In yesterday’s Crikey I wrote about Labor’s repositioning on WorkChoices, moving away from the rhetoric of “rip up these laws” towards embedding them within broader debates on fairness and families and also signalling that flexibility is something that Labor supports.

The repositioning continued yesterday, with Craig Emerson announcing that Labor will retain laws allowing contractors to negotiate their conditions of work. Emerson also promises “no special deals” for unions in small businesses.

Most of this is largely a rhetorical shift. Gillard’s suggestion that employees could negotiate common law contracts to supplement collective agreements recognises both the realities of the labour market where highly skilled employees have significant bargaining power and also opens some doors for additional flexibility in the work/life balance area.

Similarly, Emerson’s announcement sensibly suggests legislative tests for the genuineness of contractor status (reflecting tests used by the ATO which are derived from interpretations of common law) and also protections against sham contracting.

What Labor is trying to do is to counter government claims that unions would attain a lock hold on conditions of employment, which might be particularly worrying for those who are in a good labour market position, or who are self-employed.

This fight is about the aspirational voter. Conventional wisdom has it that there are increasing numbers of former blue-collar Labor voters turned self-employed contractors. Hence the Australian’s editorialist saw Labor as trying to “win back ute-man”.

But how many of these voters are there? Deakin University political scientist Geoff Robertson analyses various statistical measures in a recent paper.

There are a number of definitions around, and no consistent measures. But Productivity Commission figures show the number of self-employed contractors actually falling from 10.1% of the workforce in 1998 to 8.2% in 2004.

Statisticians and labour market analysts agree a large part of this cohort aren’t blokes with utes and a lawnmower, but sham contractors – ie very low paid workers such as cleaners or process workers employed through labour hire agencies.

Just as the Australian Elections Survey showed that interest rates played only a small role in shifting voting intentions in 2004, so too both major parties seem to be pitching to a largely phantom aspirational class. So Labor’s shift in position might be electorally fairly insignificant. But conversely, the government should look elsewhere for its electoral salvation than in the back of a truck.

Peter Fray

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