Other than Greg Combet’s fairly mute criticism of the contract terms of Therese Rein’s business made yesterday (only after press goading), the unions have allowed the Rein affair to be one about modern marriages rather than rights or wrongs of individual contracts, lousy award settlements or even making money out of privatised job placements. This not only gives Rudd leverage to bury the anti-Workchoices campaign but start to distance himself publicly from the unions. Today’s expulsion of Mighell from the ALP for some fairly anodyne comments is the first step.
Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Tuesday, 29 May 2007
As the IR debate was mainly a morale booster for both sides, its fading will be an internal problem for both sides. For Labor, this is less obvious for now because of how they have interpreted the Rein affair (although this may change if the focus shifts moves from Therese Rein’s relationship to her husband to her relationship with her employees). For the coalition the demoralising impact is more immediate following the latest, (surprisingly) poor Newspoll. Howard, still using the tactics of the past, is partly to blame with his party room comments last week. It is one thing to talk about annihilation as a political tactic, but not when it has the potential to be a political reality.
As usual, the politically inept Treasurer got it most wrong when he told the party room that "Labor is extremely well-packaged but they have no deep convictions". This is the same Treasurer who a few weeks ago said Labor were “religious fanatics” on one issue which is an election winner, climate change.
Monday, 28 May 2007
Despite the latest Newspoll showing no negative impact from the Rein affair, it did open up a clear problem for Labor. It exposes the hollowness of Labor’s opposition to AWAs and its IR policy. Labor is not arguing for a return to collective bargaining and has no problem with individual contracts whether in Rein's business or any other. While Gillard is arguing for the safety net of awards in individual contracts, without collective bargaining, the terms of those awards will end up being as much in the favour of employers as AWAs.
Labor cannot turn back the clock on the terminal decline of the unions that were historically at the core of its project for the last century. This has been Labor’s political problem since Keating began dismantling collective bargaining over a decade ago. The lack of substance in Labor’s current opposition to Workchoices would have emerged anyway in the accommodation it was reaching with the mining sector. The Rein episode has merely brought out the hollowness more quickly, and in a more uncontrolled fashion.
Fortunately for Labor, the international agenda is filling in the hole. While the IR row was a sham debate, there is a real difference in the ability of the coalition and Labor to respond to the change in international politics from the War on Terror to global warming. As seen by the outrage over the ABC’s decision to show a program putting an opposing view on global warming, it is clearly the new orthodoxy, both internationally and moving that way domestically. As will be seen by Howard’s response this week to the findings of his climate change taskforce, the coalition will be unable to convincingly respond.
Saturday, 26 May 2007
After getting the resilience of Rudd’s popularity so wrong, it is not surprising that the media have now if anything been too positive on how the Rudd/Rein episode has played. It is probably a moderate negative. The independent wife shtick may make Rudd look modern but the public never likes politicians moralising on its domestic arrangements as much as the media thinks. The coalition’s sly way of picking up the "appendage" comment was a good move and Rudd was wise to retract it.
It clearly makes Labor’s IR attack look hypocritical and checked its momentum. Although in the longer term this is a good thing. As said earlier here and here, the attack on Workchoices is largely for internal consumption. In reality there is little difference in principle between Labor and the government on IR, but by taking the issue out into the broader electorate, Labor was giving the impression there was. Individual contracts are certainly not a problem for Therese Rein and neither indeed for Julia Gillard as she deals with the mining sector. Reading between the lines, Rudd now seems to be talking up the ‘embarrassment’ of this episode as an excuse for toning down the campaign.
There are similarities here to the Hefferman episode for the coalition. The ‘barren’ comments were seen as embarrassing for the coalition and took the steam out of their IR attack but actually let Howard off the hook. By making it as though Labor’s proposals were so different that they were intolerable to business, Howard left himself open to the inevitable press conference with business and a Labor party they can certainly work with.
