Political messages should be simple. Kim
Beazley’s message on AWAs certainly is.

The Age‘s Shaun Carney gave us one of the
most sympathetic assessments of Labor’s stance last weekend:

With his policy of abolishing AWAs, Beazley
has made one small but decisive step towards doing what everyone all the way up
to the Prime Minister has been saying he needs to do: defining what Labor
stands for in concrete, policy terms and setting his party apart from the

The debate about industrial relations can
now be fashioned along clean lines all the way to the election: the Government
stands for individual contracts and Labor stands for collective bargaining…

It’s always handy for debating points to
have clean lines. Real life, however, tends to have grey areas.

That’s why Labor IR spokesman Stephen Smith
said yesterday that the proposed abolition of individual workplace agreements
will not be forced upon the mining industry .

Smith says that if a particular mining
company and its workers are happy with their AWA, it will not be
abolished immediately.

“If an employee is being handsomely
remunerated, if there’s overall advantage to the employer and the employee and
they genuinely want to continue to the expiration of the AWA, we won’t disturb
that,” he said. “And at the conclusion of the AWA, they can move to
different workplace arrangements, in particular a common law contract.”

That’s common sense – but it’s also an
almighty flip-flop in political terms. Beazley has a simple message on IR. A
too-simple message. As his spokesman on the subject has effectively admitted. There’s a very strong case to be made
against AWAs – particularly given what’s happened to the no disadvantage test,
the safety net for employees. However, there’s an even stronger case in
favour of statutory individual contracts. As Smith seems to have admitted.

Flexibility is the buzzword in agreement
making. That means individual agreements, along with collective bargaining and
awards, have a part to play. Smith has admitted as much – except many
participants in the IR debate would take exception with his comments on common
law contracts. They’d argue that common law does not offer adequate protection.

“There can be no truck with any feature,
any feature, of these laws – nothing,” Beazley told the Day of Action rally in Melbourne on
“There is nothing in them worth saving. Not one word of these laws is worth
saving – that is why they all go – the whole lot – the whole lot ripped up and

Nothing except for some sort of individual

Why, you could call them AWAs.

(There’s another grey area. Despite all the IR argy-bargy, today’s Morgan poll has a federal election too close to call, with Labor on 51% and the Coalition on 49.)

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey