Julia Gillard may have been standing her ground on IR policy on the Sunday program yesterday, but her boss appears to be limbering up for a backflip on individual contracts.

Still, one senior Labor figure seems to be on an IR winner — small business spokesman Craig Emerson. The Independent Contractors of Australia — usually seen as conservatives in the IR debate — has praised Emerson for recognising the key role of the nation’s 1.9 million independent contractors.

ICA boss Ken Phillips says Emerson has devised a “breakthrough” policy that accepts contractors should be treated under commercial contract law, not employment law, as unions would prefer. Phillips says Emerson’s policy breaks with a traditionally aggressive opposition to treating independent contractors under contract law that reflects a union mindset.

Emerson’s deft and pragmatic handling of independent contractors is in stark contrast to Gillard’s conduct of the past few weeks. The deputy leader was lucky that Bill Heffernan’s idiocies were repeated at the height of the row over Labor’s IR policy. It saved her from a mauling — from within the ALP as much as from outside.

The Independent Contractors were fierce critics of the former workplace relations minister, Kevin Andrews, and his Independent Contractors Act. Some business critics say Andrews’s inaction left the door open for Labor to act.

Now, they wonder if the new minister, Joe Hockey, will try to win back the ground. The votes of 1.9 million independent contractors should provide some incentive.

However, the unions’ campaign against WorkChoices seems to have had a significant but unsaid psychological impact on the Howard Government. Observers believe it has been scared off doing anything in the IR field, other than the occasional backflip of its own.