Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, just one policy that will not be part of the next Coalition government. We will not bring back WorkChoices. WorkChoices is dead. WorkChoices is dead and any suggestion to the contrary is a lie and I want to let you know that there were two members of the Howard Cabinet that spoke against WorkChoices. One of them is sitting in the audience right now, itâ€™s Kevin Andrews, and modesty prevents me from naming the other member of the Cabinet that spoke against itâ€¦
Last Saturday, at the Liberal Party National Conference, Tony Abbott, broke the heart of the HR Nicholls Society and would have disappointed John Howard.
ABBOTT NOT A TRUE BELIEVER IN HOWARD’S IR VISIONS
Abbott did not just re-announce WorkChoicesâ€™ death; he wanted the world to know he was never a true believer in radical labour market reform.
He took the unusual step for a senior member of any Federal Government by departing from Cabinet solidarity to reveal he had spoken against WorkChoices.
Abbott went further and outed the Minister who had carriage of Australiaâ€™s most dramatic industrial law reform, Kevin Andrews, as a WorkChoices skeptic.
Isnâ€™t this newsworthy? The Canberra press gallery went into incredible detail about Gillardâ€™s coup de grace on the weekend following Ruddâ€™s removal, while understating Abbott’s own role.
Federal Liberal leader Tony Abbott is a true-blue conservative, but on economics issues he’s no dry. This past weekend, few noticed his stunning revelation that despite being heavily identified with the policy, he opposed WorkChoices in the Howard Cabinet. This says a lot about why he has proven to be such a formidable Opposition Leader…
Certainly the leadership change was a big story but there was plenty of space to report this, not just the Partyâ€™s monosyllabic twelve â€˜Action Contractâ€™ headline commitments.
In fact, there were many more column inches and broadcast moments dedicated to which outlet had what scoop rather than any analysis of Abbottâ€™s keynote speech.
Prior to Abbottâ€™s leadership, the Opposition was wasting the parliamentary term licking their wounds and sitting around waiting for the electoral cycle to one day turn their way once more. Six months later, with an aggressive approach, and Abbott really was on the verge of a famous victory, according to the Sussex Street polling.
Perhaps this is the high watermark of Abbottâ€™s career. Who knows? But surely, the contest between Abbott and Gillard was just as newsworthy as the contest between Gillard and an unloved, friendless KRudd.
With Gillard foreshadowing a re-run of the anti-WorkChoices campaign of 2007 against an â€˜ideologicalâ€™ Opposition Leader in her first press conference as Prime Minister, this was doubly newsworthy.
VEXNEWS understands that WorkChoices went to Cabinet four times between late 2004 and mid 2005 before there was agreement.
First, letâ€™s breakdown WorkChoices into digestible chunks:
- Secret ballots for strikes
- Unfair dismissal law exemptions for enterprises employing up to 100
- Increased penalties for illegal dismissals
- Nationalising industrial laws through the Corporations Power
- Removing the non-disadvantage test from AWAs
- A statutory authority, the Office of Employment Advocate, to fast-track AWA approvals
- Legislating for a minimum wage and for the Fair Pay Commission to determine future minimum wage adjustments
- A set of five minimum pay standards and conditions
(The Australian Building and Construction Commission was not part of the WorkChoices omnibus legislation but a stand-alone reform)
The overall stated aims of WorkChoices was to enhance demand for labour, to assist with international competitiveness and reduce structural unemployment by favouring agreement making over industrial awards and a sclerotic Industrial Relations Commission.
WorkChoices has a strong claim as an economic success story: unemployment troughed at just 3.9 per cent; wage growth increased; there was record low industrial strife and the laws assisted many Australians to stay connected to the labour market during the GFC, through flexible part time arrangements.
But many doubted WorkChoicesâ€™ politics, even if it was good economics.
Abbott was among those doubters. In Cabinet, he has now revealed that he argued against passing those bills that had been blocked by a centre-left controlled Senate. A minimalist approach reflecting the perceived Coalitionâ€™s 2007 mandate.
Andrewsâ€™ position was not a minimalist one. As a centralist, he was comfortable with centralising the IR laws but wanted to knock the edges off WorkChoices by pressing for reducing unfair dismissal exemptions to enterprises with 20 or less employees (Howardâ€™s election promise) and maintaining the no-disadvantage test as part of the pay standards.
Howard, who was convinced Fraser missed an historic opportunity to reform workplace relations in the seventies, was WorkChoicesâ€™ first and foremost champion. Peter Costello and Nick Minchin â€“ dry industrial warriors of the eighties and nineties – were also true believers.
In Cabinet, Costello argued against any unfair dismissal laws, no matter the size of the enterprise. Minchin later told the HR Nicholls Society that WorkChoices did not go far enough. This unhelpful intervention was fodder for Rudd and the unions as they mounted the most expensive campaign in Australiaâ€™s history.
No formal vote was ever taken on the final Cabinet submission.
Subsequent to the laws being passed, Andrews repeatedly approached Howard to reintroduce the no-disadvantage test.
Hockey won a role in promoting WorkChoices in late 2006. He was initially dismissive of Andrewsâ€™ prosecution of the case believing his avuncular style and a better tax-funded communications campaign would cut through â€“ an argument spruiked in the PMO, by Jamie Briggs, WorkChoicesâ€™ most fanatical hawker and now the Member for Mayo.
After his promotion to Workplace Relations in early 2007, Hockey came to the same conclusion as Andrews. Howard relented and re-introduced the test in 2007 but continued to pump money into the communications campaign.
Too late: by early 2007, the ACTUâ€™s Your Rights At Work campaign had successfully framed WorkChoices as toxic.
Abbottâ€™s record as Workplace Relations Minister was a â€˜law and orderâ€™ sheriff. The pugilist was preoccupied with pinning down the union thugs on the construction sites, not the pursuing the readical agenda of the HR Nicholls Society.
This quote from the 2002 HR Nicholls Society Conference sums up his tough-cop-on-the-beat views:
Government ministers, at worst, face parliamentary sniping and the odd demonstration. Workers and managers face commercial suicide and the real risk of physical intimidation when they seek to assert the rights and freedoms which people take for granted beyond the factory gate. They ought to know that the Government is on their side and will do everything in its power not to let them down.
Abbott likes a scrap more than he does ideology.
Reflecting his Catholic â€˜neither Adam Smith, nor Karl Marxâ€™ social teaching, Abbott also invested a lot of time in the employee share ownership scheme, but failed to convince Costello for more tax concessions for workers to own equity into their own workplaces.
Safe bets should be placed on Abbott continuing his minimalist IR approach in the 2010 election, which really will deflate the HR Nicholls Society, even if it wonâ€™t be believed by union bosses.
Tony Abbott has already demonstrated that he is no big business sycophant by proposing to add a new levy on Australiaâ€™s most profitable businesses to pay for a generous parental leave scheme.
In fact, this election will see its first Liberal leader campaigning in favour of a higher corporate tax rate than his Labor opponent.
Many in the Liberal Party are uncomfortable with this development becoming a trend; many others (particularly those who went through the 2007 election) feel the Liberals owe their fickle friends in the corporate sector and employer groups nothing at all.
In all likelihood, Labor will pursue the â€˜Abbott will bring back WorkChoicesâ€™ campaign; a lie so big it will on occasion be quite difficult to answer.