With two demoralised parties battling each other, the spilling out of internal debates is likely to be a constant danger to their electoral chances. For Labor more so, due to the greater influence of politically dumb ideologues.
Friday, 25 May 2007
Seeing Rudd at his new conference defending his wife’s business activities reminds of the double-act being played in the Labor leadership. Labor is running two parallel campaigns on industrial relations. One is the internally driven one headed by Julia Gillard to manage a marginalised union movement and cohere its own supporter base, including those that had drifted off to the Greens. The other is the more external campaign run by Rudd where industrial relations are less prominent and confined to the vague promise that ‘a fair go is not thrown out the back door’.
Both campaigns are necessary. If commentators think Gillard is being too hard-line then they underestimate the level of demoralisation in the Labor party’s support base that must be addressed. However, it is important for Labor’s electoral chances that it does not start mixing the two up and begin believing that opposition to Workchoices is central to its re-election. Despite Rudd’s more lukewarm approach on IR, there has been a danger in recent weeks of precisely this happening. Rudd’s comment that the episode would “give fresh cause for thought” over the way Labor is conducting its IR campaign looks like a way of using the embarrassment to shift the emphasis away from Workchoices and back towards the issues which will win the election.
Thursday, 24 May 2007
Trust the re-wired Employment Minister to go too far in attributing his Workchoice campaign’s lack of success with the voters to his looks. But the more politically savvy Tony Abbott was hardly subtler on Lateline last night when he claimed that voters appear to be unaware that voting for Labor might actually mean they get elected.
The government’s claim that the public’s view cannot be taken seriously is unappealing but they are being indulged by a media that has been doing the same for months. What both have in common is that neither can get to grips with the profound policy vacuum of this government that lies at the heart of these poor polls. This is not an exhaustion of a long-lasting government as it was also the problem in its early years. The intervening War on Terror filled a gap but the hole is now exposed and the government is left paralysed.
Howard was getting closer to the problem when he said in the party-room that the stability of the government’s leadership over the last 11 yrs was double-edged. The source of that stability is the same as for the merry-ground that preceded it in opposition – the policy vacuum that leaves nothing to base a challenge on. Tuckey’s comparison to the Hawke ascendancy misses the mark as Hawke had a clear programme to deliver the unions. When the unions were no longer of any use, Hawke was vulnerable to a challenge. As seen by the mysteriously acclaimed Budget, Costello has nothing to offer and even on the economy, the government has no alternative to distinguish itself from Labor. It is why calls for Howard to focus on the economy is unlikely to have much impact.
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Howard may claim that he takes the poor polls seriously but his actions suggest otherwise. Only days after suggesting the polls were a product of the electorate’s sense of humour, he now goes public on his party-room warning that the government faces annihilation at the next election.
The intent is clear, to get the electorate thinking seriously about the possibility of a Labor victory - as though they weren’t already. Behind Howard’s warning is the implication that when the public says that they would vote Labor, it is not with the intention of actually wanting them in.
Of course Howard is not the only one who thinks the public’s voting intention simply can’t be serious. Almost all political commentators dismiss the size of Labor’s lead in the polls without bothering to give a reason as to why. Dennis Shanahan, who has been falling over himself to call the end of Labor’s large lead endlessly since Rudd assumed leadership, now writes as though only he and Howard ever took the polls seriously.
Tuesday, 22 May 2007
Among the modern democracies there can be few electorates so routinely insulted by its own media as the Australian electorate. When it is not supposedly being swayed by a handful of dollars in the coalition’s budget, or swooning over a new opposition leader just because he is new, it simply decides to stop listening like a bored teenager. This latest media excuse for why the coalition is not polling well implies there is nothing wrong with what the government is saying, it is simply that the electorate cannot/will not hear it.
Let’s be clear, there is something wrong with what the coalition is saying. It is saying nothing. In particular it has nothing to say on what are, for better or worse, the key issues of geopolitics. Yesterday, The Age’s Grattan quoted the words of former Liberal party director Andrew Robb, who hit the nail on the head:
If the Government dealt with big issues such as climate change and water "people will then be satisfied about our intent and our frame of mind, and there'll be a really critical eye then come on the Labor Party", he said.
