IT seems Work Choices is the political equivalent of a cockroach.
When all other issues lie dead under a pile of post-apocalyptic rubble, Work Choices will still be scurrying around, nibbling on the corpses of conservative politicians. It is impossible to kill.
Tony Abbott’s failure to make industrial relations a non-issue has a broader context. Like the cockroach, Work Choices is the result of years of evolution. The policy finished off John Howard but its ancestors have been damaging Coalition campaigns for the best part of 20 years.
Its antecedents can be traced back to Jeff Kennett’s decision to abolish penalty rates and leave loadings for Victorian public servants after his 1992 victory. Kennett promised to keep these conditions during the campaign and reneged a week after the opposition leader John Hewson and then industrial relations spokesman Howard launched Jobsback during the federal campaign.
Hewson’s failure to sell the GST is widely credited for his drop in popularity in November 1992. But he argues it was industrial relations panic that brought him undone. “Kennett’s unilateral decision immediately called into question the credibility of our commitment of ‘what you’ve got you’ll keep’,” he wrote in 1998.
The former Victorian Liberal premier’s influence goes further. During his final term, consultancy Essential Media Communications came up with a campaign for the Australian Education Union to combat his plans to close schools. The campaign was a success and in 2005 EMC crafted Your Rights at Work.
The only other Coalition leader to genuinely embrace industrial relations reform during the 1990s was West Australian premier Richard Court, who lost the 2001 election after reinvigorating the WA union movement.
Work Choices as we know it came into being in 2005. There is some debate about whether the policy contributed to wins in 2006 by Labor’s Steve Bracks in Victoria and Peter Beattie in Queensland — both played up the issue and did better than expected. But there is little doubt anti-Work Choices advertising helped Morris Iemma regain power in NSW a year later.
The lesson for Abbott from all this is that Work Choices, in its various forms, has been around for years and it will be near impossible to change perceptions any time soon. Shortly after Howard stood up in parliament to announce “a historic modernisation of Australia’s workplace relations system” in May 2005 — but long before the policy was finalised — EMC asked a focus group of battlers if they thought he would act drastically.
Peter Hartcher writes in his book To The Bitter End that the answer was unequivocal. EMC director Tony Douglas found: “It was completely believable that the government would have no qualms about introducing legislation which would make workers worse off . . . this was where 30 years of anti-union rhetoric came to roost”.
Abbott is associated with Howard. He attacked Labor over its workplace laws in February. While it is unlikely he would reintroduce Work Choices, many people don’t believe him.
The irony, of course, is that Abbott was one of the few ministers who tried to restrain Howard as he assembled Work Choices. This is the point he should have made the moment he became Liberal leader. Perhaps then, the policy would have one foot in the grave.
James Chessell worked as an adviser to Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey in 2006-07.
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In this week's report:
- Performance of Scott Morrison
- Performance of Anthony Albanese
- Preferred Prime Minister
- Views towards re-electing the federal Coalition government
- Party trust to handle issues
- Importance of Australia’s international reputation
- Scott Morrison’s impact on Australia’s international reputation
- Views towards Australia’s international reputation