Workplace Relations: Abbott IR Policy A Reasoned, Reasonable Start

TONY ABBOTT today released the Coalition’s Workplace Relations policy for the looming election; it retains the bulk of the Fair Work Australia regime with incremental changes only. Even so, Labor and the unions are up in arms, and they risk fighting a “WorkChoices” election campaign at their peril.

One indisputable measure of how far removed the Liberals’ new Workplace Relations policy is from WorkChoices can be seen in the reaction of Australia’s business lobby; it is not happy, and for the most part has been forthright in saying so.

The noises from the business community have been mildly positive, but muted; “a step in the right direction” best sums up the benign but non-committal response.

To listen to the Labor Party and the unions, however, you’d think the world was about to end; and given they are about to be hurled from office in a landslide, the end of the world as they prefer it to exist may well, indeed, be nigh.

I am talking of course about a crackdown on the trade union movement as a whole; a law unto itself and largely unaccountable in any meaningful sense compared to equivalent corporate entities, the days of doing what it likes and on its own terms, untroubled by standards of governance applied to the capital sector it so despises, will soon end.

This column heartily endorses the proposed re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, in addition to a previously announced Royal Commission into the trade union movement, as part of a co-ordinated assault on union corruption and to haul unions into line with the stringent regulations (rightly) applied to corporate governance in the business community.

Tony Abbott should be taken at his word in saying that the only people with anything to worry about from this policy is dodgy union officials and their supporters.

To some extent, the Coalition’s hand has been forced on Workplace Relations by the relentless (and to some extent, misleading) campaign the union movement waged against WorkChoices in 2007, whose impact was renewed by the reprise to the campaign in 2010.

Even so, the positions announced today by Abbott and his shadow minister, Eric Abetz, represent a moderate and sensible course between the Howard government’s WorkChoices regime and the present government’s Fair Work Act, which went so far in the opposite direction to WorkChoices as to roll back labour market flexibility to a point predating the then-controversial reforms of the Keating government in 1993.

Initiating a Productivity Commission review into the Fair Work Act to recommend labour market changes — which would be presented to the electorate in 2016 to obtain a mandate — should take the sting out of IR for the Coalition in the medium term, and provide a point around which to build a more consensus-based approach to reform beyond that.

The allowance of Individual Flexibility Arrangements, or IFAs, is welcome, and The Red And The Blue notes they will be permitted provided any worker entering into such an agreement is not worse off as a result — effectively restoring the “no disadvantage” test to individual contracts that WorkChoices abolished under the Howard government.

I believe there should be no impediment to employers and employees striking direct agreements to the betterment of both, by consent, rather than a legislated requirement for collective agreements based on a lowest common denominator.

That said, if Abbott’s political opponents insist on calling such agreements “AWAs” then so be it: such contracts were common many years before the advent of WorkChoices, and deserve to be so again as a mechanism to provide additional flexibility and cater for the specific circumstances of particular employment situations.

Abbott’s indication that penalty rates and unfair dismissal provisions will remain unchanged — at least for his first term — should be interpreted by the unions in particular as an opportunity to pull back from their confrontational rhetoric, and to explore potential avenues through which to work in partnership with the new government.

I am aware that such a statement may lead some to accuse me of hypocrisy; after all, I really do endorse the crackdown on unions that comes as part and parcel of this package.

However, the fiasco of the Health Services Union — and the cavalcade of criminal charges flowing from it — neatly highlights one area in which the union movement have enjoyed differential standards, and that variance needs to be eliminated.

And again, any unionist not seeking to engage in dodgy practices will have nothing to fear.

The response from the Left, however, has been predictable if not a little tired.

The Murdoch press reports that the Greens “immediately jumped on the announcement,” saying they would try to block the proposals, but their specific objection is difficult to ascertain beyond a vague reference to WorkChoices and — unsurprisingly — an attempt to co-ordinate their attack with the ALP.

“Labor needs to make clear where it stands before the election so voters know that the Greens would be able to block these laws if they come before the Parliament,” Greens MP Adam Bandt was quoted as saying.

“Tony Abbott is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The history of WorkChoices shows that the Coalition promises one thing and does something else in government.”

Julia Gillard’s response, in sum, was to talk about WorkChoices: a policy proclaimed “dead, buried and cremated” by Abbott prior to the 2010 election, and there is nothing in today’s announcement to encourage the view that that particular status will in any way change.

And ACTU President Ged Kearney zeroed in on IFAs — as she would, representing as they do the anathema to everything unions and their collective bargaining agenda stand for — before rattling on, at length, about WorkChoices.

Kearney indulged herself with a vitriolic and ideology-driven rant about the loss of pay and conditions, to the extent that it was difficult to believe she was talking about the same policy announcement: after all, the response from the business community should have been enough to knock that on the head, and even if it wasn’t, the changes announced by Abbott and Abetz are hardly what anybody could construe as radical.

Then again, this is the same Ged Kearney who recently told a meeting of teachers that the ACTU would launch a “pre-emptive strike” on Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party ahead of the September election — whatever that means.

And this in turn evokes the memory of the meeting between the ACTU executive and new Prime Minister John Howard at Parliament House in mid-1996, when Howard terminated the meeting exactly seven minutes after it started, as reports of ACTU protesters outside the building throwing projectiles and causing criminal damage as part of a “demonstration” filtered through to him in the conference room.

It’s clear that anything short of a re-elected Gillard government — which simply isn’t going to transpire — will see the unions itching to cause trouble; it is to be hoped that smarter figures within their ranks, such as ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver, are able to ensure cooler heads prevail and that talking is attempted first, at the very least.

There is a difference between commitment to a cause and a fight for beliefs and values, and embarking on counter-productive and organisationally suicidal crusades: I think Oliver knows the difference, even though I fundamentally disagree with his politics. It remains to be seen how many of his contemporaries are able to draw the same distinction.

My final comment is on the ALP, and touches on a colossal political mistake it seems hellbent on making.

Even Mark Latham wasn’t stupid or pig-headed enough to attempt to run a third consecutive election campaign on the GST; the issue had brought Labor close to an upset in 1998, but was politically useless to the party by 2001, and not worth revisiting in 2004.

This year’s election will be the third consecutive campaign the ALP has tried to turn into a referendum on WorkChoices: it worked in 2007, after Howard legislated WorkChoices without the policy rating a mention during the 2004 election, and after the union movement bankrolled and undertook a massive mid-term media blitz against the laws.

But I contend the issue was as good as neutralised by 2010, and nothing in today’s announcement will render any WorkChoices scare campaign in 2013 remotely credible.

The danger for Labor here is that all it talks about is WorkChoices; given its record on the economy — which nobody would stand on except to hide — it can hardly campaign on that.

Come 2016, if Labor is still talking about WorkChoices, it will confirm just how irrelevant — and beholden to the unions — the party has become.

And if it gets to that point, and Labor is still trying to win elections on WorkChoices, it’ll be a potent symbol of the malaise that now afflicts the Labor Party, and threatens to destroy it as a viable, broad-based party of the Centre-Left in Australian politics.