It is this lack of the ‘big’ issues that is killing the government and most of the comentariat is missing it. It is they, rather than the Australian electorate, that are struggling to move on from their backside wallet.
Monday, 21 May 2007
Having made such a bad call on the Budget’s impact, commentators are now scratching around for an explanation for the resilience of Rudd’s popularity. The media now appears to be putting the electorate’s refusal to acknowledge the brilliance of Costello’s Budget down to anger at Workchoices.
Michelle Grattan, only a week ago claiming in The Age that Rudd had been ‘cornered’ by the Budget and was ‘in a bind’ over industrial relations, now comments on the latest Nielsen poll under a headline ‘IR anger keeps Rudd on top’. This is despite the actual poll showing the public evenly split over Labor’s proposals to scrap AWA’s and over 40% with no opinion at all, something Grattan herself says shows ‘the public has a low level of understanding of what has been a fierce debate’.
The IR debate has been a fierce debate only between the two sides of the political class - and now their commentators are picking it up to explain a political situation they are clearly struggling to get to grips with. Labor’s lead is not a result of growing anger on Workchoices but a continuation of more fundamental shifts that Andrew Robb gets closer to near the end of Grattan’s article.
It is unsurprising the public is fairly indifferent to the debate as there is not much policy difference between the two camps. Neither Labor nor the coalition wants a return to collective bargaining. Neither sees any change to the marginal influence of the unions. With that staying the reality, the form of the employment contract is pretty irrelevant. Labor may want to take over some of the roles of the unions in influencing awards (no wonder ACTU bureaucrats are changing careers to Labor) but as will be seen in negotiations with the mining sector and Qantas, they will propose nothing that employers do not want.
The only real difference between the two parties is the degree to which they wish to politicise the decline of the unions. Howard wants to fill an agenda gap and ‘stand for something’ and rally his base, Labor must obviously manage the internal difficulties caused by the decline of the unions it was originally created to represent. For business, Howard’s stirring has been a nuisance in aggravating a situation that was already going its way. Indeed Howard’s attempts to rally the business community over the last two months are in danger of back-firing. The special pleading by the mining sector and Qantas looks less like an organised opposition to Labor than lobbying a future government.
Saturday, 19 May 2007
One of the comforts the government gives itself, which Howard repeated on The 7.30 Report earlier this week, is that at least voters are not waiting with baseball bats like they were for Keating in 1996.
But this is Howard’s problem. There is no agenda to swing a bat at. Howard’s historic dilemma is that he came to power too late. By the time he did, Labor had already completed the main elements of his programme; deregulation of the markets and a diminishing of union influence. Since 1996 Howard has had to constantly grapple with this lack of programme, something he seems acutely aware of before the War on Terror came along to fill the gap.
For example, contrary to popular belief that the GST was a hindrance to re-election in 1998, Howard’s more accurate view was that it filled a policy vacuum and helped him scrape back in. Here is Howard quoted in Megalogenis’s book, The Longest Decade, out last year:
I think the GST was a net plus in terms of the reputation of the government, that’s my view. A lot of people don’t agree with that; they think we would have done better in ‘98 if we didn’t have a GST. I’m not sure about that. We always do better when we are advocating something because we are seen to be standing for something.
With the fading of the War on Terror now exposing the policy vacuum, Howard is left to try and politicise some incremental workplace reforms to give the appearance that he is ’standing for something’. This time, unlike, in 1998, Howard now faces a Labor party that has finally put together something of an agenda mainly around climate change. With no one else in the Liberal party looking capable of a providing an alternative, Howard looks set to go quietly, but convincingly, into the night.
