Not long after the 2007 election, Brendan Nelson and Joe Hockey (the last Minister for Workplace Relations in the Howard Government) thought it a stroke of political genius to pronounce that WorkChoices was â€˜deadâ€™.
Brendan Nelson, a former trade union leader for the militant Mercedes-driving medial profession, had sat passively in the Cabinet that ticked off on the WorkChoices legislation. As leader of the party that had championed labour market reform, when he became leader he demonstrated a breathtaking ignorance of what the WorkChoices reforms were actually about.
Nelson said that the Howard Government had gone too far with WorkChoices and evidence of this was the removal of â€˜legislated minimum conditionsâ€™. In fact the opposite was true, prior to WorkChoices there were no legislated minimum conditions for Australian workers, it was actually the WorkChoices legislation that saw these guaranteed minima introduced for the very first time.
JOE THE GENIUS SAGE
Joe Hockey, who was not in the cabinet that ticked off on the WorkChoices legislation, continues to re-write history by telling journalist Peter Hartcher that he had counselled his cabinet colleagues against approving WorkChoices.
Liberal insiders remember Joe as the ineffective and somnolent Human Services Minister who didnâ€™t progress his legislative agenda, namely the Access Card reforms that would have brought about significant efficiencies in sharing health and social security information.
From the very outset of the Liberalsâ€™ move to the opposition benches, the â€˜party leadershipâ€™ thought it clever to disown WorkChoices faster than a red headed stepchild. [VEXNEWS: An unfortunate expression that have the ranga army up in arms]
Many would say that this made sense, given the electoral poison that it had been for the Howard Government.
NO GUTS NO GLORY
However, they made no effort whatsoever to defend the benefits that WorkChoices delivered, in particular the 455,000 full time jobs that were created in the 18 months between its commencement in March 2006 and September 2007. Nor did they defend the considerable benefits of the Reith reforms negotiated with the now defunct Democrats back in the mid-nineties.
Of itself these were not serious errors if you get the narrative right by permitting yourself a role as genuine reformers and conviction politicians.
However, the Liberals have now painted themselves into a corner by trying to completely remove industrial relations as an issue.
After Turnbull became leader and Julie Bishop took on the foreign affairs portfolio, her fellow West Australian Michael Keenan became the Liberals IR spokesman. Through both design and sheer ineptitude, Keenan made himself invisible and therefore undermined any legitimacy that the Liberals had on IR matters.
There was barely a whimper raised by the Liberals as Julia Gillard rammed through her Fair Work regime, which included reinstating the burden of unfair dismissal on small business, abolishing individual statutory agreements, reinvigorating the moribund award system, gutting the Fair Pay Commission and giving unions unbridled rights of entry into workplaces.
By being so unprincipled, the Liberals lost all credibility on IR and in doing so they laid the ground work for the mess that Tony Abbott, a former Workplace Relations Minister, now finds himself in: a conviction politician that has allowed Laborâ€™s wrong-headed Fair Work laws to reach unamendable sacrosanct status.
ABBOTâ€™S WORKCHOICE WOBBLES
Since the campaign began last Saturday, there has been one story after another about the Liberalsâ€™ intention to reintroduce WorkChoices and make changes to the Fair Work Act.
It is becoming death by a thousand WorkChoices cuts as every union hack and two-bit lefty academic offers their opinion on what constitutes a change to the Fair Work laws.
Tony Abbott has tried to kill the issue by using Brendan Nelsonâ€™s line that WorkChoices is dead and buried. For reasons that only Tony can give, he also said it had been cremated (after being buried?).
That should have been the end of the matter for the rest of the campaign, but because Tony is so preoccupied with navel gazing and is by nature a very honest man, he got himself tied up in knots by saying that where necessary he would reserve the right to change the Fair Work Act by regulation.
This totally unnecessary statement/admission by Abbott played into the hands of the sheep like press gallery who have spent the whole week repeatedly asking Tony questions about his â€˜realâ€™ intentions and chasing down those two-bit lefty academics for their own predictably pro Labor and union insights.
If the Liberals thought they could not get any worse then they were sadly mistaken. On Tuesday they announced their intention to save $25 million by cutting funding for unions to conduct secret ballots.
Funding that had also been partly provided under the Howard Government. However, Hockey said they would achieve this by amending the Electoral Act, not the Fair Work Act.
This set off another media frenzy and claims that Tony Abbottâ€™s real agenda had been laid bare for all to see and that he really would change the Fair Work Act by stealth and reintroduce WorkChoices.
The avuncular Joe Hockey only made matters worse by appearing on Red Kerryâ€™s show last night and proclaiming what was all the fuss about because it was â€˜only $25 millionâ€™ that was being cut. If that is the case, then why on earth did he and Tony think it was worth enduring untold political opprobrium for such a piddling amount in the first place? For many in the Liberal Party this simply confirms what a tin ear sloppy Joe has when it comes to even the most basic politics.
Like when he told a Liberal fundraiser that â€œbecause he is an Arabâ€ he collects the rent on his investment properties â€œin cash,â€ Joe is not as careful as he should be.
The Liberals are now reaping what they have sown, they spent two years running away from an issue that Labor was always going to make front and centre at this election. They put the white flag out of the trench to find it shot to pieces by ACTU and Press Gallery AK-47 machine-gun fire.
Gillard accuses Abbott of secretly intending to bring back the worst aspects of WorkChoices â€“ but no one asks the PM to name those objectionable aspects. We donâ€™t suppose she means provisions for the secret ballots at workplaces or the centralisation of the IR system.
Abbott could have approached this problem by insisting the PM guarantee that there would be no losers from award rationalisation. This would have allowed Abbott to rule in modest amendments to the Fair Work Act to ensure no-one was worse-off.
Instead Tony Abbott has now been left with a political noose around his well-toned neck. The Liberal campaign is struggling to cope with the ambiguity surrounding the issue and even worse the party has turned their back on thousands of small businesses who are hurting from the new unfair dismissal regime and those workers who are worse off through award rationalisation.
iberals need to find a way out of this mess and soon, otherwise the next time Tony Abbott utters the words â€˜deadâ€™, â€˜buriedâ€™ and â€˜crematedâ€™ in a sentence will be to describe his leadership prospects after the Liberals lose an election that was well within their grasp.