to say who they're going to negotiate with."
Senator Ricky Muir said he did not believe the government was genuine about passing the ABCC bill in this Parliament and wanted to use it as a double dissolution trigger. He reserved his position on the final version of the bill but said he was prepared to speak with the PM directly.
"There is no arrangement for Senator Day to speak on behalf of the crossbench on this matter, but I am open to having conversations myself," he said.
Palmer United senator Zhenya "Dio" Wang, a proponent of a "national integrity commission" or federal version of NSW's Independent Commission Against Corruption, has been talking to the government since Christmas and has now circulated a series of amendments to the ABCC bill among the crossbench. He said he would continue to negotiate in good faith but expressed frustration that the government appeared to have gone silent.
"We have not received any substantive response in recent weeks," Senator Wang said.
With three weeks before Parliament resumes specifically to deal with the ABCC and registered organisations bills, debate over the proposed construction watchdog is intensifying. The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union claimed that workplace deaths "increased dramatically" under the ABCC, which was created by the Howard government and then scrapped by Julia Gillard.
Labor's Brendan O'Connor declined to endorse the series of tweets by the CFMEU, of which his brother Michael O'Connor is the national secretary. "We should focus on the evidence and we should try not to be intemperate," he told Sky News.
Senator Cash said she was "absolutely disgusted" by the CFMEU's claims and said the tweets were demonstrative of "the type of behaviour they are renowned for indulging".