Friday, 18 May 2007
It’s a bit cheeky that the commentariat is getting so worked up about Howard’s suggestion that his poor polling is down to the electorate’s sense of humour, since they have been doing pretty well the same dissing of the polling numbers since Rudd’s arrival. Constantly Labor’s high figures have been discounted as a ‘honeymoon’ with the new leader, as though the electorate were idol-struck teenagers. Even now it is assumed that the high lead will inevitably fall. Maybe it will, but surely some argument should be made why it will rather than just assuming the electorate doesn’t really ’mean’ it.
Tuesday, 15 May 2007
So the pundits were right, the honeymoon is over. Another Newspoll showing Labor with a landslide lead is starting to suggest something more enduring. The excuse of some that the positive reaction to the Budget will seep into the electorate over time won’t wash. As said earlier, the Budget was a political failure. It was the coalition’s chance to change the momentum with a new agenda and it did not work.
In reality the only agenda for the coalition to attach to is climate change. It is now becoming the new basis for international relations and that is something no Australian politician can ignore. Howard is too wedded to the old War on Terror and, as in the US, a new figure would probably be needed to make the change. Costello had his chance with the Budget, but as this would have implicitly meant a challenge to Howard, the iceberg-less Treasurer was not up to it. The irony of this electoral cycle is that Howard’s best chance for survival would have come from the building up of an internal challenge.
If there is anyone who has been enjoying a honeymoon with the commentariat it is the coalition and especially Howard. As in March, the resilience of Labor’s lead is likely to lead to another bout of uncertainty by the pundits of Howard's re-election, but doubts this time are likely to be more enduring. Given few are still prepared to challenge the myth of Howard’s political acumen, it is probably going to take the form of the fairly unhelpful observation that the electorate has simply stopped “listening” to the government.
Monday, 14 May 2007
The last fortnight did little to change the political momentum. A retreat on Workchoices, that was not having as much electoral impact as the labour movement likes to pretend, and a Budget that was so politically astute that within two days interest was swept away by Rudd’s proposal to put more lathes in high schools. Today’s lack of movement in the Galaxy poll just confirmed the obvious.
The more interesting development was what happened to the commentariat. The applause for Howard’s Workchoice U-turn and the Budget was almost universal from media commentators but by the weekend there was starting to appear some nerves that the coalition’s brilliance might not actually translate to the polls. Even one of the government’s biggest cheerleaders, Denis Shanahan, suddenly produced an escape clause with an article in Saturday’s Australian on the minimal poll impact of previous budgets. He ended with a rather confusing prediction that a slight increase in support for either the coalition or Labor was more likely than no change at all.
The high interest in this round of polls seems to matter more for the commentariat’s own credibility than for the state of the political parties themselves. In this respect there is some similarity to 2004 in that the media’s political commentators appear to be having something of a confidence crisis. Last time it was getting wrong the failure of Latham, this time, the resilience of Rudd.
Sunday, 13 May 2007
It would be truly dreadful if Australian cricketers were exploited for political purposes - unless of course it is for the re-election of John Howard. This type of gesture politics helps give the PM the appearance of a conviction politician, something hard to do with so little agenda to have conviction about. Fortunately there is less room for stuff ups than Howard’s grandest gesture, Australia’s trivial military commitment to Iraq.
In the old days, Labor would have given credence to Howard’s conviction by opposing the cricketing boycott. These days there is less need for gestures to placate the left so Rudd can just let it go.
… is of course Howard himself. On the same day that a Galaxy poll suggests Howard could lose Bennelong, TV news has him already there campaigning. This image of Howard defending his seat adds to the familiar one of the little guy battling against the evil political class. Labor’s choice of a celebrity candidate might not have helped if it wasn’t the softly-spoken McKew.
As one of the less successful members of the Australian political class during the 1980s and early 1990s, Howard turned it into an advantage by making it appear he was outside it, even a victim of it. But he is not the only one doing it. Rudd is also by-passing the normal political forums, something missed last week by those media commentators getting excited over the doings on the floor of Parliament. An exception was Matt Price of the Australian whose more accurate assessment was helped by temporarily dropping out of the circus with a bad foot!
Posted by the piping shrike on Sunday, May 13, 2007
Friday, 11 May 2007
The most telling moment in Rudd’s reply was near the beginning when he said that "we actually believe in education". After reminding everyone that only Labor can run as the education party, all that was needed was to add a few modest initiatives and that was the end of the Great Education Debate. The rest was just a sweeping restatement of the two themes that will dominate Labor’s message over the year, a largely internal one on Workchoices and the electorally critical one of climate change.
What a silly, politically irrelevant, week this has been.
Posted by the piping shrike on Friday, May 11, 2007
Thursday, 10 May 2007
Ignore all the applause on the Budget, it comes from commentators seeing it as a repeat of 2001/2004 - and even that is a mis-reading of those elections as noted in a nice little piece in Crikey. If people call it politically clever, that usually means it wasn’t because it had no agenda and was too transparent. The budget is a failure for three reasons:
1) no credibility on its main theme: Labor’s attack on the education proposals has not been strong but then it doesn’t need to be. How can the commentariat possibly think that the coalition can take Labor’s lead on education in a few months after downgrading it for a decade? The fact that Julie Bishop is leading the portfolio indicates the importance they give it. A good measure of the federal coalition’s credibility on education is the concern that is now emerging that the endowment fund will increase their control over it.
2) tax cuts do not necessarily mean more votes: there is something slightly unpleasant in the commentariat’s assumption that the Australian electorate is susceptible to tax bribes. It used to be a left-wing explanation for the electoral failure of Labor but now seems to be picked up by the right to explain the political genius of Howard. As the Crikey piece above notes, this is a highly dubious notion and even they may be somewhat exaggerating its effect. Focusing the cuts on lower income earners is a strange tactic, they must be believing their own myths on the ‘battlers’. It would have made more sense to consolidate their own supporter base in the upper income bracket, the only section that really care about tax cuts.
3) no real response to global warming: this is by no means a view on the merits of the global warming argument but rather the fact that it is now geopolitical reality. In 2005/2006 it translated to the domestic arena when drought, hurricanes and even this April's warm weather in Adelaide were all attributed to global warming. Costello claimed that he was waiting for its taskforce’s findings later next month but the response is unlikely to be effective. What they are not prepared to do is implement the austerity measures that is at the heart of the climate change agenda. Labor is already getting adept at this at the state level with the rolling out of water restrictions to manage poor water infrastructure.
Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Education? That was the big agenda? It hardly worked for Labor when Rudd released his ‘revolution’ earlier this year but where on earth does it come from within the coalition? They have little credibility on the issue and it is far too late to start building one now. Without a credible policy agenda behind the Budget, the tax breaks are unlikely to have much political impact. Commentators’ expectations that they will could only come from seeing them through their 2001/2004 election glasses. Post-budget claims that the government had taken the wind out of Labor’s sails were less accurate than the pre-budget observation that the coalition had to put wind into theirs.
Breathless from presenting the Budget, Costello was again acting peculiarly in the ABC studios. From where does his strange behaviour come? It must be from comparing himself to the previous long-tenure Treasurer. But whereas Keating’s tenure was due to his central role in adapting Australia to global economic trends, Costello’s was not due to his genius but from his inability to politically challenge Howard. He had his chance last night to set an agenda when Howard had plainly run out of one. What a failure.
Tuesday, 8 May 2007
So this is the coalition’s chance. The importance of the Budget tonight is not so much the tax cuts Costello announces. On their own they could be presented as the sort of ‘clever’ political give-away as Howard tried in Fraser’s last Budget. The reason why Howard is now vulnerable to the charge of being a ‘clever’ politician is that his domestic agenda is exhausted and can no longer be covered by his international one. Without an agenda, he can look like just another politician clinging to power.
