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Dennis Shanahan, Political editor | March 20, 2009
Article from: The Australian

THE essence of the continuing dispute in the Senate over the Rudd Government’s promise to rip up John Howard’s Work Choices legislation is politics pure and simple, and politics will solve the impasse one way or another.

Liberal divisions and delays of leadership have allowed the Rudd Government to build a completely misleading, and completely devastating, portrayal of the Coalition’s policy on industrial relations in an economic atmosphere that should have allowed a politically viable and credible Opposition position.

Instead, the industrial relations debate is now firmly stamped as Senate obstruction and Coalition negativity coupled with the Liberal resurrection of Work Choices.

Dithering and inconsistency on the Liberals’ behalf means the opportunity to galvanise growing industry dissension over the industrial relations laws, after notable silence, has been missed. So, too, has the opportunity to portray the Coalition as taking an unpopular decision to defend jobs, just as Howard did with the Tasmanian logging decision in the 2004 election.

Julia Gillard has won the politics and policy of the industrial relations laws and doesn’t require a double-dissolution trigger or the threat of an early election for that victory.

The Deputy Prime Minister wants to get the industrial relations laws in place and working according to schedule by piling up political pressure on the Coalition and on Family First senator Steve Fielding.

She’s playing it hard, will have an overwhelming policy victory even if she gives more ground and has exploited Malcolm Turnbull’s indecision and discomfort on industrial relations to the hilt.

After months of promises, consultation, draft legislation, public debate, shifting allegiances and positions and Coalition rifts, the final days of negotiation came down to one provision involving the unfair dismissal laws. This is not the resurrection of Work Choices, which Howard himself gutted and diluted when the realisation struck that the laws had gone further than necessary, and far beyond what the Australian people were prepared to accept. Howard genuinely believed his laws would continue to create jobs into the future, but only began to backtrack on contentious issues when it was so late it didn’t matter what he did, he couldn’t get the public to listen.

Nor is the argument tenable that the Government’s mandate on one provision in a raft of legislation is being undemocratically undermined by the Senate.

Labor fought and lost an election on the GST but opposed it tooth and nail in its entirety, and then ran another election promising to roll back the GST. What’s more, the Government has accepted amendments by the barrow load without screaming about its loss of mandate, as is the case with most lengthy, complex bills.

The sticking point in this mandate argument is a provision that at most will affect 46,000 small businesses and 735,00 employees of small business out of a sector where there are 2.4 million small businesses and more than six million employees.

But for Gillard and the Rudd Government the provision defining a small business as one with fewer than 15 employees, for the implementation of unfair dismissal rules, has become a totemic issue and a political vehicle to distort the politics in its favour.

Gillard, as the prosecutor of the Government’s industrial relations proposals, has been able to take advantage of Liberal divisions and the party leader’s vacillation on unfair dismissals to spook Coalition MPs and extend her mandate on union rights of entry. The spectre that has scared the Opposition is the thought of running another election on Work Choices after it was so discredited at the last election. Yet, talk of the Government straining at the leash for an early double-dissolution election to be fought on industrial relations doesn’t bear close scrutiny.

At every opportunity to create a double-dissolution trigger through Senate rejection twice of the same bill, separated by three months, the Rudd Government has baulked. The bills have either been dropped entirely – as was the case with the doomed Fuel Watch scheme – or amendments have been accepted.

As Labor in Queensland faces a huge backlash, as unemployment races towards an annual forecast in just months and as business begins to stir on the job-limiting nature of some of the industrial relations laws, it stretches credulity that the highly political Prime Minister would willingly put his Government at risk.

Yet there are Coalition MPs who still quail at the thought of running on long-held Liberal principles and policy, and facing an election as a result.

Certainly, Brendan Nelson did his best to bury Work Choices during his ill-fated and short-lived leadership after the 2007 election defeat. It was something Nelson had to do, to kill off unpalatable policies and reshape Liberal strategy.

Unfortunately for Nelson, the killing and burying of Work Choices was not followed by the creation of a job-supporting Liberal policy that tapped into the Howard-Costello tradition of looking after blue-collar workers and their families as never before.

Turnbull, as the new leader, was determined to fight the Rudd Government on the issue of economic management and avoid what he saw as the dead weight of Work Choices and the climate-change scepticism of the Howard years.

Last December he publicly ceded the ground on unfair dismissal laws to the Government and handed Gillard her mandate argument on a platter, saying the Opposition would respect the Government’s election promise of restricting the unfair dismissal breaks to small businesses of 15 or fewer employees. Before Work Choices it had been 20 employees and after Work Choices it was 100 employees. Turnbull simply backed Gillard’s plan.

It is that explicit commitment on the 15 employees and unfair dismissals that Gillard has been able to turn into a pressure point for the Senate and a question of character for Turnbull.

The number of employees for a small business has also become totemic within the Liberal Party because of Peter Costello’s advocacy for a return to 20 and the shadow cabinet’s counter-bid of 25.

In the end Labor will get a substantial victory on policy and politics by virtue of business’s silence and the Liberals’ inconsistency.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25212483-17301,00.html

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