20 February 2013
THE GHOST OF WORKCHOICES
One of the defining issues of the 2007 – perhaps THE defining issue – was WorkChoices.
It was deeply unpopular, and with the help of the unions, Labor campaigned heavily against it. It was a major success.
So much so that in the 2010 election, Labor again made it an election issue, forcing Tony Abbott to declare that WorkChoices was ‘dead, buried and cremated' as a policy.
Leaving aside the logistics of cremating something that has been buried, this wording was the opposition leader's attempt to be as emphatic as possible about industrial relations, to ensure it could not be revived by Labor.
Yet at the AWU conference this week, IR Minister Bill Shorten, Treasurer Wayne Swan and the Prime Minister have all issued a warning about WorkChoices – or at least what changes Tony Abbott would make as Prime Minister to the rights of workers.
They do this despite the fact that Mr Abbott has again gone on the record as saying he will not bring back WorkChoices. So how can they hope to gain any traction?
First, Tony Abbott has said he will make changes to the industrial relations legislation. This is a change from his position in 2010, when he said ‘We have no plans, no plans whatsoever to make any changes to the legislation. Not now, not ever.'
The opposition leader says Labor's Fair Work Act has created an environment that hurts business, and that he will bring the IR ‘pendulum back to the sensible centre'. But he hasn't said what that will entail. And that is the second reason – until Tony Abbott spells out exactly what his policy is, his denials about what he won't do could ring somewhat hollow.
But it's not a simple issue for Mr Abbott – he faces pressure from within his party to make major changes to Labor's Fair Work Act, but wants to tread carefully and keep his election-winning lead in the polls intact.
Labor appears determined to flush him out, with minister Bill Shorten last week unveiling four separate policies that would increase workers' rights. They are hoping that with an election date named, and their policies clear, Tony Abbott's attempts to obfuscate will wear thin.
Judging by this week's AWU conference, there seems to be every chance that Labor will run a campaign against, effectively, the ghost of WorkChoices. And as powerful an issue as it was 6 years ago, whether it will again resonate with the wider electorate, some six years later, remains to be seen.
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