Howard has tried to adopt to the new international agenda of climate change but sounds unconvincing, not least because he is so closely associated with the War on Terror it is replacing. Costello is less so and could present himself as more adaptable to the new agenda. So it is his success in selling climate change measures, even if punitive, that is the key to this Budget’s success. If he is convincing, then the give-aways will have some impact.
Posted by the piping shrike on Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Monday, 7 May 2007
In this election year, March was a critical month because it was when the media started to realise that Howard’s failure to improve electoral support after pressing the Iraq and character buttons meant that we were in a different electoral cycle from 2001-2004.
That didn’t last long. Once again the reaction to last week’s backdown on Workchoices has not been discussed in its own terms but by assuming that it will work like other backdowns in 2001 and 2004.
Why should it? The reversals on excise on petrol in 2001 and MPs super in 2004, cleared the decks to allow Howard to concentrate on his core issues; immigration/national security in 2001 and US alliance/economy in 2004. For both, the favourable international situation was critical. Now that he has neutered IR, what has this left him to concentrate on now?
Friday, 4 May 2007
It is no surprise that within two days of Labor’s negotiations with the industry supposed to be most opposed to the abolition of AWA’s, the mining sector, there was already talk of an agreement. What was the basis of it? To return to the pre-Workchoice arrangements of individual agreements with safeguards. This is also the basis on which Howard has announced his ‘battler’ clause today.
If the mining industry, the ALP and Howard can all reach common ground so quickly, what is this about? At the heart of IR was less one of substance between the two parties but actually two internal morale-boosting campaigns of their own supporters on which the public, eventually, has taken a view. In terms of electoral chances, despite ACTU delusions, IR was not central and the immediate electoral effect of the back-down could be compared to Howard’s pragmatism in 2004 on MPs super. Howard must be hoping that Rudd will believe the ACTU that the sidelining of unions is a key electoral concern and make it central to a losing election campaign.
But there is a key difference to 2004. Howard could be pragmatic then because there were key positions, such as supporting the US alliance in Iraq, that his own base stood for and much of the electorate ultimately agreed with. This time IR was the key position. If people were irritated with Workchoice without being directly affected it was because nobody could see what it was for. Even business was unhappy about politicising a decline in union power that had already occurred. Howard's attack on Labor’s proposals was meant to rally the business community behind him but they almost immediately started negotiating with Labor and could end up preferring their less disruptive way of managing union decline. This backdown may temporarily alleviate an issue with the electorate but undermines further the coherence of Howard's own base.
Thursday, 3 May 2007
The last week has been a significant one for the ALP. Three trends came together over the National Conference and its aftermath that are likely to have long term consequences.
1) the end of the line for the unions: a common journalistic complaint about Rudd’s Conference speech was its length. However, they were missing the gap on the Conference floor he was trying to fill. The excruciatingly detailed review of the ALP’s historical role was to comfort delegates wondering if there still was one. The IR debate is really an identity crisis for a party that had been the political representation of a union movement that is now in terminal decline. The Fair Work Australia proposal may give the unions a body to cling to but represents no reversal of their now marginal role. This should become clearer as business starts its lobbying over the next few weeks.
2) the decline of the factions: as the importance of the unions decline so do the relevance of the factions in the ALP. The declining influence of the union movement’s more militant sections as well as those with closer business links, has left the respective left and right factions as empty shells. Last weekend’s defeat of the left on uranium mining, the last significant policy position it had in the party, has signalled its irrelevance. But it is not only the left. Rudd is from the Right, but with no major union backer, ran on a ticket with a deputy from the left, and once leader announced he would attend no more faction meetings and over-rode them in choosing the front-bench. Rudd is also over-riding the factions at the local level with his systematic drafting of ‘celebrity’ candidates.
3) the internationalisation of the ALP: both the decline of the unions and the factions are the results of long running political trends. What has brought them to the surface is a more recent development in the ALP, its tying into new developments in geopolitics. Barely was conference over and Rudd was looking to switch the debate back to Labor’s best chance of gaining power, the shift in the international political agenda from terrorism to climate change. The job of Ross Garnaut, appointed by Rudd on Monday to assess the economic impact of targeted emission cuts, is essentially to translate the new international agenda into a domestic one. For the first time in 20 years, the ALP has the opportunity to take advantage of international developments. This is what gives the leadership flexibility to act on the redundancy of its internal institutions.
The ALP’s reliance on international factors is nothing new, practically every Federal Labor government has been brought to power by international factors. But in the past it was to implement measures through its relationship with the unions. That relationship means little these days. For the first time, the party, under the leadership of a former foreign affairs bureaucrat, is now almost wholly dependent on its ability to respond to the international agenda.
Wednesday, 2 May 2007
Howard’s attack on Labor’s IR proposals is not really for public consumption as there is no real perception of excessive union power. It is largely to consolidate his own constituency in the business community that may be wondering why his government should continue.
Some of the business community is responding, but in a way that is looking suspiciously double-edged. While they are supporting Howard’s line, they also look like they are lobbying to what could be the next government. Business threats of a TV campaign against Labor’s proposals are odd given the refusal of business to fund the coalition’s Workchoice ads a few days ago at a time when the gist of Labor’s proposals was already known. Business was left out of the initial establishment of Fair Work Australia, which was unsurprising given it was primarily driven by internal Labor needs to accomodate a declining union movement. The current threats against Gillard are looking like business’s usual heavy-handed way of getting back in negotiations.
There should be plenty of grounds for agreement. As Keating said on radio yesterday, there is no sense that Labor’s proposals will reverse his winding down of collective bargaining. His view that Labor ought to be making more of that fact ignores the demoralising impact the weakening TU bureaucracy has had on the ALP organistion since he was in power. The creation of what is essentially an empty shell to give the unions an appearance of a role for internal purposes has created a need for Gillard to sound tough. Expect a very much more flexible Gillard when meeting business behind closed doors this week.
Tuesday, 1 May 2007
It is unfair that the ALP has to have its National Conference months before an election since there is never a time the party is more self-absorbed and therefore unappealing to the electorate. Labor conference was dominated by the two debates that were largely about itself – industrial relations and uranium. The first is about its relevance in Australian society, the second is about how that relevance works itself internally through the factions.
The IR debate is mainly an internal one for the labour movement. If Australian workers are troubled by Howard’s IR reforms then they would have already been feeling vulnerable with Keating’s moves to end centralised bargaining a decade before. They could even go before that with unions rolling over while Hawke and Whitlam cut tariffs with the loss of thousands of jobs. To be brutal about it, one could go back to the 1960s when the Australian labour movement abandoned the only serious commitment it ever gave the Australian worker, the White Australia Policy.
Nowadays Australian workers vote for the relevance of unions with their feet as seen by the decline in union membership occurring even before Howard’s reforms. It is obviously far more comfortable for the union movement to see their decline in terms of a legislative attack from the coalition than its real history.
It is also more comfortable for the union movement to see its decline as a matter of concern to the Australian electorate and interpret polling with that bias. Given the real erosion of worker rights that anyone directly affected would have already experienced before Workchoices, the negative polling on IR reforms more likely reflect a negative view on the Howard government itself and the exhaustion of its limited program. In a decade of government, Howard had only two ideas, a tax that Keating had already proposed and IR reforms that Keating had already brought into being.
Rudd’s proposed new body Fair Work Australia is by its very name, more for political campaigning (externally and internally) than a change in the industrial landscape. The constitutional issue over powers of the new body should not be a problem because there is little that it is likely to do. Within days of proposing it, WA’s Carpenter was insisting that even if AWA’s were abolished, individual workplace agreements would still have to be in place at least for the mining industry and Gillard was very emphatically affirming that this would be the case. What is interesting is to see the flight of trade union bureaucrats from the ACTU to the ALP looking for a job. Howard claims this is a sign of rising union influence in the ALP, it is actually a sign of their decline.