Commentators in The Australian, and big business nabobs from the BCA to the CEOs of some of Australia’s largest listed companies appear to have worked themselves into a frenzy of faux indignation at the Labor Party for daring to be, well, a labour party.

In some ways, it’s a bit puzzling, as aspects of Labor’s IR approach have been well known for most of this parliamentary term — including the abolition of AWAs and the collective-bargaining framework.

Business, and the top echelons of the News commentariat, have seemingly talked themselves into believing their own spin — for Kevin Rudd to prove he is “not Mark Latham” he had to junk all and everything that actually constitutes the Labor Party’s trump card in this election year — policy which seeks to restore balance to workplace relations.

As Rudd says:

I’m not expecting to get the big tick from the BCA. If the test of being a Labor moderniser is to roll over and give the tick to Mr Howard’s industrial relations laws, that is just plain wrong.

While pundits such as Paul Kelly have banged on endlessly about Tony Blair, they appear to have forgotten that Blair neither sundered union links with the British Labour Party (he reduced the voting strength of unions at conference — just as Simon Crean did) nor did New Labour leave Thatcher-era industrial relations legislation unchanged. The Blair Government adopted EU working-life standards and introduced a robust minimum wage. And the sky didn’t fall in on the British economy.

Paul Kelly has been frothing at the mouth about battle lines being drawn.

But he might well pause to ask himself whether big business — if it’s really going to initiate campaigns to force employees onto AWAs in the lead-up to the election and spend millions on pro-WorkChoices advertising — might be about to hand Labor the strongest argument it will have about balance in industrial relations.

Traditionally the Liberal Party has positioned itself as the party of the national interest. Perceptive observers of Howard-era politics, such as Judith Brett, have noted that this theme is one of Howard’s strongest selling points. It’s been eroded since the introduction of WorkChoices because “business-friendly” IR legislation looks like an attempt to empower a sectional interest as opposed to balancing competing interests for a fair outcome.

Business leaders, and pundits, might have convinced themselves that the litmus test of “economic management” is an acceptance of WorkChoices as it stands. But the combination of a well-funded, pro-Howard, advertising strategy and actually using some of the “flexibility” WorkChoices allows are going to send a very different message about whose interests the Government actually served.

Rather than constantly harking back to 2004, the 1929 election where an incumbent conservative prime minister lost his seat over attempts to dismantle the arbitration system, might repay study from business leaders.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey