Analysis about where Rudd’s New Labor team is taking electoral strategy on IR has suffered so far from the business/News Ltd campaign to demand that the pledge to rip up AWAs be discarded so as to gain “economic credibility”.

While there is zero chance that this will happen, a shift in positioning has been underway.

WorkChoices is vulnerable not just to generalised concerns about fairness, but also the flow-on effect from friends, family or associates suffering from the downside of choices employers make, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries where largely teenage and twentysomething casuals are on the receiving end of a determined industry campaign to get rid of penalty rates.

To some degree this is countered by a continuing strong labour market (at least for those who are already well placed to exploit it) and from a reluctance of large white collar employers to take full advantage of the Choices they have – the main exception being the Commonwealth Bank.

Rudd Labor’s strategy on IR – which appears to be a combination of embedding it in a wider range of concerns about fairness and families and a suggested move to distance the ALP from the ACTU by allowing individual common law contracts to supplement collective agreements – appears to be a reflection of these factors. It may also represent a decline in the belief within the federal ALP that WorkChoices is the main weapon in its electoral armoury.

In this context, the parallel campaign run by the ACTU – including paid organisers in Coalition seats as well as the headline advertising campaign – will make for interesting electoral times. Perhaps the ALP can fight on a broader front to overturn the Government’s electoral advantages on other economic issues because a well organised and funded campaign will highlight WorkChoices specifically.

But, overall, there’s a lot of merit in the argument made in The Courier-Mail  recently by political scientists Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington. They argue that if Rudd and Gillard de-emphasise IR, they’ll be making a serious strategic mistake.

Rudd has used his honeymoon period to define himself in areas other than industrial relations. This, in conjunction with his experience at the apex of Queensland government as Wayne Goss’s chief-of-staff, will help present him as a man of substance across a range of issues. However, Rudd needs to move back to the fertile ground of IR in 2007 if he wants to beat Howard at the election.

Otherwise he won’t have sufficiently stirred up sentiments for a change of government.

This is the biggest challenge for Rudd. Moving to the right and neutralising government wedges may make Labor appear safe and electable. But to counter the “devil you know” factor, differences also need emphasis. There’s a double-edged sword for Rudd Labor in wrapping WorkChoices up in the “bridge too far” rhetoric. It might blunt the strength of the most powerful weapon Labor has to wield.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey